Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lula Cafe, Chicago IL

Bongo room, M. Henry, Over Easy, Orange, Yolk...and then? Lula of course. Perhaps the most highly praised of the Chicago Breakfast/Brunch scene, but also the location with the most variable menu and obscure location, I will admit the small organic sidewalk café had escaped my attention on both previous visits to Chicago. Turned onto the location by a fellow epicure and hungry after a long morning run following a great night of sleep without plans until late afternoon I figured we should see what they hype was all about.

Driving up to the small (dare I call it dingy?) location and browsing shortly for a parking spot a meter opened up and we made our way up to the restaurant by 9:30 – well before it filled up. Seated immediately outside at a rickety 2-top (thank goodness, I preferred the unstable table and steel chairs to the ‘noise’ they called music inside…it was worse than that at Orange and even less necessary) we were handed the day’s menu and offered coffee or cocktails. Opting for a coffee myself (no sweet n’ low at Lula) while my sister selected a Chai (frothy and decent) we waited only moments until our drinks arrived and we placed our orders. With things going well so far we watched myriad morning walkers with any number of unique dogs pass by and commented on how nice the location actually was dining al fresca.

Having finished my first cup of coffee quite quickly I asked a young man for a refill and was told he’d be right back. Some time passed and no one returned, but after walk to the restroom inside I returned to find our appetizer pastry had been delivered – a buttermilk pecan coffee cake with brown sugar icing and toasted Pecan butter. Having previously had the best coffee cake ever at Dottie’s True Blue back in May my expectations were high and they were met with ease. Creamy and dense the cake itself was only mildly sweet and tasted “biscuit-like” with hints of cinnamon and candied pecans. The topping, multiple “lumps” of buttery brown sugar was absolutely astounding and the addition of the pecan butter only added additional nuance with its smoky yet mild undertones bringing forth the cinnamon notes. Liking the dish as much as I, my sister thieved most of the dish – though I’m sure she’ll deny this.

Still awaiting my coffee refill (as two servers stood around chatting across the way) another young lady who I’m almost positive was hung over or stoned walked up to collect the plate – I asked her for a coffee refill and was told “I’ll tell your server.” Time passed…and passed…and passed…finally the young man from previous arrived and I asked him again about the coffee – he finally flagged down our server who’d not visited us since taking orders and I got another cup. Without belaboring the issue this theme recurred through the main courses and I only got a third cup poured when I essentially stood up and waved to the young man again and he personally came and filled our cup…lets just say I hope our server didn’t get any of my minimal tip.

When mains did arrive they were absolutely worth the trip, the price, and even the sub-sub-par service. For my sister, Gingersnap Pancakes with Poached Pears, Caramel, and Spiced Anglaise was absolutely divine with five thin flapjacks panfried to a perfect golden and topped with wine-poached pears, caramel crumbles, and a spicy sauce featuring high notes of cinnamon and nutmeg over a spicy clove base – a very impressive dish.

My selection, the other sweet of the menu, was White Chocolate Custard Stuffed Brioche French Toast with Klug Farm Raspberries and Sugar Cooke Crumbles…it was every bit as good as it sounds. Thick cut and buttery the brioche could have easily held up toasted on its own. Instead of doing this, however, the slices of bread were sandwiched artistically around a creamy custard with soft chocolate tones and topped with perfect late-summer raspberries and a raspberry compote. Adding just a mild bit of contrast, like the crumbles on the pancakes, were truly small chunks of a buttery and sugary cookie. On par with the French Toast at m.Henry or the Griddle Café in Los Angeles and as such in my top three all time.

Receiving our modest bill I must say that all the rumors of the great food at Lula Café are true – it was amongst my top breakfasts of all time and reminded me very much in terms of quality to Canteen in San Francisco – no slight praise. Given the light customer load throughout the meal, however, I have to note that the service was aloof to the point of not being “hipster cool” as the restaurant seems to aspire to be, but rather just cold and inattentive. While I certainly don’t expect 3-Starred Michelin service at a breakfast joint, a smile, a refill, and a “how ya doin?” is even par for the course at Denny’s.

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