May 12, 2006

lula cafe: kids in a candy store, plus bonus rant about green beans

C was able to escape his corporate-bonding obligations last night, and so we made plans to buy wine and take it over to Lula Cafe for dinner. By the time I met him in the car at Randolph Wine Cellars I felt like a kid going to meet her favorite cousin for a playdate -- i think it was that the day was so cold and rainy, and work has been rather tedious the last couple of days, and the prospect of totally nerding out over a good meal was just too good. :-)

So, anyway, props to Dr. Vino and his wine-store map for making it easy to find a good bottle shop in the right location for C to get there by bus and me to meet him in the car. Randolph Wine Cellars is a nice small shop, a little bit high-end-wine in feeling but it does have some good cheap bottles, a helpful friendly staff who hooked us up with wine advice and a list of the best 5 BYO restaurants in town, and a handy bargain shelf from which I bought a 50 dollar bottle of riesling for 20 bucks. C will have to remind me what the hell it was we actually drank with dinner, since we failed to write it down and I can't even begin to remember other than it was red and french. Whatever it was, it was light and bright in color, and strongly tannic at first, and C was a little disappointed, but as it spent time in the air it improved sharply and by the end of the meal we both liked it rather well. It was best with the duck, but more on that in a minute.

We started with prosecco (very good, quite dry) and a rhubarb gimlet (with no identifiable rhubarb whatsoever save the pale pink tint, very disappointing). Then we got a spinach salad with shaved strong cheddar, a poached duck egg and some sort of tart ranch-style dressing that I liked but C didn't care for much. The duck egg was poached while twisted into plastic wrap, giving it a pleasingly gathered, asymmetrical shape -- very clever. The star appetizer, though, was the duck consomme, which came with a long slab of crunchy grilled marrow toast, morels, lamb sweetbreads, shards of parmesan and a tangle of microgreens. YUM. Perfect hot savory goodness, the perfect thing for a March day in May.

Then we had a wild nettle risotto with white asparagus, golden beets, blood orange, black walnut, and creme fraiche, which was very nice but none of the flavors really went together until you got a bite with the black walnut, which tied all the sweet-earthy-bland-creamy flavors together into a whole that worked. The problem was only that there were about 4 tiny specks of black walnut on the whole dish. (This is my one objection to Lula in general, the microscopic quantities of certain of the ingredients that get much stronger billing on the menu. There was a similar situation in the spinach salad, where there were 5 tiny shavings of cheddar on a nice mound of salad -- you had to consciously ration in order to have any cheese left after the first two bites.)

sorry all the photos are so dark and lame

We also had a spectacular spaghetti in a red sauce spicy with bacon and a bit of chili, and sprinkled with queso fresco. This is one of the things Lula does *really* well, mixing a Mexican ingredient found in every local grocery into a fancy preparation or a dish from some other cuisine. The spaghetti itself was exceptional, well flavored and wheaty, chewy and substantial. We both loved it.

And last we split the roasted muscovy duck breast with a corn crepe filled with morels and some kind of slow roasted meat we suspect of being duck also, along with a salad of crisp green beans and more microgreens and a lemon mustard. The duck was delicious, almost smoky, but not quite as tender as the one I tasted at Tre Kronor with my father. I realize that with a statement like that I am picking the smallest of nits, but the blog *is* called foodNERD, and I *am* just that pedantic sometimes. :-)

Random side note (start rant): I love green beans above all other vegetables. Always have. There is nothing that green beans can't go along with, and they are reliably delicious, and I just love them. C begged to disagree, and tried to remind me of the glories of asparagus and spring peas, and I will frankly admit that those two vegetables are indeed sublime, when you get them fresh from the dirt. But there are two problems: 1 - unless you own the dirt, it is nearly impossible to acquire them fresh enough to still be delicious, and 2 - though mindbendingly yummy, they are not as versatile in flavor as the green bean. And, I feel compelled to add, even when you have a crappy old starchy nasty green bean from a bad supermarket, you can slow-cook it with garlic and olive oil and tomato and turn it into something good despite itself. That doesn't work with peas and asparagus. Maybe peas. Definitely not asparagus. (End rant.)

So, back to dessert. Banana cream pie and a brace of sorbets, strawberry and passionfruit. The pie is apparently famous, getting feature articles written about it in local rags, but we're not seeing it -- the custard has too much cornstarch in it and the crust was just meh. Still, it didn't suck and we left no bit of banana or cream unconsumed. The sorbets were lovely, particularly the passionfruit one, and the combination of the two worked beautifully. And the garnish of freezedried strawberry actually tasted good, too. Who knew?

It was a delicious meal, made of fresh local sustainable ingredients at a reasonable price, and eaten in very good company, if in horrendous weather. (The wind in Chicago is just obnoxious. There is no reason for such dreadful wind -- the cold and the rain is bad enough, must we be blown off our feet every other week, winter and summer? Feh!) Plus, bonus, C had a couple other bottles to take home with him for later. Work may bring him here with less frequency over the next months, which is good news for him getting to spend less time away from home and family, but is bad news for this blog, since you will be reading fewer stories of our ridiculous gustatory shenanigans. Perhaps he can report his Oregonian shenanigans and I can relay them...

Posted by foodnerd at May 12, 2006 07:51 PM

The wine was a 2002 Domaine Jacques-Frederic Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny, and here's my tasting note (generally scrawled strictly for my own use, but what the heck): "Lovely raspberry and cherry nose. On the palete, initially overtly tannic. After an hour or so, the tannins subsided and the fruit emerged, as did a hint of earth. Medium finish. In the end, a lovely, soft, balanced burgundy in a fairly light style. (Drank at Cafe Lula; matched beautifully with a medium-rare duck breast)"

As for freeze-dried strawberries, they're a staple around our house. You can get them (along w/ raspberries, peas, mangos etc.) at Trader Joe's as well as your basic Whole Foods-type market. Even Fred Meyer carries them here. My 3 year old loves them. No *loves* them. I just wish he'd go back to calling them "boo boos," a word that appeared after we took him blueberry picking when he was about 16 months old and stuck around to be applied to every berry for about a year. Those were the days :)

Made some really good mushroom pizzas (king oyster & shitake) over the weekend--I tried a new pizza dough recipe that recommended stretching the dough immediately after the rise, with no further kneading or punchdown. Wow! The dough was so relaxed that I could stretch it thin with ease, and the crust was crisp, brown and darned tasty. A little rhubarb crisp for dessert, and you're feeling pretty good about springtime and the bounty and all that ...

See you soon, FN. Lula was a swell meal. I agree, though, that the duck, while delicious, wasn't quite as tender as it might have been.

Posted by: C at May 15, 2006 10:43 AM
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