Not Luxe, But Luscious
From Its Humble Fells Point Digs, Lulu’s Offers Top-Notch Casual Fare
Sweet, unassuming Lulu’s Off Broadway doesn’t really look like a place that serves food at all, let alone the solidly assembled, full-flavored food that I recently enjoyed there. The front bar is vintage Fells Point, woody and smoky, brimming with bric-a-brac, but with flourishes like handsomely stocked wine and single-malt cabinets. Encouraging, too, was the super-friendly bartender, also part owner, and for this midweek evening our unflappable waiter. Unflappable in spite of having to run from his full bar back out to Lulu’s courtyard where my friends and I sat, a small and serene open-air space. But I sure wish they’d invest in better furniture—I was miserable sinking into my wide-strap plastic chair.
The menu, at first glance, looks like standard dressed-up pub fare: steamed shrimp, crab-and-artichoke dip, ribs, and hamburgers. But look closer: cornmeal-crusted catfish, Maytag blue cheese crumbled on chili and Cobb salad, and thoughtful options for vegetarians, like potstickers, vegetarian chili, a portobello ragout with farfalle, and sandwiches filled with homemade artichoke salad or portobellos. My friends and I ordered both the chili ($4.95)—which was impressively hearty, and evenly seasoned, dominated by the pleasurable taste of slow-simmered tomatoes—and the fried potstickers ($3.95), which were deliberately crispy but whose tasty interior filling remained a mystery. Cabbage? Cauliflower? An accompanying soy-chili dipping sauce was intense and a wee bit salty.
Lulu’s does, however, do lovely work with its meaty pub grub. Slow-roasted ribs (available as an appetizer in half- [$6.95], or full-rack [$11.95]) are impressively sized, and the meat falls off the bone when you so much as look at them. They were fattier than I prefer but full of good flavor. The sweet, practically superfluous sauce slathered on them made a negligible impact; I’d order them next time sauce-free. Better yet were a basket of wings (10 for $7.95, 15 for $10.95, 20 for $13.95), prepared with an unbilled tequila-lime seasoning. These meaty but not grossly oversized specimens were as tender as can be, but still crispy to the first bite, their seasoning sensibly applied, with perky, mouth-bracing citrus notes.
From a listing of more than a dozen sandwiches—including a turkey cobb, barbecue pork, and chicken salad with bacon and dried cranberries—I chose the shrimp salad ($8.95). The seafood filling itself is superb, prepared with a convincingly relishy remoulade sauce, and it would have been so much better on anything than the bulky “sweet” roll it was served on, which did it absolutely no favors. Garlic fries can be substituted (for $1.49) for potato chips, but they don’t measure up to the Brewer’s Art gold standard. Crispy, yes, but made garlicky not by a tossing with freshly shaved cloves but by a shaking of powder.
I was very impressed with a catfish entrée ($11.95), which dusted two generously cut fillets with just enough seasoned cornmeal to make them crispy without disturbing at all the sweet, white interior flesh. Just terrific, expertly cooked, and presented prettily, too, with buttery, home-style mashed potatoes and fresh wine-braised spinach leaves. These toothsome sides also flattered a steak ’n’ cake entrée ($18.95), which paired a crab cake with a six-ounce filet mignon. The golden biscuit-shaped cake exuded good crab flavor, appeared and tasted filler-free, and adroitly mixed in lesser meats with ample lump. But the steak outshone it, as it would almost anything. Truly perfect, the tastiest steak I’ve had in months and months. Asked for, and delivered, in gorgeously rare condition, and flecked with fresh peppercorns, this fillet was butter-knife tender, every bite simply steaky and blissful. Someone in that kitchen loves a good steak and knows what to do with it.
We visited on all-you-can-eat spaghetti night ($6.95), which turned out to be an agreeable starving-artist choice—the spaghetti is cooked firm and pliable, the slightly sweet sauce betrays evidence of home cooking—but there are better things on the menu to try. Desserts here are sensibly imported from Dangerously Delicious Pies, which everyone by now should know is a guarantee of satisfaction and pleasure.
Lulu’s Off Broadway has taken over a Fells Point spot where other restaurants have stumbled badly. Good vibes are fairly throbbing here now, and if the kitchen isn’t reinventing pub cuisine as we know it, there’s ample evidence of professionalism, dedication, and even a little passion. Good for them.