I so wanted to like Ivo and Lulu.
It's a small slot of a restaurant in off-center Soho, just around the corner from my old office. Its French-Caribbean menu, heavy on duck and game, looked exciting and flavorful. More than one friend had described it as a real hidden treasure; more than a few online reviews agreed. And it's a BYOB. What wasn't to love?
Unfortunately, quite a bit.
Occasionally stumbling service is forgivable. Running out of a few dishes can be, too. Loud radio, smudged glassware, a forgotten butter dish, an awkwardly located table—these are flaws I'm willing to ignore in favor of a bigger picture. As a food writer, an acolyte missionary of the delicious, I'd rather let you know about the best in a restaurant—not get hung up on minor annoyances.
But if the kitchen doesn't perform, that's it.
My first time at Ivo and Lulu, I ducked inside from a summer thunderstorm and waved to the single server inside. "Hi, I have a reservation for 7:30?"
He smiled weakly. "No, you don't. If you could wait outside, please. Just ten minutes or so."
Battered umbrella in hand, I looked back outside, where lightning blazed across the sky over the Holland Tunnel entrance. "Well, I did have a reservation—but is there anywhere I can wait inside?"
He sighed, and led me through a doorway... to an entire second dining room. "I suppose you can sit here."
We did. Fifteen minutes later, we had menus, too.
We sampled a wide range of dishes, many of which sounded quite promising—bold spices, fresh fruits, comparatively ambitious proteins like venison and boar. But not a single one managed to impress. Crevettes ($10) swimming in a cilantro chili butter had an appealingly aggressive spice but enough fat to coat the tongue and drown out the flavor. A Terrine De Venison ($11) united a few all-star ingredients—venison pâté, truffle oil, and Camembert—and managed to make all of them unappealing. The "pâté" resembled ground beef, with an oily residue and a tough Camembert crust that seriously disgraced the fine cheese it could have been.
The smoked poulet ($16) was the best of our entrees, showing how a good smoke can impart real flavor and tenderness to a chicken breast, but its fruit sauce was unpleasantly sweet. The same could be said of the blueberry swamp under the lean boar-sage sausages ($16), which lacked any moisture of their own. The duck confit ($17) fared slightly better—the fat well rendered, perfectly crunchy, salty skin—but the inner meat grew tough, and the "mango marinade" reminded me of a squeeze-bottle barbecue sauce.
Though it advertises "Bio-Organic Produce And Eco-Natural Ingredients"—whatever that means—I left Ivo and Lulu feeling a bit off, as if I'd just unintentionally ingested a tremendous amount of sugar and oil. To be fair, nothing was downright awful. If one of my friends had served these dishes at a dinner party, I would have finished them happily enough, and admired her ambition. But as $17 entrees, I'm a little less sympathetic.
The highlight of the night? The wine. We brought a bottle of 2007 Dynamic Vineyards from Trader Joe's, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot, impressively lush for a $10 bottle of wine, opening up with notes of berry and spice. Well-priced wine cures many ills. But it couldn't save Ivo and Lulu.
Ivo and Lulu
558 Broome Street, New York NY 10013 (map)