A Hamburger Today
Lulu and Po: Getting the New Brooklyn Restaurant Right
Lulu & Po
154 Carlton Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11205 (at Myrtle; map); 917-435-3745; luluandpo.com
Service: Affable, prompt, helpful
Setting: Tiny but sharply designed 30-seat room with open kitchen
Compare To: Battersby
Must-Haves: Anchovies, Laganelle, 'Iron Pressed' Chicken
Cost: Two could eat well for $50
Here's the difference between Lulu & Po and so many other Brooklyn neighborhood restaurants I visit: I want all those restaurants to be something like Lulu & Po, but often, they're not.
The script, by now, is familiar: an accomplished Manhattan chef (Matthew Hamilton, formerly of Belcourt) heads to Brooklyn to open a place of his own, smaller in scale if not in ambition. The menu is seasonal and creative, small plates riffing on familiar dishes; the cocktail menu tightly edited, the space eking every advantage from its limited confines.
At other restaurants of its ilk, dishes that sound appealing on paper might not translate to the plate. A space that looks charmingly small might simply feel cramped. Casual service might feel uncaring. But Lulu & Po shows none of these flaws.
The drawbacks first: it's cash-only and tiny, with not many restaurants right around the corner, so if you're coming at peak hours or with a group, it's a bit of a gamble.
But the upsides? It's a creative, appealling menu, the work of a chef who seems to genuinely enjoy what he's putting on the plate. It's a real value, small plates that yield significant portions of food, rather than adding up to hundreds of dollars of nibbles. There's plenty to enjoy drinking, the martini-like Carlton (gin and vermouth with orange bitters and absinthe; $12), a $35 bottle of Petit Marie Bourgueil that drank beautifully with every course (huge props to Lulu & Po for the 15 bottles on the list under $40).
Pizza dough ($6), grilled to order, is thinner than your average pizza, but it's tasty and pliant with a good amount of char and a lot of olive oil. The intensely creamy ricotta is some of the better house-made cheese I've had recently, and the pesto, a brightly flavored counterpart. Pretty much the bread course of my dreams. Excellent mozzarella ($9), with olive oil and fried herbs, revealed that the ricotta wasn't a fluke. I could easily make a meal of just that and the anchovies ($10)—an overflowing bowl of crisply fried little fish, lightly dusted in corn flour, cornstarch, and cayenne pepper, with a sriracha tartar sauce that doesn't actually taste like sriracha, just incorporating a gentle heat.
Hamilton does beautiful things with vegetables of all sorts. A kale, brussels sprout, sunchoke slaw ($9)—three vegetables I can never resist ordering—sports ribbons of kale, delicate brussels sprout petals, and shaved sunchokes, all crunchy and distinctly flavored in a rich dressing with mustard, egg, and a faint hint of ginger. Even more autumnal, the delicata squash ($8) is roasted to a precise, almost creamy fork-tenderness, drizzled in brown butter and speckled with almonds.
Plenty of restaurants attempt their own pasta and make you wish they hadn't, but the effort pays off with Hamilton's laganelle ($12), wide ribbons of tender pasta wrapped around a sweet-savory purée of roasted squash, apples, and garlic, in a sea of brown butter and shitake mushrooms that fit right in. Vegetarians are well-served here.
But this is a chef who loves his animals, too—you don't put pickled beef tongue on your menu, or feature goat leg as a special, if you don't—so the bone marrow tacos ($13) seem at home, too. Don't fear huge, gelatinous clumps rolled up for you; the charred corn tortillas simply serve as an alternate breadlike delivery system, rather than thin slivers of baguette, and it works. Parsley, cilantro, capers, and pickled onions provide much-needed herbal and acidic relief to cut through all that richness. A must-order, but a must-share, too; you probably don't want to tackle this one alone. For a starter that's substantial but not, well, pure meat fat, opt for the octopus ($15), one long tentacle grilled and served with a pungent, chimichurri-like cilantro-jalapeño sauce.
Unlike many restaurants these days that put a burger on the menu out of seeming obligation, whether or not it seems to connect with the rest of their menu, Lulu & Po scores three points in its favor, making 1) a great burger that's 2) only $12 and 3) is perfectly in line with the rest of their dishes: essentially straightforward, enjoyable fare with a slight edge of improvement and refinement. Hamilton uses a DeBragga beef blend, formed into two slim patties given a great crust on the grill but kept an honest medium-rare. They meet with intensely creamy, slightly softening goat cheese, house-made zucchini pickles, and gorgeously cooked-down onions, on a bun perfectly suited to the package, a sesame-seeded Martin's Potato Roll ("These are the rolls I grew up with," Hamilton told us. "We called them Marty's Big Buns.") Bite in and it oozes juices, with a tang and funk from the goat cheese, a sharply acidic pickle kick, and an intense, concentrated onion sweetness—coming together in a most excellent bite.
If you're only ordering one larger plate, though—unless they have the phenomenal goat leg special on the menu, in which case all bets are off—it should be the "iron" pressed Upstate NY firehouse chicken ($18). "Chef Hamilton grew up upstate," our waitress explained to us, "and the local firehouse would have a chicken sale to raise money, chicken in this secret marinade." That's the inspiration for this slightly spicy chicken, which bathes for 14 hours in a sugar-based marinade of paprika, Italian parsley, garlic, black pepper, distilled vinegar, and canola and extra virgin olive oils. The chicken? It's pan-seared and pressed with an actual cast-iron iron to weigh it down. It's a simply perfect half-bird, given a superior crust and superbly moist throughout. Roasted sunchokes are all the accompaniment it needs. Finish with the chocolate pot de crème and you've had a memorably enjoyable meal.
This isn't a restaurant you're going to hop the subway to journey for, if your area is well-stocked with cozy, skillfully staffed favorites of your own. But Lulu & Po is an excellent neighborhood restaurant, and a bit more. Though it's not quite in my neighborhood, I'm more than willing to expand my sense of "my neighborhood" to include it. A long, pleasant Brooklyn stroll for a plate of those anchovies? Sounds like a good idea to me.