Chicago Tribune
Lula Cafe review: Still setting the standard in Logan Square
by PHIL VETTEL - 3.29.16
<p>River North has its restaurant/nightclub hybrids, Fulton Market has become a magnet for name-brand chefs. But for sheer variety and an absolute dearth of cliches, I'm not sure there's a better dining neighborhood than Logan Square, which is jam-packed with unaffected, affordable restaurants (including one actually named Jam) with distinct personalities. When you eat in Logan Square, you know exactly where you are.</p> <p>One of the neighborhood's earliest pioneers is Lula Cafe, now a head-shaking 16 years old (how did that happen?) and still one of Logan Square's standard bearers. Farm-to-table before that philosophy had a name, veggie-loving Lula Cafe was ahead of its time then and remains on the front lines now.</p> <p>Jason Hammel, chef and co-owner (with his wife, Amalea Tschilds), remembers his first trip to the space.<br /> "A friend told me to go to this cafe on Kedzie," he said, "so I went in with my girlfriend and saw on the chalkboard, 'Food by Amalea Tschilds.' We thought that was unusual, because my girlfriend had the same first name. So there I am at table 51 in soon-to-be Lula, talking with my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend about my soon-to-be wife."</p> <p>Hammel's chef de cuisine is soon-to-be star Sarah Rinkavage, who rose through the Lula ranks the old-school way and whose 30th birthday is still a couple of years away. At Hammel's behest, Rinkavage cooked in Denmark and Italy for a few months last year, before assuming the chef de cuisine title. "She's brilliant," Hammel says, simply.</p> <p>Rinkavage and Hammel share a commitment to what they call "the outside ingredient," the perhaps unexpected ingredient that makes perfect sense once it's in place. It can be as simple as the cinnamon accent that helps define the pasta yiayia, a Greek pasta dish that's one of the menu mainstays, or as surprising as a jalapeno-basil oil that kicks the baked feta with grilled bread into "notice me" territory. It can be as harmonious and colorful as the house-fermented cranberry and orange that support barramundi ceviche, or as challenging and monochromatic as white grapefruit that battles brown-butter hollandaise for dominance over poached cauliflower.</p> <p>You won't love all of it. But you'll never be bored.</p> <p>There are two, and arguably five, menus. The cafe menu, available most of the time, offers the Greek pasta I mentioned earlier and a simple pan-roasted chicken with sourdough breadcrumbs, and is predominantly meatless. The dinner menu, which kicks in at 5 p.m., offers a dozen or so small and large plates and changes often. Weekday breakfast starts at 9 a.m., a little unhandy for those of us who have to punch in around that time, but weekend brunch (which also starts at 9 a.m.) draws a big crowd.</p> <p>There's also a six-course vegetarian tasting ($48) and, on Mondays, a fixed-price, chef's-choice farm dinner. "It doesn't relate to any one farm," Hammel said. "I created it to challenge myself. We do it every Monday — well, we might get a bye every Labor Day or so — and we've never repeated a dish."</p> <p>Happily, several dishes on the menu bear repeating. I'm in love with the black risotto and baby squid; the risotto has a subtle sour accent, and its inky sheen makes a dramatic contrast to the pearl-white squid rings, which not only are wonderfully tender but also are salted just enough to recall a sense of ocean brine. I'm also a big fan of the fried quail, a Southern-inspired dish, light in color but big in flavor, abetted by chili-honey cashew butter and — the outside ingredient again — tart kumquat.</p> <p>Strozzapreti pasta, rich with robiola cheese, gets an Eastern Europe accent from caramelized cabbage and caraway. Shrimp, with fermented squash, lemon and pea shoots, stand up to a rather aggressive smoking, and that smoke flavor lingers on the tongue.</p> <p>Big-plate highlights include a fine hanger steak, charred outside but beautifully red within, accented with blue cheese and cippolini onions. The pork chop I had, served in slices under a dusting of "oyster salt" (smoked oysters, dehydrated and blended with coarse salt), has been replaced by pork cheeks with black mole, but you'll be happy either way.</p> <p>Pastry chef Kelly Helgesen is another under-30 chef to watch (add in general manager Jade Tulak and beverage director/sommelier Diana Hawkins, and Lula has a trove of young female talent). She whips up such yummy and eye-pleasing plates as a chocolate pain perdu with peanut-butter fudge and malted ice cream, and a chamomile creme caramel with sweet potato and honey whose sweet elements are in perfect balance. Her Meyer-lemon hand pies are like a childhood reminiscence. And, dissatisfied with the bagels the restaurant brought in for breakfast, Helgesen began making sourdough bagels in-house (as well as the brioche for the French toast).</p> <p>The beverage program offers a nice and frequently changing assortment of cocktails, draft and bottled craft beers and a budget-conscious wine list. Attentive servers can discuss the options at length, and of course there's a sommelier in Hawkins, just another unexpected bonus in a restaurant that seems to live for nothing else.</p> <p class="p1"><a href="http://www.chicagotribune.com/dining/restaurants/ct-review-lula-cafe-food-0330-20160328-column.html" target="_blank">View Article</a></p>