Serious Eats: Chicago
Knockout Noodles: Lula Cafe
Long before there was the wealth of dining options you encounter today in Logan Square, there was Lula Cafe. It had this quirky, eclectic menu and a relaxed, thrift-store vibe. It was, after all, a café. But behind the cozy, casual atmosphere was a serious kitchen, putting out really good, inventive food. Now, looking back on how the space was before Lula's expansion and renovation, which began in mid-2011, I wouldn't say that the cuisine felt out of place in its old digs, but the combination was akin to sipping a fine wine from your favorite coffee mug—it's a fun and all, the wine tastes great, and you love the way the mug feels in your hand, but perhaps that wine would taste even better out of a different, more elegantly crafted vessel.
And to its credit, as the neighborhood has changed, Lula has evolved with it. In its current, swankier guise, Lula has been a pleasure to behold, not to mention consume. The familiar dishes on the café menu now compete for attention with the dinner specials menu, a more living (and lively) document reliably stacked with fresh surprises. Including superb noodles.
The sunchoke agnolotti ($12), one of the appetizers on the dinner specials menu, is a deftly composed dish, melding a suite of wonderful, wintry flavors, and textures ranging from delicate to rich to crunchy. Being app-sized, there are roughly four to five noodles, each bearing a little gift of puréed sunchoke (also known as a Jerusalem artichoke, although it's not really related to the artichoke at all). The agnolotti rest on a thin pool of lovely, sweet persimmon butter and are crowned by a slow-poached quail egg. Cut chestnuts are tucked here and there, and finely grated parmesan cheese is a snowy blanket drifting across the plate.
The unfussy presentation puts more demands on the noodles to carry the dish, but they perform splendidly. The agnolotti are at once delicate, thanks to their being rolled out nice and thin, and yield just the right amount of bite, thanks to their eggy resilience. Speaking of eggs, I only wish there was more yolk to go around inside that dainty white sphere. Maybe the fruits of a larger fowl are called for here?
The spinach cavatelli ($23), off the entrées list, also feels expertly tuned for the season. The supporting cast: guinea hen Bolognese, shallot-smoked clam, manchego cheese, and pistachios. The vibrant and harmonious palette of flavors had me feverishly scooping up bites, but the noodles are the real attention-grabbers here. So pillowy and toothsome, they have a stick-to-your-ribs heartiness that can steel you against the harshest winter gusts.
Still sparkling from its makeover, Lula is pulling off the impressive: it's the neighborhood veteran that also feels brand new.