The Vegetarian Option: Feast on Lula Cafe's Six-Course Vegetarian Tasting Menu
Lula Cafe has long been a Chicago favorite for chefs, food writers, and Logan Square residents. I enthusiastically recommend the restaurant to friends who are visiting the city if they want to try something beyond the tourist staples. However, I have to admit I haven't been there in nearly two years, simply because it's a little out of the way for me and I'm usually running around to new places that are as likely to disappoint as delight.
For vegetarians, Lula has several appetizer and entrée options, and there is even a six-course vegetarian tasting menu ($45) offered nightly. The tasting menu comprises a selection of dishes from the regular menu—three appetizers, an entrée, a cheese course, and a dessert. In other words, every vegetarian item on the menu. They don't even make everyone order the tasting menu. So vegetarians can easily come here with carnivorous friends who order à la carte with no dining compromises.
I thought every course was yummy, and the progression of the meal was nice. A hearty wild mushroom and beer bisque was followed by soft-boiled farm egg with Robuchon potatoes, then a parsnip and burrata cappellacci pasta course.
My favorite course of the evening would have to be the bisque, made with chanterelle, black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms, Mudpuppy porter, and sweet cream. This was garnished was a colorful hill of barley crisps, pomegranate seeds, wood-roasted leek and cacao nibs. What solidified this course as my favorite was the sourdough rye bread from recently-opened Cellar Door Provisions served on the side. Any frigid winter day, I'd be content eating a big bowl of this bisque with a hunk of bread for dipping. I was told that this was the first batch of bread the new bakery made, so I felt especially lucky that I was privileged enough to try it.
The main course was a rutabaga gnudi with butter-poached root vegetables, including turnips, radishes, baby carrots, and maple-brined and smoked salsify. I'm used to gnudi being fluffier than gnocchi, but these were a larger pan-fried variety with much more flour than I expected. The flour encased a ricotta filling, making for a much denser gnudi, which had me quite stuffed at this point in the meal. I loved the interesting sweet and sour flavor of the salsify, and the black sesame crumbles were a fun textural accent. Puntarella and dandelion greens added a little bitterness and braised pistachio had an earthy flavor but none of the crunch I come to expect from the nut. Overall, a dish that screams winter and will stick to your ribs.
I enjoyed both cheeses, a soft robiola rocchetta from Italy and Tomme Basco raw goat's cheese from France. Both were served on seeded crackers and cranberries along with a drizzle of local honey. All the little touches, like making their own crackers and candying their own cranberries, are what make Lula stand out, and why they have thrived for more than a decade.
Dessert was an apricot and chestnut tart served with single-origin 'Itzmana' coffee ice cream, coffee streusel, and sherry gastrique. I don't believe I've had apricots and chestnuts together before, but enjoyed the combination. The tart was on the dry side, but that was easily remedied by mixing each bite with the accompanying ice cream.
Considering the quality and amount of food you get with the tasting menu, it's an incredible value. Some of the appetizers are the same size as what you would receive ordering à la carte and the entrée is only nominally smaller. Plus, you get two of the three cheeses from the cheese plate and a full-size dessert. Even if you're not vegetarian, it's a great chance to try something new. I find it interesting that Lula offers a vegetarian tasting menu but no carnivore tasting option. I'm definitely not waiting another two years to return.