Lulav goes Italian 

Excellent fare, but separate lunch menu needed.

Lulav has been, is and — as long as it survives — will always be an enigma. It opened in 2004 as a Kosher restaurant that was closed for Shabbat from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, not a good strategy for a restaurant. It quickly morphed into a "regular" restaurant that in our experience was long on price and short on service, though the food was always pretty good.

In early February, Lulav was rebranded as The Italian Kitchen. And the food continues to be good. Damn good, actually. But here's the catch. There is one menu at Lulav — same for lunch and dinner. So compared to the fairly recent old days — when Lulav had sliders, sandwiches and reasonably priced lunch options contrasted with a much-higher-dollar dinner menu — it's now a relatively inexpensive dinner option and a relatively expensive lunch option. Given the astronomically larger potential market for lunch vs. dinner downtown, that could be a fatal flaw.

Another potential fatal flaw is the fact that owner Matt Lile — billed as "J. Matt Lile III, proprietere" on the website — last week was indicted by a federal jury on two counts of embezzlement for allegedly charging $300,000 in personal expenses on a company credit card when he was president of Cosmopolitan Insurance Co. of Little Rock. Lile says he's innocent of the charges, and that they won't affect his restaurant.

Lulav's menu now is simple and straightforward, as notable for what's not there as for what is. Consider the lunch visitor who finds there is no sandwich of any sort on the menu ... and no soup ... and no salad that's less than $8. What is there: an $8 four-meat plate, a $10 four-cheese plate (each of which was served with three rather than four varieties with no explanation/apologies), four $8 salads, four $8 appetizers, an $8 focaccia/olive oil/balsamic vinegar option, seven $10 pizzas, six $12 pasta choices, seven $16 entrees, four $29 chef's specialties and four $6 desserts.

That is a reasonable, and reasonably priced, dinner menu. But it won't bring in the lunch throngs like EJ's right around the corner does with its reasonably priced sandwich/soup/salad model. On a recent lunch trip, our quartet split the meat and cheese plates for appetizers, had just three main courses (one pizza, one pasta and one entree) and split two desserts. And water all the way around. With tax and a 20 percent tip for our friendly, attentive server, it was a $93 lunch. Ouch.

The meat and cheese plates wouldn't have been a good deal even if we'd gotten four vs. three. The quality is high but not exceptional; the quantity is low. The spicy smoked pepperoni and the Manchego were the highlights.

The pizzas are the thin-crust, sparsely adorned style similar to but smaller than the ones served at ZaZa. The Carni, for meat lovers, is fantastic with hunks of Italian sausage, cubes of ham and slices of pepperoni studding a rich, homemade tomato sauce atop a crispy crust with a gooey slab of soft mozzarella in the middle. The Chef's Fav was a bit too sparse with only gorgonzola and arugula leaves (and allegedly pistachios, though none were found).

Pasta is definitely the top draw at the new Lulav. We've never had better carbonara ($12) — rich and creamy but not over the top, with plenty of hunks of savory ham — and the "alfredo formaggi" ($12) was also fabulous, likewise creamy but not too rich, with another slab of that creamy mozzarella. We added chicken ($3) and got bounteous strips of perfectly done breast. Our main course, the tilapia, was a decent-sized fillet of mild, tender fish that unfortunately was overwhelmed by the bold flavors of the tomatoes, capers and olives that made up the sauce that topped it.

The scampi appetizer was one of the definite highlights — nine tasty, firm shrimp in a buttery, garlicky sauce and quite the deal for $8 — though some accompanying bread to sop up the remains would have been appreciated.

The creme brulee ($6) was as good as but no better than most, while the strawberry panna cotta ($6) was delicious but tiny — tasting like homemade strawberry ice cream with more of a cheesecake filling consistency.

Our lunch server far outshone our dinner server, perhaps because she was simply friendlier and more attentive than he was — or because the lunch crowd was so much smaller despite the beautiful weather that warm, sunny Friday. But that makes sense. A $12 bowl of fabulous pasta is a great deal for dinner but a little rich for most downtown lunchers' blood.

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