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Lulav, conceived as Little Rock’s only kosher (“California” kosher, to be exact) restaurant, is kosher no more.
But local Orthodox Judaism’s loss is everyone else’s gain. Chef James Botwright’s new menu, which the restaurant’s website calls “California Sephardic fusion,” is Mediterranean-flavored, exotic but not too, and from our one experience, almost without exception delicious.
But we can’t talk about the menu without mentioning one of the few things that wasn’t perfect about our meal: If we hadn’t been seated near a window, where a streetlight could shine a little extra illumination on our table, we literally could not have read it. Lulav is a dark place, and while it was pleasant enough once we ordered, it made us wish the menus came equipped with those little clip-on book lights. (The restaurant has recently added lunch hours, too, so lighting shouldn’t be a problem then.)
But on to the food. We started with orders of crab cakes and onion tartlets. We might quibble about the portion size — it was small — but not about anything else. The onions on the tartlets were caramelized to a wonderful sweetness.
Then we moved on to soups and salads. The special salad this night had prosciutto (definitely not kosher), and the two in our party who ordered it said the saltiness of the meat really stood out nicely against the greens and the balsamic vinaigrette dressing. We’re not sure if we misunderstood our waiter, either — these salads were enormous, at least double the size of the dinner salad another at our table ordered.
We skipped the green stuff and ordered a bowl of Esau soup, a lentil dish flavored with cayenne pepper. It was fine, but it didn’t inspire us to rave like the prosciutto salad did.
Lulav’s entree choices cut a wide culinary swath: sea bass with carmelized onions, herb-crusted wild salmon, pomegranate-glazed lamb chops, a tandoori veal T-bone, “Lulav’s signature paella,” pasta with seared sea scallops and vanilla-infused cream sauce.
And those are the ones we didn’t order. Our table chose the Indo-European seasoned duck breast, the chicken breast stuffed with Dungeness crab, the beef filet, and braised sirloin beef tips with bourbon mustard sauce.
First, the duck. It was prepared with a dry spice rub, and although our dining companion couldn’t identify them, he said it was a “damn good balance” that brought out the flavor of the duck rather than covering it up. It was served thinly sliced, and moist, on a mound of rice with a side of sauteed squash.
The companion who ordered the chicken was a man of few words, but none of them were complaints, and he was the first one finished, so we’re assuming he enjoyed it.
The filet drew compliments as well. It came served on a pile of mashed potatoes that, we found out after we gave up trying to figure it out ourselves and asked our waiter, were flavored with nutmeg. (The filet can also be ordered finished with sliced truffles and foie gras. We’ve heard that Lulav’s foie gras is the genuine article, but none at our table were tempted.)
Our entree, braised sirloin beef tips in a bourbon mustard sauce, came with the same potatoes, and they were delicious. The nutmeg flavor was subtle, just enough to make you raise an eyebrow and ask if anyone else noticed too. As for our steak, it was extremely tender, thinly sliced, and perfectly cooked to the medium we ordered. Unfortunately, the grilled flavor was so strong — and the amount of bourbon mustard sauce so small — that we have no idea what the sauce tasted like. We honestly wouldn’t have known it was there except that the menu said it was.
As stuffed as we all were at this point, once we heard the dessert choices, there was no talk of sharing, and we came close to ordering one to go as well. We ended up with one chocolate truffle cake, two tiramisus and a slice of bourbon cheesecake. Every one was just about perfect. The chocolate cake was rich and dark, sprinkled with fresh raspberries. The bourbon cheesecake was dense and wonderfully flavored. And the tiramisu … heavenly. Almost weightless, creamy, with a bit of Starbucks coffee liqueur poured over the top, and a few of those fresh raspberries as well (where Lulav got raspberries that good in March, we have no idea). One at our table said it was hands down the best tiramisu he’s had in Little Rock, and he’s had quite a few.
We haven’t mentioned Lulav’s wine list yet, and we need to. It’s lengthy and varied, with varietals we haven’t seen in other restaurants. There seemed to be a good number available by the glass. And each wine came with a brief description, which made it much easier to choose from unfamiliar names. We didn’t indulge on this visit, but we’d go back for the wine list alone even if we didn’t enjoy the food as much as we did. There’s a second room adjoining the dining area that’s furnished with comfy couches — it looked like the perfect place for a relaxing drink with friends.
Our service, too, was just what you’d want — friendly, knowledgeable and attentive.
Be prepared, though. Lulav is not cheap. Most entrees are in the $25-$35 range, and our bill for four, with no alcohol, came to $180 with tax. To be fair, we did order a lot of food. And left very little of it behind.
220-A W. 6th St.
The new menu features Mediterranean flavors and a variety of entrees. You can’t go wrong with the duck, and tiramisu to finish things off. Lulav is also now open for lunch. “Reverse happy hour,” 10 p.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday, is the time to check out the wine list; drinks get cheaper as the hour gets later.
11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Sat. “Reverse happy hour” 10 p.m.-midnight Thu.-Sat.
Expensive prices. Credit cards and reservations accepted. Full bar.