Of the few quibbles we might have had about a recent experience with the newest rollout of Lulav, the chief one — and this goes for anybody in restaurant land — is to possess a working phone number. Add to that, in this day of social media and iPhones, is to have an updated website. Lulav had neither. At least this is Little Rock, where one can drive to downtown from nearly anywhere in the city in minutes to determine whether a supposedly new and improved restaurant is, in fact, new and improved and actually open.
We'll set the scene: With a few slices of pizza from lunch still fighting us, we weren't really enthusiastic about heading back downtown on Friday night to check out Lulav: A Modern Eatery, but bossman said he needed a dining review STAT, so on to our assignment we went. Our accompanying photographer for said review said he'd tried reaching anyone at Lulav and was getting an operator's recording, line disconnected. Bossman's wishes aside, we had our fingers crossed that Lulav would indeed be shuttered, at least on this night; but alas the place was serving a hungry few who were headed to "Gridiron" at The Rep.
Lulav has been shuttered, or reimagined, what seems like a handful of times since its original incarnation a few short years ago as a restaurant specializing in Sephardic cuisine, and our next question after "Why is your phone line disconnected?" should have been, "Why keep calling yourself Lulav?"
The ownership is new — Herman Lewis, we're told, has taken over. Lulav was originally the inspiration of Matt Lile, a former insurance executive who later ran into some federal legal problems. The current focus is on the "Modern Eatery" part of the name, and what that apparently means is a widely varied menu both in prices and amount of the food served, as well as specialty drinks and wines. The place has a dark and mysterious mid-20th century French-bistro-like ambiance with an impressive-looking bar commanding attention in the main room. Two gentlemen who we guess were employed by the place hung out there most of the night patiently waiting for the night to get cranking. One hostess/waitress worked the main room as well as a smaller one to the side, where we were seated.
An eight-top was checking out as we arrived. Another couple came, looked at the menu, and left. A steady stream of visitors headed up a stairway in our dining parlor to a party on the second floor. For a few minutes, at 7 o'clock on a Friday evening, we had a restaurant to ourselves.
In moments like these you wonder if you should have stayed home and reported to bossman that it was unlikely this review would beat the permanent closing yet again of Lulav's doors.
All that would be a shame, too, because someone in the kitchen is working awfully hard to prepare especially fine cuisine. Diners can order from a wide sampling of bistro-style appetizers, salads, affordable "small plates" in the $12-$18 range, and high-end steaks or sea bass that cost from $32 to the $49 cowboy rib-eye.
Wine is grouped and priced similarly on the backside of the one-page menu — house wines or a handful of familiar names are bunched together in whatever price range you prefer. Even better, you can spend $20 on a bottle from Lulav's sparsely populated wine cellar, or choose something on the order of Caymus, in that same cellar and inside a china cabinet, for a bit larger fee. The menu's wording — choose any bottle from the cabinet for $20 — momentarily took us aback. We thought it was some kind of game: Pay $20 for the chance to see what surprise awaits you in the cellar. Our waitress said she gets that a lot.
The taste of the Frontera pinot noir we selected belied the retail price tag we found for it on the Internet ($5 in some places, pre-tax).
She probably also gets orders for chicken and waffles ($14) a lot, too, because those big words are positioned on the menu to catch the eye between the small plates and the high-dollar ones. Our dining companion jumped on it. Three moist and tender breast filets were fried to a golden brown and presented on a plate-size, dark, cinnamon-spiced waffle.
Meanwhile, we went with the 8-oz. filet of beef. Medium rare, with a mushroom and a cabernet reduction sauce, served atop garlic mashed potatoes and a small side of grilled asparagus.
You expect close to perfection for $38 in Little Rock and we got every bit of that and more. Remember, we told you our appetite wasn't strong to begin with: no problem, here, as this hefty, melt-in-your mouth steak was polished off in no time flat. All we needed was some bread to clean up the remnants of the sauce. Bread, however, was not to be had. Our young and nice but somewhat inexperienced waitress kept water coming, but she didn't bother to suggest salads or appetizers either.
She did direct us to the steaks, and she was right. The "small plate" offerings include a bartender's special, a seasoned steak and fries for $18.
With only two desserts available, we chose in the house-made vanilla crème brulee. We were told the restaurant's torch wasn't working to scorch a sugar topping (an oven broiler works just as well, fwiw) and the crème was maybe a tad overcooked (heavy over creamy).
Our dining companion had tried lunch earlier at Lulav and raved about the Strawberry Fields salad of mixed greens and fruit.
We could see ourselves returning soon for Blue Point crab cakes, an appetizer, or the shrimp and grits listed under the "small plate" section for $18.
A "modern eatery" like Lulav has something for everybody at any time (or up until 9 p.m.) at any cost. We just wish more people knew what was going on at the newest Lulav and wish the restaurant had modern technology, like a telephone. It does have a Facebook page, by the way, but a glance at it might make you think it serves lunch only.