Classic Tables: Lula Café

13 years old--and better than ever

Lula Café is the most ambitious 13-year-old we know.

The recent expansion of the Logan Square mainstay added more tables, a long marble-topped bar, a late-night menu, a new coffee and tea service, and a jolt of energy.

Chef Jason Hammel is thinking deeply about his dishes. The café menu's standards are still there; the lengthy specials menu is where he plays with flavor and presentation, often with stunning results (click here to see a slide show).

On a recent visit, we shared the $45, six-course vegetarian tasting menu, which plucks four courses from the specials, plus cheese and dessert. It was playful and exciting–and one of the city's best deals.

In pumpkin-apple salad, thin curls of marinated raw pumpkin wound artfully around picked cranberries, cilantro and sweet sesame brittle that tingled the tongue with Szechuan pepper. In risotto, nubs of celery root supplanted rice, with pickled grapes as a counterpoint. Cocoa nibs, ancho chile oil and grilled frisée took heirloom squash soup in unexpected directions.

Hammel cites restaurants like Le Chateaubriand in Paris as a source of inspiration, and talks about taking risks. "I'm interested in a place that's fun, that tries new things, and that isn't expensive," he says.

We say: Mission accomplished.

Lula Café, 2537 N. Kedzie Blvd.; 773-489-9554 or lulacafe.com