The road to Lulu & Po has been long and winding for Matthew Hamilton, a veteran chef and former Marine who did time on a Tuscan olive farm, has cooked on both coasts and in Manhattan kitchens uptown and down, and closed his first foray as owner, the East Village’s Uovo, after less than two years. But Lulu & Po, the cozy 29-seat spot the chef named after his daughter and wife and opened in his own Fort Greene neighborhood two months ago, offers a shot at sweet redemption, along with a menu that fits perfectly into today’s local-and-seasonal small-plates Zeitgeist.
If that description makes you roll your eyes and stifle a yawn, then you might be pleased to discover that Hamilton’s plates—whether they be small or large or midsize—are for the most part inventively composed, deftly assembled, and completely satisfying. The same can be said for the minuscule space, which combines stained wood, painted concrete, and subway tile to elegant (if sometimes noisy) effect. The bar stools are mismatched and metal, the light fixtures are bare bulbs, the tables are unclothed, and the napkins are paper, but fresh sunflower and hydrangea brighten the bar top, and bowls of tomatoes and peaches reside along the open-kitchen counter.
At this point in the review, we would like to recommend a starter; unfortunately we cannot. At Lulu & Po, you see, Regulation Small Plates Rules apply: Your dishes will be cooked and served in no particular order, with no attempt at pacing. Nothing wrong with that, provided you don’t mind an occasionally crowded tabletop. You’ll want to make room, though, for the bone-marrow tacos, a do-it-yourself assemblage of split roasted bones, griddled corn tortillas, and a pungent salad of cilantro, pickled onions, capers, and parsley. (If it seems, in its quirkiness, reminiscent of something you’d find at Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune, that might be because Matthew Hamilton—no relation—once worked there.) The salty, nutty crunch of battered and deep-fried anchovies takes well to Sriracha tartar sauce and an ice-cold Narragansett lager, and a special of fried gnocchi recasts the pasta as finger food, to be dipped into chunky tomato sauce.
Hamilton is what you might call a chef’s chef, the kind who reserves room on his short menu for offal and regional farmstead cheese, who makes his own hot sauce, ricotta, and relishes. But even an inspired condiment of puréed cilantro, mint, and jalapeño can’t entirely redeem a too-tough octopus tentacle that looks like a mutant Hebrew National frankfurter. And while the double burger accessorized with goat cheese, zucchini pickles, and caramelized onion is a fairly good value at $11, the beef, although flavorful, struck the more punctilious burger analyst of this eating team as a tad on the chewy side.
It’s interesting to note, in this vegivore-tending age, that a place that charges $11 for a double burger demands $8 for a New Jersey beefsteak tomato, sliced and dressed with nothing more than melted butter and salt (for the record, another oddball combination that works). This is less condemnation than observation; good ingredients, after all, don’t come cheap. And we have to say that for a former Marine—and one with a clean-shaven head, forearm tattoos, and a build along the lines of a light-heavyweight—Chef Hamilton has a way with the fruits and veggies. He garnishes perfectly roasted beets and their greens with yogurt and pecans; he pairs avocados with crème fraîche and chopped peanuts; his salade niçoise is spot-on; and he yields to none in the art of mingling heirloom tomatoes with local peaches and housemade mozzarella.
Which is not to suggest that he doesn’t do big he-man flavors, too, or that his “New York firehouse” chicken isn’t perfectly flattened, crisp-skinned, and imbued with a fiery orange sauce inspired by the spiedies of his upstate youth. That one would qualify as a traditional main dish, should the small-plate format not entice. A cool dark-chocolate pot de crème makes a fine ending, no matter which route you take.
Lulu & Po
154 Carlton Ave., nr. Myrtle Ave., Fort Greene; 917-435-3745
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m.; Sunday till 10 p.m.
Prices: $5 to $19; cash only.
Ideal Meal: Bone-marrow tacos, heirloom tomatoes with peaches and mozzarella, firehouse chicken.
Note: The bar takes its cocktails seriously; try the gin-based Carlton, named for the Brooklyn address.
Scratchpad: Three stars for small plates that resist cliché, gracious service, and a congenial vibe.
This story appeared in the August 20, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.