Much has happened in the dining world since George Mendes opened his discreet, Michelin-starred restaurant, Aldea, in the big city six long years ago, and you can tell that his newest venture, Lupulo, has been designed, for better or worse, to keep up with these rapidly changing times. There are no linens on the little café-size tables (they’re covered in white ceramic tiles) at the new restaurant, which opened several months ago adjacent to the Eventi Hotel, just below Herald Square. The name Lupulo means “hop” in Portuguese, and the corner space is dominated by a long, three-sided bar. In accordance with the standard doctrine of this relentlessly casual dining era, there are limited reservations at the bar (and everywhere else), which means you may find yourself, like I did one recent busy evening, perched at an awkward counter space near the entrance, peering at the garbage bags piled up outside on the sidewalk along Sixth Avenue.
Mendes, who grew up in a Portuguese-American family in Connecticut and trained with a fighter pilot’s intensity under some of the great chefs in Europe (Alain Ducasse, Martín Berasategui) to achieve his Michelin status, takes pains to separate this new bar-restaurant from the rabble of other high-minded bar-restaurants that are springing up like Dunkin’ Donuts franchises all around town. Lupulo’s website tells us that the extensive selection of “curated” craft beers on tap (there are 16 of them) is inspired by his visits to the cervejarias (“breweries”) around Lisbon. The blue and white tiles affixed to one of the walls have been shipped in from Portugal, too (they’re supposed to replicate the rustico feel of an authentic Portuguese pub), and the shelves around the room are filled with evocative objects (cans of shellfish, an Our Lady of Fatima statue, bottles of olive oil) collected during the course of the chef’s travels around the country.
But it’s not until Mendes’s particular brand of neo-Iberian gastropub cooking arrives at the table (or your seat at the bar) that any kind of character begins to emerge. One of the first things I tasted was a single, non-Iberian Beausoleil oyster (delicately arranged over a mound of ice in what I presume was an earthenware Portuguese pot), which was so briny and refreshing that even at $4 apiece, I had to be restrained from ordering a half-dozen more. This was followed by golden fried bacalhau croquettes, which we dutifully dipped in a pot of mayonnaise folded with properly fiery piri piri sauce, and a small platter of pearly, grape-size roasted snails (a blackboard special, stuck with toothpicks and sunk in a pool of olive oil with plenty of smoked paprika), which looked and tasted like they’d been beamed in from some dim, smoky bar along Portugal’s rocky Atlantic coast.
These small-plate petiscos tend to be more substantial than your average tapas, and although some formulations work better than others (even the most devout mackerel lovers at the table weren’t keen on ordering the pasty, vaguely irradiated-looking pâté de carapau again), Mendes has a knack for mingling traditional Portuguese flavors with modern gourmet technique in all sorts of inventive, accessible ways. If you order garden peas at this unassuming bar, you will find them tossed with spicy nuggets of chorizo and crowned with a vividly orange fried egg. The bowl of fava beans I enjoyed one evening contained chanterelles hidden in its depths, as well as soft, funky chunks of housemade blood sausage, and it was followed by a delicious bowl of açorda de camarão, which is a kind of savory bread porridge mixed with another softly cooked egg and garnished with two ruby-colored shrimp.
Not surprisingly, seafood tends to be a common component in many of the most successful dishes at Lupulo. During my visits, I dined on cool, crudolike slices of Atlantic salmon topped with little spoonfuls of salty American caviar; fat, silvery grilled Portuguese sardines with shreds of roasted bell pepper; and a smooth, milky helping of red snapper that the kitchen sinks in coconut milk and touches with jalapeño, Kaffir lime, and a scattering of benne seeds. The entrées include a serviceable, aggressively unrustic helping of roasted goat (with chanterelles shipped in from Oregon) and a fairly standard version of Portuguese grilled chicken (with a little squirt bottle of piri piri on the side), but if you order just one, make it the bountiful, family-style bacalhau casserole, which Mendes and his chefs layer with potatoes, boiled eggs, and chunks of salted and preserved cod; dapple on top with black olives; and hoist to the table in a cast-iron salver that looks like it’s been forged from old-fashioned cannonballs.
It’s food like this that makes you wish Mendes had decided to open a slightly less expedient casual restaurant, one with more tables than bar stools, where the pace of service was less frenetic and you could take a little more time to consider the quality of the cooking without being overwhelmed, on occasion, by the happy-hour atmosphere. If the loud, slightly anonymous midtown crowd gets to you, however, you can comfort yourself with the wine list, which is filled with versatile, reasonably priced bottles of Portuguese whites, many of which go just as well with the predinner oysters as they do with the excellent house-baked dessert tarts (the eggy, citrus-scented pastel de nata) or a wedge of sponge cake served in the traditional manner, with slabs of sheep’s-milk cheese, squares of quince marmelada, and a scoop of cooling orange sorbet.
835 Sixth Ave., at 29th St.; 212-290-7600; lupulonyc.com
Open: Daily for dinner.
Prices: Small plates, $5 to $22; entrées, $18 to $45.
Ideal Meal: Oysters, fava beans with morcela, sardines with bell pepper and/or shrimp porridge, grilled-cod casserole, sponge cake or egg tarts.
Note: Attention, beer geeks: The 16 beers on tap are available in 5-, 9-, and 14-ounce sizes for your sampling pleasure.
Scratchpad: One star for the exceptional small-plate seafood delicacies and another for the ridiculous cod casserole for two.
*This article appears in the August 10, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.