Since it first opened in the quiet corner of an East Memphis shopping center in February 1991, Lulu Grille has lived the life of a quintessential neighborhood bistro. It has outlasted many competitors by taking care of its regulars (some even have their own lunchtime booths), showcasing the fine cooking of chef Scott DeLarme, and walking the line between maintaining favorites and introducing new dishes.
Leigh and Don McLean ran the restaurant together until recently, when Leigh McLean became its sole proprietor. The staff has stayed constant, importantly, with DeLarme remaining in charge of the kitchen. Indeed, little has changed other than seasonal shifts in the menu and a significant expansion about five years ago that now allows for many more catered events such as showers and dress rehearsals.
Each of LuLu Grille's five dining areas is different, so it doesn't really have a cohesive look. The small bar is comfortable, a bit modern and cozy, more pleasant and roomy than most and, of course, has TV. Outside tables on a deck are thoughtfully designed to block the view of the parking lot and to tune out the racket of Poplar Avenue. The most attractive two rooms are in the back, both with high-back booths. One has charming/kitschy French bistro-style murals; the other, dark peach brick walls dressed up with quilts and other embellishments. At dinner we were seated in the least successfully decorated of the rooms, the front one, with its curious combination of linoleum, wrought iron, and brick veneer. (Next time we are asking for a booth in the back.)
When we first arrived for dinner, the atmosphere seemed a bit off. We realized that while we don't always notice the music that plays in a restaurant, this time we noticed its absence. Plus, the restaurant was rather bright (although the lights were dimmed midway through our meal). It was as if someone had forgotten to turn on the music and cut back the lights.
But all was forgiven when our appetizers arrived. The scallops Florentine were festive in their half shells, with a combination of spinach, garlic, and parmesan. The grilled jumbo shrimp with housemade chipotle barbecue sauce had a nice, clean, yet subtly smokey flavor. The handmade lobster and asparagus ravioli consisted of three large ravioli, in a cream sauce fragrant with dill. A touch of sweetness in the dish made us appreciate the refreshingly restrained hand with the salt. The duck and wild mushroom quesadilla was substantial, with tasty wild mushrooms, plenty of duck meat, and a crisp exterior.
Among entrees, the winner was the homey grilled pork chop with roasted apple and dried cherry sauce, accompanied by creamed potatoes lively with pepper. The shrimp and crab meat penne was also a nice combination, the roasted garlic and white wine sauce brimming over with cheese, pasta al dente, and plenty of shellfish and vegetables. The jumbo scallops here were each served atop a fried red tomato nicely encrusted with parmesan and panko bread crumbs, and topped with a marinara-thick shallot and tomato sauce. We also ordered the grilled ruby-red trout, which I had remembered as a specialty of the house. It proved our only disappointment, because it tasted so charred that we could barely eat it, as did the accompanying vegetable sauté. After we described our experience of the dish, we noticed that the server quietly removed it from our check.
For lunch we sat at a table in the bar, where we could watch or tune out the news. We started our meal with soup and some of Lulu's great crusty square rolls. The black bean soup was smooth and mellow, but I preferred the Manhattan clam chowder, with its tomatoey homemade flavor, chunks of vegetables and chewy bits of clam.
Both soups were very much comfort food. Although several salads sounded wonderful -- the smoked salmon, the couscous, and the combination of apple, walnut, and blue cheese -- I opted for the spinach and goat cheese. The plateful of spinach, dressed in an aged balsamic vinaigrette with just enough sweetness, was generously sprinkled with dried cherries and roasted pistachios. The centerpiece was a large disk of goat cheese encrusted in chopped pistachios. We also ordered the baked focaccia with smoked turkey, proscuitto, caramelized onions, and dill havarti. All of this made for an excellent hot sandwich, the flavors mixing together nicely. My only quibble was that the crust was a bit oily.In general, the prices were very good for lunch of this caliber, with most salads and sandwiches $10 or less.
Dessert is legendary at LuLu, and I'm glad to report that all is well in that department. We shared a gigantic slice of the exquisite coconut cake, homemade yellow cake with sour cream icing and whipped cream and plenty of flaked coconut. The chocolate cake was a fudgy devil's food that to my mind struck a perfect balance between the flourless dense chocolate type of dessert and classic layer cake. The wine list consists of 18 white wines (12 of them available by the glass), mostly in the $25 to $40 price range, and 25 reds (13 of them available by the glass) priced mainly between $27 and $50. There's also a full bar and selection of beers.
For the most part, we found the service to be solid and friendly, with appropriate details handled. In packing up our chocolate cake to go, the server was very careful to separate the ice cream from the cake, and the dessert from the soup that we also ordered to go. One lapse, however, was that the servers didn't swing by to check on us after we got our entrees. That was no big deal at lunch, but at dinner we really needed to tell someone that the trout was a problem. (The staff seemed distracted that evening by a special event in the next room.)
In general, we found Lulu Grille to be ticking along just fine, continuing to serve well-prepared bistro fare and thoughtfully maintaining its neighborly ambiance. The menu is being reworked, with wintry dishes such as venison and a rib-eye being added, and brunch has already been gussied up with frittatas, a choice of eggs benedict preparations, and a breakfast buffet of fruit, hot biscuits, and other sides. Much of the food is comforting and low-key, such as the pork chop with roasted apples, the soups, and the penne pasta. The desserts continue to be first-rate, and lunch is justly popular. If some of the menu is predictable, that just shows that Lulu knows its niche, and won't go off on any crazy tangents. Small wonder it's done so well for nearly 16 years.
For other details, go to Memphis Magazine's searchable restaurant listings entry for LuLu Grille.