With a lounge vibe and a small-plate menu that invites noshing, Lulu has turned up the street-side buzz on the corner of Commodore Plaza and Main Highway. Finally, a restaurant in the Grove that doesn’t serve sushi or pizza!Lulu shares owners – Sylvano and Maida Bignon – and a friendly professionalism with GreenStreet Cafe across the street, but that’s where comparisons end. While GreenStreet sticks to stalwarts like fried calamari and pesto linguine that have kept regulars coming back for 20 years, Lulu plays the artsy, younger sibling, offering creative, tapas-style dishes with fresh flavor combinations and affordable wines. Inside, there’s seating at a small, tidy bar as well as in a cozy corner of booths surrounded by Moroccan-inspired tile and flickering candles. The hub of activity, though, is outside on the brick sidewalk, where comfortable, wood-framed couches and chairs with red cushions share real estate with round, café-style tables. Eating here is like finding a prime spot at a happening party where you can kick back and wait for delectable finger foods to come your way. The tapas-style menu is small but dead on, with appealing choices like roasted, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Manchego cheese and sausage; crispy flat bread topped with skirt steak, bleu cheese and caramelized onion, and sweet and spicy ginger chicken wings. It would be a mistake to pass over the two veggie standouts: buttery, skewered corn cobs punched up with Japanese shichimi seasoning and glorious, roasted Brussels sprouts tossed with mandarin oranges and balsamic vinegar. Best on warm nights is a generous helping of burrata, mozzarella’s creamy cousin, with mixed greens and grilled, herbed tomatoes. Not all of the small dishes impress. The lamb ribs in Thai chili sweet sauce have been consistently fatty, fried green tomatoes are dry and tasteless, and the Kobe beef slider is disappointingly singular and gone in two bites. Entrees are more of an afterthought, but some, including a trio of fish tacos (with blackened mahi mahi, pico de gallo, cabbage, guacamole and tartar sauce) are fresh and filling. Macaroni and cheese in black truffle béchamel and fettuccine carbonara in bacon-cream sauce are elegant upgrades of classics. The super-size crowd is likely to be unsatisfied, although a few entrees, including a New York strip steak in shallot burgundy sauce and a thick and juicy rib-eye (a frequent special) aim to please voracious appetites. It’s almost worth ordering an entree just to sample the jalapeño mashed potatoes, a shocking-green side dish that is more smoky than spicy. The 24-bottle list of European, Latin American and California wines keeps it simple: All glasses are $8, and all bottles $25. Desserts change nightly. Our chocolate crème brûlée was passable, but not on a par with the rest of the menu. Smart and smiling servers who are menu-literate and super attentive have kept GreenStreet tables bustling for two decades. A similar, well-trained staff is part of the appeal at Lulu. The Bignons run a tight business on their street corner, and this is one monopoly the Grove would be wise to keep.
If you goPlace: Lulu
Address: 3105 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove
Rating:★ ★ ★ (Very Good)
Contact: 305-447-5858, www.luluinthegrove.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. Monday-Tuesday, until 2 a.m. Wednesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-midnight Sunday
Prices: Small plates $4-$9, sandwiches and salads $9-$15, entrees $13-$25, desserts $4-$6