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A worthy tribute to New OrleansBy MARK NIXON
Road trips are food for the soul. And with any luck, there’s good food waiting for you at the trail’s end.
Do your soul and stomach a great favor: Hop in the car and drive 40 minutes northeast of Lansing to Lula’s Louisiana Cookhouse. But you’d better make reservations, because this snug restaurant in downtown Owosso fills up fast.
Gumbo, fisherman’s stew, shrimp po’boy, red beans and rice — Lula’s has Cajun/Creole flavors down to an art, leaving me wistful about another road trip I took years ago to rural Louisiana.
In the course of two visits to Lula’s, we tasted nearly a dozen appetizers, entrées and sides, as well as one dessert. Rather than pile on too many superlatives, let’s settle on one: outstanding.
A must for meat lovers is the charcuterie sampler. It’s one of the most expensive dishes on the menu ($17.99) but worth it. The platter had generous portions of house-smoked pork belly, beef brisket, ham, turkey and duck rillettes, as well as two sausage staples of Cajun Country, Andouille and boudin. This is simply the best charcuterie I have ever tasted.
Next up was the fisherman’s stew ($7.99). Many restaurants cheat on seafood-based soups and chowders, adding tasteless thickener until you’re left with a gooey glop the consistency of Elmer’s Glue. But not Lula’s. The broth is the crown prince of this dish, thin but steeped with flavors of the sea. I found chunks of crawfish, shrimp, calamari and lightly breaded oysters swimming in the tomato-enhanced broth. Perfection in a bowl.
Portions at Lula’s are generous, none more so than an order of fried chicken ($15.99). Expect to wait about 20 minutes for the chicken, because Lula’s doesn’t prep or fry it ahead of time. It’s worth the wait. At least a half-chicken landed on our table, delicious and not overly battered like fried chicken from a fast food restaurant. Half of the half-chicken went home in a takeout box, and it was just as tasty warmed up the next day.
I was dubious about Judy’s choice for an appetizer, fried avocado ($6.99). I like avocado in all of its simple, raw glory. Well, I was wrong. The avocado chunks were lightly coated and fried, almost like an ultra-thin tempura, allowing the nutty flavor of avocado to prevail.
Our second road trip to Lula’s was for Sunday brunch, where we shared various dishes with our friends, Bruce and Jan. The gumbo ($11.99) with Andouille could hold its own with gumbos I’ve had in New Orleans. The biscuits with sausage gravy ($7.99) was, said Jan, “the best I’ve ever tasted.” I agreed.
Judy’s shrimp po’boy ($12.99) was packed with shrimp fried in a corn meal batter with a slather of lightly spicy remoulade. Side dishes of red beans and rice and maque choux, a sweet corn and onion medley akin to succotash, are great accompaniments to any entrée. All were excellent, though Judy noted that a sturdier bread, such as a baguette, would have been a nice upgrade for the po’boy.
During brunch, three in our party of four ordered bloody marys ($8 each). The drink had a distinct dill flavor and was not overly spicy. Smiles and appreciative nods all around.
We indulged in a shared dessert, bread pudding ($5.99). The smiles and nods gave way to a chorus of “wows.” The pudding’s sweet, whiskey-based sauce married perfectly with cinnamon-spiced apples. In last month’s review of Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro, I raved about the bistro’s bread pudding. Lula’s is better.
It’s a bit quirky to think of Owosso as a haven for Louisiana cooking. We were curious and asked our server, Brittany, how Lula’s came to be. She explained that the owners had traveled to Louisiana several years ago and were smitten by Cajun/Creole cuisine.
I think it’s fair to say they are smitten with the whole culture of New Orleans and even the surrounding cities and villages of Cajun Country. Lula’s walls are a paean to the region. There are portraits of jazz artists, outsized Mardi Gras beads and what appears to be homemade Zydeco instruments.
Something else stands out. On the south wall is the “Wall of Flame,” a long row of brightly-colored bottles of hot sauce. These aren’t just baubles. If you see a sauce you like, grab the bottle and douse your food with the fiery stuff.
The one complaint I have about Lula’s is more a lament. It’s almost an hour’s drive from our Eaton Rapids home. Road trips are fun, but it’s also nice to have a dining destination closer to home. Maybe the owners will consider opening a Lula’s II a little closer to Lansing.
Let us start today by singing the praises of Lula’s Cookhouse’s fried chicken ($15.99). The breading is light and, dare I say, buttery. The skin crackles and crunches as you bite into it, and juices run down your chin. The meat is rich and moist — even more so when you drag your morsel through the dish of bacon cream gravy on the side of your plate. You don’t need a bucket of this chicken, because you know that this chicken is meant to be an occasional indulgence. It feels like something special.
We drove to Lula’s twice for dinner, and we were glad that we made a reservation both times. Nestled in the heart of down town Owosso, about 40 minutes from our Moores Park Neighborhood home, Lula’s is down the street from what has to be one of the world’s last free-standing J.C. Penney stores and an outstanding coffee shop, Foster Coffee Co. On the drive there, we scoured the menu, trying to be prepared with our orders when we arrived. It was never a question for me — I was going for the fried chicken.
We were joined on this trip by our friends Aaron and Emily. With a group of four, we were able to try several different appetizers. My advice? Lula’s should lose most of the appetizer selections and focus on the outstanding entrées. The fries in the Cajun poutine ($12.99) became soggy almost immediately under the weight of the waxy sauce. The fried avocado ($6.99), on the other hand, were dry and would have benefitted from a sauce. The calamari ($9.99) was the best of the three we tried, but it didn’t have any of the distinctive flair that oozes out of every Lula’s entrée.
Aaron chose the shrimp Curwood ($17.99). Named after Curwood Castle, a historical building in Owosso, the dish features jumbo shrimp doused in a slightly spicy cream sauce and topped with a heavy-handed sprinkling of bacon. While the menu claims that the creamy shrimp sit atop a throne of grits, we found what appeared to be polenta underneath. Still tasty, to be sure, but it made me wonder if Lula’s is trying to avoid seeming too elitist. (Remember when President Obama said he liked arugula and was branded as an elitist? What I wouldn’t give for the days when our president lamenting the price of arugula at Whole Foods was the most bombastic news to come out of the White House.)
Emily also chose the fried chicken and shared my enthusiasm. Of the two sides I chose to accompany my platter of four pieces of chicken from heaven, the bacon cabbage was the best. The cabbage was coated with a generous helping of rich-tasting bacon fat but still retained its snap. The red beans and rice were, sadly, forgettable.
On our return visit, we started with the chiedfricken ($8.99) — essentially boneless, bite-sized pieces of fried chicken doused in a mildly spicy sauce. The chicken was flavorful, but based on the entrée, I’d expected something a little better. Again, appetizers isn’t where Lula’s shines. I chose the Spanish fisherman’s stew ($11.99), a big, steaming bowl of hearty, seafood-studded soup in a rich tomatobased broth. The chopped celery of varying size told me that it was chopped fresh, and the stem end of a tomato that I found floating in the broth confirmed my suspicion that the tomatoes were not from a can but were *gasp* actual tomatoes. So many restaurants use canned tomato products, and the metallic tinge left behind is always disappointing.
The chunks of shrimp, crawfish, and white fish had me slurping up this stew, and I forked rings of calamari into my smiling face. The only flaw was the popcorn shrimp “croutons,” which were tough and didn’t add much to the flavor.
Mr. chose the shrimp po’boy, one of his absolute favorite sandwiches. The French roll was toasted and thick enough to stand up to the generous handfuls of flash-fried shrimp, which were layered on top of crisp lettuce and slathered with a tangy remoulade sauce. The accompanying fries were well seasoned, salty and crisp.
On both visits, we finished our meals with a plate of beignets. Here, I must make a confession: I’ve never been to New Orleans, and my exposure to beignets has been limited. But I can report that Lula’s beignets were fat, hot and doughy oversized doughnut holes of varying size —clearly made in-house — and they melted in my mouth. The quick-fry method left the outside just crispy enough to satisfy my insane need for texture, and the heavy dusting of powdered sugar almost sent me to J.C. Penney to pick up a new pair of Arizona jeans. (It would still have been worth it.) There were plenty of Michigan beers and wines on the menu, and my companions were happily buzzed enough to not notice when I snagged the final beignet, smiling like the cat who ate the delicious canary.
What we liked best about Lula’s was, of course, the food. But what made the experience even more pleasant was that Lula’s employees just seemed so nice. They smile at you when you come in and as they escort you to your table. They operate as a well-oiled machine, with one group of servers taking orders and another running food to tables as soon as it is ready, so your food doesn’t spend time congealing under a heat lamp. The restaurant is small, but everything has a place, including the hundreds of hot sauce bottles lining one wall. These employees aren’t too cool for you, and they won’t sneer if you ask for your burger to be cooked to medium. Yes, it’s a drive. Make the trip.
Lula’s Louisiana Cookhouse
11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday;11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday 113 S. Washington St., Owosso (989) 720-5852, lulascookhouse.co