May 4, 2015 | BITE: My Journal

Lupulo: A Toast to Portugal
Use the dense Portuguese bread to mop up the charred cucumber and razor clam salad.
Use the dense Portuguese bread to mop up the charred cucumber and razor clam salad.

          Intense is not an exaggeration for George Mendes these first few nights of Lupulo, his new tavern and small plates joint in Chelsea. He’s everywhere, coaching a new recruit at the tasting station behind the bar on how to clean out the head of a lobster in the middle of dinner. Leaning out the open window from the kitchen to show us the oozing cloud of a classic Portuguese dessert just pulled from the oven. Racing to our table to deliver “espargos assados,” grilled green asparagus with sea urchin, dried and fresh.


Lupulo waits to be discovered behind a rustic door on the 19th Street corner of the Eventi Hotel.

          Mendes agrees to open the restaurant for lunch long before it’s officially open for lunch because the Portuguese Deputy Prime Minister insists. “You can’t say no to the Deputy Prime Minister,” he explains. (Having spotted the executive in a cluster of gorgeous men in dark suits chatting in Portuguese the night before, I agree. I wouldn’t mind having a chance to not say "no” myself.)


Grilled espargos with sea urchin, sorrel and walnut. No way to resist.

          Yes, the asparagus. We’ve had it already, we tell the chef. We used the crust of dense Portuguese cornbread we just can’t stop eating to wipe up the sauce. (That would be the “broa” Mendes gets from a bakery in Newark.) The lemony taste of sorrel and sea perfume plays with the green spring grassiness of the asparagus.

          “Are you sure that’s for us?” I ask. “We had it already.” 

          He scarcely stops. “Well, have another on me,” he says, racing back to the grill. Our encore quickly disappears.


In those first few days, chef George Mendes dashes everywhere, welcoming, coaching, serving.

          Funny name, Lupulo. Seems it means hops in Portuguese; there are 11 beers on tap. But we’ve focused on cocktails -- $12 to $13. “O Maluco” with kumquats and a “touch of honey” is the favorite of my two companions, even though the bartender can’t find the mezcal and substitutes tequila. Maluco means crazy, okay, crazy good. For me, it’s the “Eusébio,” (for one of Portugal’s all time soccer greats) boozy from Rittenhouse Rye Bourbon tempered with sweet Vermouth and Madeira.


Blood sausage in a toss with favas, ramps, and morel mushrooms.

          As the three of us work our way through the small plates -- $6 to $16  -- we lean in, sharing vibrations of discovery. Fresh fava beans, tossed with meaty blood sausage, ramps, and precious morel mushrooms, is spring in a bowl with a meaty focus. How can it be just $9?


Spring brings green peas, chorizo lardons, fiddlehead ferns and sunny side up egg.

          And green peas with a few fiddlehead ferns, studded with chunks of chorizo and topped with a sunny side up egg at $10, has us nattering happily too. Granted, three little crisp shrimp turnovers with a hit of  pimentón, and even the very good salt cod croquettes, are just familiar turnovers and croquettes, though careful renditions of their kind. What has our attention are combinations we’ve never encountered before. We’ll hold on to the feisty piri piri mayonnaise, just in case of need later.


There is a spicy piri piri mayo to dip ovals of salt cod croquettes.

          There’s a choice of country ham from Virginia ($16) or the vaunted black foot jamón ibérico for $25. “No choice,” says Barry, deciding for us, ordering 28 grams of the legendary imported porker. I could skip the ibérico. I’m a bacon fan, a chorizo hound, a guanciale convert, but I don’t get this very chewy stuff where the sharpest knife can’t separate the fat from the meat.

          “You’re supposed to eat the fat,” Barry instructs.


Choose ham imported from Virginia or this aristocratic jamón ibérico from black footed pigs.

          But we’re quickly a chorus again, exalting over cuts of raw razor clams with charred cucumber sticks and lightly pickled red onion in a luscious salad dressed with buttermilk and clam juice. The menu’s “shrimp porridge” delivers a quartet of shrimp on a fluff of bread “porridge,” with a spunky chile afterkick. It’s livelier, more exciting than the entrée I’ve chosen: oven-baked rice with octopus and slices of green olive the chef delivers himself in a black iron pot.


I definitely recommend shrimp porridge with a soft hen egg for the table to share.

          Mendes is back from the kitchen again, urging us to try desserts too, recommending the chocolate salami. I recall a similar optical illusion in chocolate we used to find in old fashioned Italian places on Mulberry Street.


At least one wall needs to be tiled with Portugal’s traditional blue and white squares.

          I’m not wild about any of the desserts tonight – the vanilla rice pudding with chocolate sorbet and cubes of pineapple or the sticky baked cinnamon Molotof “cloud” on hazelnut streusel with almond tuile. But never mind. I’m so excited about almost everything we’ve eaten, I decide to return the next evening to taste more.


The handsome room with industrial touches by Crème in Brooklyn is dark and noisy. What else is new?

          The house fills quickly, even earlier tonight. Word is getting out around Chelsea, the high-ceiling’d sweep of space decked out with Portuguese tile and industrial lighting, the gentle prices. Our waiter is on the run. I can’t deny my friend Zarela the rustic fava-ramps-blood sausage toss or the razor clams with cucumber that calls for bread to mop up. I notice the waiter has forgotten to deliver a canvas bread sack.


Pickled and unpickled muscat grapes lurk alongside the chicken liver pate.

          He rushes off to fetch it and brings only the second, less compelling bread. I send him back. I haven’t imagined that the corn bread is addictive. Like me, Zarela succumbs. The two of us use it, ignoring the toast served with the chicken liver pate, cleverly paired with muscat grapes, pickled and fresh.


The chef himself delivers the iron pot baked octopus rice with green olive, coriander and lime.

          The chef has us installed in the farthest corner two-top next to the open kitchen. I watch the team hovering over the wood-fired grill, still polishing their moves, Mendes conducting. Now all he has to do is lean in to deliver our $14 half portion of chicken piri piri in chunks, charred over the embers.


Chicken butterflied and crisply fried over the embers comes with piri piri sauce too.

          “I use my mom’s marinade,” he confides. “Vinho verde -- a spritzy white wine -- with olive oil. Paprika, sliced onions, garlic and bay leaf.” Zarela finds the dark meat slightly too rare for her. She trades it in for white. That means I get the delicious leg and thigh.


The kitchen cooks leg of lamb over charcoal too and serves it with sea island red peas.

          Slices of lamb leg follow, not as rare as I might like, also cooked over charcoal, nested with tomato-touched Sea Island red peas. Mendes pulls the sticky Molotof soufflé from the oven and slides it in front of our noses. It gets topped with blood orange-mango sorbet. Sorbet by itself would be the best choice for me, but Zarela likes the sticky baked pudding. But no big deal, I’ll be back for petiscos.


The chef pulls the dessert Molotof, a sticky meringue fluff, from the oven alongside out table.

          By the time you read this, Lupulo will have marinated a bit more. When it didn’t open as scheduled, many waiters and some cooks went off to work elsewhere, our waiter confides. Opening day was an exercise in winging it. Our visits overlapped freshman orientation.


Decades ago I had chocolate salami in Italian places, now here it is again, a giggle from Portugal.

          How long will Mendes inhabit every cranny here? Aldea with its cramped downstairs and isolated balcony was not a natural for stardom. But Mendes has a Michelin star there. And he does tastings at the six-seat counter where he personally cooks each dish that is served. Other chefs manage fading in and out as they expand. And some do not. We’ll see.


With Mendes calling the moves and a chef observer, the kitchen seems overcrowded.

835 Sixth Avenue between 29th and 30th. 212 290 7600. Monday to Wednesday 5:30 to midnight. Thursday through Saturday 5:30 to 2 am. Sunday 5:30 to 11 pm. Reservations accepted only for six or more.

***

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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