Last Tuesday was the designated Fancy Meal Night during my dad's vacation. To nobody's surprise, I was given free rein to pick the restaurant and precious few instructions beyond "Tuesday." After a quick perusal of OpenTable, I hit upon an odd but somehow spot-on choice: Lupa.
Yes, Lupa is highly acclaimed and known as one of Mario Batali's best, but for some reason I'd never been there. So on a slightly chilly and blustery Tuesday evening, I met Dad at the Spring Street subway stop and we headed to Lupa.
It's a cute little place, charmingly rustic and highly crowded, with throngs of after-workers crowding the front bar. If you mind being packed in next to your fellow diners, don't go here. But if you can get past that, you'll likely have a surprisingly enjoyable-- and surprisingly reasonable, given what it is-- meal.
Our server, it's worth noting, was incredibly friendly and accommodating, even getting into the spirit when I presented her with my Wine Century Club challenge. See, at that point I was 97 wines in, and given my limited knowledge of Italian wines, I basically posed the challenge for her to find some varietals I hadn't tried within their by-the-glass menu. Magic: a glass of Frascati Superiore (white) and a red with nebbiolo, and I was magically at the 99 wine threshold. (Stay tuned...)
What better to sop up all that wine than their focaccia, eh? Two conjoined pieces of pillowy, oil-soaked bread, spotted with rosemary on the crust. This fairly begged for a sprinkling of coarse salt to bring out the flavors, but even without it, it was some gooooood carbin'.
To start, Dad had the misticanza salad, which he prounced good for what it was, a mix of slightly bitter upscale lettuces and some fennel to round out the mix.
I chose the broccoli rabe with ricotta verdure, an ample tangle of the veggie slicked with creamy ricotta. Surprisingly, the overwhelming flavor of this dish was lemon: there were bits of lemon rind hidden in the mixture, and it gave an otherwise potentially heavy dish a truly light flavor. I wish there had been some more punch in the ricotta (perhaps a bit of ricotta salata thrown in?), but overall, this was quite enjoyable.
And then the mains. Dad went for a daily special, pappardelle with pork ragu. In typical Italian fashion, it was a small portion, but Dad raved about the taste and quality.
My choice was the escarole, walnut, red onion, and pecorino salad, sans red onion. This turned out to be a light and almost refreshing salad, with the bed of shaved pecorino adding a salty bite to the crunchy greens.
And all this, of course, was a mere prelude to dessert. Though there are choices on the dessert menu, look around the dining room and you'll see nearly every table chooses one thing only: the signature Lupa tartufo. It looks innocent enough, but it packs a true wallop. A thick, yielding chocolate shell-- not shatter-hard but almost the texture of milk chocolate-- gives way to pure, intense hazelnut gelato. A shower of hazelnuts crowns the orb, and the baseball-sized confection sits in a pool of hazelnut-studded chocolate sauce. Push through to the center of the tartufo and you'll find a brandied cherry amid a protective case of what seems like chocolate cake (or maybe a bit of brownie?). No matter-- it all disappears in the work of a couple bites.
Lupa was a pleasant surprise. The prices are reasonable, the service friendly and laid-back, and the food (ahem, dessert, ahem) worth returning for. It's the perfect place for a classy meal when you don't feel like going through the classy-meal rigamarole. Go. You'll enjoy it. And isn't that what it's all about?
170 Thompson Street, near W. Houston