When told that Arbor takes reservations “via text, phone, email, or spontaneous conversation,” my wife called bullshit. (“How do you make a reservation by spontaneous conversation?”) So she tried email, and no fewer than six messages went back and forth before the date and meal were set. During that time, she was quizzed on such things as the theoretical menu of her last meal on earth. She just wanted to make reservations.
That’s the weird universe of Arbor, where chef-partners Leonard Hollander and Chad Little want nothing more than to collaborate with diners to create the perfect experience. Some might find the attention charming. Others might find it irritating. Some might be terrified.
Arbor revels in going its own way. There’s that glassed-in room, up an escalator to the second floor of Logan Square’s Green Exchange, a former lamp factory that’s been turned into a LEED-certified retail and office building. Though there’s a courtyard garden and a rooftop apiary, it still feels like dining in the world’s cleanest mall. Your view might be of a maintenance person pushing a high-powered floor polisher in the hallway.
Arbor’s eclectic decor includes handcrafted lights, a coffee cart that looks like a medieval wheelchair, semisecluded, romantic banquettes, and unsecluded, completely unromantic two-tops. A board lists fair-trade coffee from East Timor and banh mi with 90-hour-roasted pork to draw professionals during the day. At night, the space seamlessly transforms into a high-end restaurant.
I got the five-course “Midwestern omakase” ($70) twice, two weeks apart, and Hollander (Avenues, Ambria) did not repeat a single dish. Nor did he flub one. Take the powerful parsnip bisque, which he poured over pickled maitake and king trumpet mushrooms, and vinegary Fuji apple strips with apple molasses. Every bite is frothy, tangy, and sweet in equal measure.
Hollander gives the impression he’s casually messing about with ingredients. But that shortchanges the thought that goes into stunners such as the fatty white tuna tacos with giant paper-thin radish slices acting as tortillas, pickled lotus root playing the part of salsa, and an avocado purée studded with crumbled corn chips and sesame seeds. Or the effort it takes to brine and grill a whole black grouper, sprinkle on a cilantro and white miso purée and peanuts, and plate it on impeccable fried basmati rice with eggs and pickled purple onions. Arbor calls this a “rib dish,” and I saw other parties attacking the fish’s supple flesh with their bare hands.
Two pasta dishes—one blunt, one nuanced, both wonderful—showcase Arbor’s wild versatility. A decadent garlic fettuccine with Parmigiano-Reggiano and a grilled duck egg stokes something deep in my heart, while a cheddar-toned risotto with celery root cubes, braised short ribs, and a surprise chimichurri is more cerebral.
At times, the tinkering produces experiments more fun than they are tasty. Hollander pickles head-on shrimp in a style he learned from his Kentucky grandmother, crams them in a Mason jar to fight it out with a blood orange, and serves the whole shebang on a slate slab with cracked fennel flatbreads, dabs of coriander pistou and scorpion chili aïoli, and a pair of tongs. You know, like in Kentucky.
Hollander and Little love to serve dishes and tell stories. They geek out on eccentric wine pairings, such as a racy Chilean 2011 Baptiste Cuvelier Cuvée Del Maule to bolster a cocoa-and-espresso-dusted pork loin with strips of Ibérico chorizo atop cheddar grits and porky collard greens. And they do tongue-in-cheek well. “We like dessert to be a little low-key,” Hollander said while presenting an amazing pot de crème with 70 percent Colombian dark chocolate, passion fruit panna cotta, tonka bean whipped cream, 50-day-old strawberries, cocoa nibs, homemade Pixy Stix, and crumbled sunflower petals. “But I guess this one isn’t at all low-key.”
This sounds precious, and it is. But in a neighborhood where residents want to know their farmer and the farmer’s chicken personally, Arbor takes Logan Square to the next logical place. If you’re not interested in hearing that when the apple supplier had 150 gallons of cider going bad in his truck, Hollander bought it all for $1 a gallon and reduced it into molasses, you may find the meal unpleasant. But if you are interested, it’s fascinating—an extraordinary glimpse into a business run by talented people who care.
No one paid much mind to Lula Cafe when it opened in 1999. Back then, personalized restaurants seemed to pop up in gentrifying neighborhoods every day, usually earnest labors of love from idealistic chefs who also happened to be spouses. Most of them didn’t last long.
Lula fit the profile. Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, a couple of self-trained young chefs, launched their unassuming café in a 1,300-square-foot storefront on a sketchy block of North Kedzie Boulevard populated by a dry cleaner’s, a cigar shop, a currency exchange, and an alderman’s office. “There was also an SRO with random guys hanging out at all hours,” recalls Hammel. “At the time, there was little [financial] risk, so we just opened up to see what would happen.”
What happened is that Lula blossomed and Logan Square exploded. Hammel and Tshilds’s modest food—influenced by the farm-to-table cookbooks of Alice Waters and Judy Rodgers before many in the Midwest cared about such things—kept getting better. Seventeen years later, Lula is the granddaddy of a neighborhood overrun with the same DIY hipster vibe that stirred up Silver Lake in Los Angeles and countless pockets of Brooklyn. That means great indie restaurants (Fat Rice, Longman & Eagle, Yusho), topflight cocktail bars (Scofflaw, Whistler), charming coffeehouses (Cafe Mustache, Gaslight), and a super serious farmers’ market. It also means residents sunbathe on the boulevard where addicts used to stumble around. “The economic geography has changed,” says Hammel, 43. “We’ve grown bigger and more adult.”
He’s talking about Logan Square, his home for 21 years, but those words could just as easily apply to Lula Cafe. The space now spans three storefronts, a warm urban scene equal parts fancy and funky. Multiple menus and prices make it both a retreat and a destination—where you can get buttermilk pancakes and hand-brewed coffee in the morning, an outstanding turkey sandwich at lunch, and intricate creations, such as sea bass with blood oranges, Jerusalem artichokes, yogurt, and dried roses at night. Yet somehow, it’s all of a piece.
My favorite Lula offerings these days tend to happen at dinnertime. Chef de cuisine Sarah Rinkavage does striking dishes such as a creamy-crunchy risotto that she stains jet black with squid ink, mixes with Parmesan from Reggio and black trumpet mushrooms, and tops with tender baby squid. Pure textural dynamite. And her soups, such as a bubbly smoked salsify bisque oozing Widmer six-year-aged cheddar, are quietly remarkable. On one recent visit, I went the rib-sticking route: a sour-barley-laced pork chop with oyster salt melting into the seared top and a sweet malty sauce to provide equilibrium. On another, I explored the six-course vegetarian tasting menu ($48), which led to standouts such as crispy sunchokes topped with gooseberry preserves and sparked by pickled raisins.
The ever-changing menus cover ridiculous amounts of ground. That means plenty of hits (a gutsy al dente strozzapreti with caramelized cabbage, Robiola cheese, and anchovies), periodic misses (a thin, soupy chickpea and sweet potato tagine with fennel, pickled golden raisins, and green harissa), and unlikely coups (bruschetta with a lid of marinated black kale, beets, smoked pecans, and whipped goat cheese).
Kelly Helgesen’s terrific dessert list features leaps of faith (carrot profiteroles?) and slam dunks, such as the $8 cookie plate, a tremendous assortment (peanut butter, gingerbread, lemon, and more) for which Lula could charge twice as much. But it doesn’t. Hammel and Tshilds rely on other fiscal strategies, including growing herbs in the basement and on the roof and pulling off a Sunday brunch that routinely draws 450 customers. “We’re obviously busy, but it’s a stressful new world order of restaurant economics,” says Hammel. “We’ve had to adjust.”
That Lula has succeeded in doing its thing without compromise for almost two decades is a miracle. That’s the kind of energy that keeps the neighborhood going. “I miss the old Logan Square, but it’s still full of good places run by real people,” says Hammel. “Chefs who give a shit. Giving a shit is what we do best here.”