Every autumn, Boston greets swarms of newly minted undergraduates, many hailing from quiet towns with few dining options beyond mediocre chain restaurants. What wonderment they must feel alighting in a neighborhood like Allston, with its rich tapestry of affordable international cuisines. If you remember the first time you had real ramen, Shanghainese soup dumplings or unbowdlerized Thai food, you might share my envy of the new kids: The more adventurous ones are about to enter a far wider, more fascinating world of food. Lulu’s, a new Allston bar and restaurant, offers an eclectic-sounding menu that seems pitched at these budding gastronauts, but delivers rather more conventional flavors on the plate.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s easy to enjoy a kitschy bar bite like Mexican Cheetos ($3), a fresher, housemade version of the classic junk-food snack, though the accompanying salsa Tapatío is a weird match. It’s tough not to love warm soft pretzel rolls ($3) with their dusting of garlic and smoky salts, especially with a dip of cheese sauce ($1). Allston wings ($10) are a fine plate of wings with the expected crudites and bleu cheese dip, though the advertised smoke flavor isn’t very pronounced. Wild game chili ($4 cup, $7 bowl) made from chopped wild boar and buffalo is very nice in the Texas bowl-of-red school, though it doesn’t bring much capsicum fire.
Revival mussels ($10) is a generous bowl of big, chewy PEI bivalves in a beer broth dotted with chunks of smoky linguiça, but despite the advertised herbs and garlic, it’s a trifle bland. Mama’s fried chicken ($14) shows good frying technique, its coating nicely ungreasy and crisp, but it is quite underseasoned; at least the accompanying chunky mashed potatoes are excellent. Porter-braised pork shank ($15) is an impressive hunk of meltingly tender meat on the bone, prettily coated with pistachio gremolata and resting on more of those fine mashed potatoes, but it too is hobbled by a pernicious lack of salt. A Thai quinoa black bean burger ($11) needs some work: The dollop of red coconut-milk curry is a good idea, but the brioche roll needs toasting, the patty itself is unpleasantly mushy, failing to hold together, and the accompanying hand-cut fries are disappointingly limp. A Korean BBQ pork sandwich ($12) with kimchi on toasted ciabatta fares better, but bears too little of the soy, garlic, ginger and gochuchang punch of its namesake.
Executive chef Sarah Wade seems to be on firmer ground when currying her customers’ sweet tooths. Simple desserts like chef’s donut holes ($6) with warm chocolate sauce show why fried-to-order dough remains a popular fairground treat. Grandma’s warm caramel apple monkey bread ($6) with cream cheese sauce is like a gourmand’s version of Cinnabon: a gooey fat-and-sugar bomb of which the guilty excess is part of the pleasure. The American penchant for dessert-for-breakfast is also indulged at weekend brunch in dishes like a caramel apple parfait ($6) with layers of apple compote, house granola and vanilla yogurt topped with caramel sauce. Hey, yogurt is good for you, right? There’s no such sop to wholesomeness with s’mores pancakes ($11) layered and topped with mini marshmallows and chocolate chips—just the thing for your bratty inner 5-year-old.
Sugariness also extends to the house cocktails, a consequence of a license that only allows sweetened and/or fruit-flavored spirits. It’s not great for cocktail drinkers who have outgrown chocolatinis, but the Maine Negroni ($12) uses a honey-sweetened gin that doesn’t throw off the balance of bitter Campari and Antica Formula too much. The fairly short wine list of two dozen bottles ($30-$50) and 20 wines by the glass ($7-$11) is admirably value-priced, but won’t be a draw for your wine-snob friends. By far the best news at Lulu’s is its impressive beer list: more than 50 in bottles ($4-$12) and 50 draft pint pours, providing an excellent range of styles for every taste and level of beer wonkiness. The noisy 87-seat room and 18-seat bar follows a familiar template—industrial-warehouse materials and sparseness, exposed rafters, Edison bulbs everywhere—while the waitstaff embodies an artless enthusiasm that seems well-suited for its mostly barely-of-drinking-age customers. In the end, Lulu’s kitchen won’t beguile the palates of emerging food nerds, but not every Allston restaurant need channel the mother cuisine of some distant homeland. Some freshmen are never going to swoon over Egyptian shawarma; they’re too homesick for the mild, sweetish comforts of their folks’ American home cooking. For those diners, Lulu’s has just the prescription.
-Warm soft pretzel rolls with cheese sauce
-Wild game chili
-Grandma’s warm caramel apple monkey bread
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 am-1 am; Sat.-Sun., 10:30 am-1 am
Reservations: For weekends and parties of four or more only
Liquor: Beer, wine and cordials
Lulu’s 421 Cambridge St., Boston (617-787-1117) lulusallston.com