Lula Cafe owners Jason Hammel and Lea Tshilds want to keep the arts-friendly culture once found at shuttered places like Urbus Orbis alive at their Logan Square coffeehouse and restaurant. The small room, located on the south end of the Logan Boulevard circle, used to be home to Logan Beach Cafe. It's been spruced up since Tshilds and Hammel took over six months ago, but it's still far from slick, with mismatched tables and chairs, a small coffee bar at the back, and local art on the walls. There's also a small stage area in the front that's filled with tables during the dinner hour but cleared after 9:30 to make room for live music.
Hammel, a fiction writer, and Tshilds, guitarist and singer for local bands Paulina Hollers and Tallulah, found a common passion in cooking. Neither had ever worked full-time in a restaurant before, although Tshilds used to cook part-time at Logan Beach. Their lack of experience doesn't faze them. "Economically, it wasn't a good choice for us to be strictly a coffeehouse and we both always loved to cook," says Hammel. "When we opened last September, we decided to be a reasonable BYO full-service restaurant, one that's accessible and supportive of local artists and musicians. Like Wrigleyville's Uncommon Ground or Bite, the restaurant next to the Empty Bottle, even Leo's Lunchroom, we all share a common mission."
Hammel brought in Jonathan Liss, a painter, as Lula's art curator; he rotates the multimedia art every three months or so. The current show features pieces like Seth Deysach's wall-hanging wooden sculpture, Robert Doren's photo transfers of toy animals, and Tony Phillips's small ink drawing of a boy. The most unusual work sits atop the piano near the entrance--Philip von Zweck's pair of papier-mache plants rigged up with a minidisc player and speakers so that they carry on a quietly banal conversation in an endless 40-minute loop. Many of the works are for sale, and several pieces from previous shows appear, along with a description and price, on the cafe's Web site at lulacafe.com.
Multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker does the music booking--mostly local musicians like Joan of Arc singer and guitar player Tim Kinsella, the Jeb Bishop Quartet, and 5ive Style and Wilco member Leroy Bach. Becker's connected enough to also bring in impromptu appearances by national and international artists in town for recordings, like Axel Dörner, a German free-jazz trumpeter.
Hammel and Tshilds pore over ethnic cookbooks for inspiration, mixing Greek, Italian, Moroccan, and Indonesian flavors. "We don't have a set rotation of specials. We just come in each day and use what we have, then print up the menu," says Tshilds. The cafe serves three meals a day, plus brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Menu specials change from week to week and brunch specials even from Saturday to Sunday. Some dishes are wildly eclectic, like an Indonesian-spiced peanut butter sandwich with cucumbers and sambal (Indonesian chili paste) on multigrain bread, baked portobello mushrooms stuffed with walnut pesto and blue cheese, and a veggie torta with a black-olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, and mozzarella.
Simple fried eggs with home fries, buttermilk pancakes with seasonal fruit, and thick-cut maple bacon are all available at breakfast, but the most creative dishes show up at brunch. There's always a couple of frittatas--artichoke-Brie with onions and a rosemary-roasted red pepper coulis, for example, or a Mediterranean version full of roasted eggplant and black-olive tapenade with red peppers and feta cheese. The egg scrambles are also intriguing, one day consisting of salmon and arugula with fresh dill and cream cheese served with fresh fruit and toast. Popular brunch specials include sweet-potato hash served in a bowl with chicken-maple-sage sausage, sauteed apples and vegetables, and a dollop of maple-sage sour cream and a scrumptious brioche French toast stuffed with mascarpone and mango, then topped with fresh vanilla or strawberry whipped cream.
The dinner menu is equally diverse. In honor of Tshilds's Greek grandmother, there's pasta yiayia, a bucatini pasta in brown butter sauce subtly spiced with cinnamon and topped with feta cheese. Specials include concoctions like a satay of shrimp skewered with eggplant and tomatoes set on a bed of greens, with a wonderfully aromatic Indonesian sauce and an elegantly folded fresh grape leaf set on top for a garnish, and a slightly bland crostini of artichoke heart, roasted eggplant puree, and chevre.
The casual crowd that fills the room seems to know to bring their own wine (there's a liquor store around the corner), and the place is frequently packed. This is grassroots cooking with serious heart.
Lula Cafe is at 2537 N. Kedzie, 773-489-9554.
--Laura Levy Shatkin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.