Time was, you didn’t just walk into any bar in Indianapolis and order a chocolate martini. Or vegetarian udon noodles in a red cabbage bowl with shiitake mushrooms and ponzu sauce. But those were the lean, medieval days before the ultra lounge, the hipster cocktail club cum upscale foodie haunt. Before you could get sushi anywhere but at a Japanese restaurant. Or sushi at all. Those days, your martini choices were gin or vodka. Olives or a twist. A bowl of mixed nuts passed for bar food. Just how did we survive back then?
The halibut ($24) at Lulu's, which practically ushered in the era of the ultra lounge.
Thankfully, the last decade has been kind to those wanting more than a burger with their gin and tonics. A bowl of popcorn with their Cosmopolitans. In fact, it’s pretty rare that you can’t get at least a little funky sustenance — a skewer of shrimp, some bleu cheese-stuffed olives — at just about every bar you step into. But the recent proliferation of martini bars offering full menus of interesting cuisine in well-appointed digs is pretty much unprecedented in Indianapolis. Except at Lulu’s, which practically ushered in the trend. For longtime fans of this Northside cocktail mecca, all of those recent places are just derivatives — trendy followers of one of the first to marry great cocktails with great food. Not to mention some of the swankiest environs in town. Blond wood, brushed aluminum and chrome and translucent neon panels make this one of the most soothing dining spaces around. A miniature river welcomes you when you enter, directing your attention toward the spacious bar, perhaps bigger than the dining room. While live music and DJs apparently draw more raucous throngs on the weekends, the weeknight we stopped in, things were pretty sparse, and the music was all old school. Ella and Frank. Could we have asked for hipper dinner companions? Despite some changes in the kitchen, current Executive Chef Christopher McClary continues to keep diners guessing, and his “innovative American cuisine” draws influences from around the globe, particularly Asia. The addition of a small sushi bar has also broadened the menu a bit, giving happy hour diners more options for nibbling. Unfortunately, our friendly but sometimes confused waiter never offered us anything from the sushi bar. So we stuck with the main menu for starters, which include some interesting twists on familiar dishes — garlic hummus with smoked paprika oil and crab cakes with lobster claw aioli. But we went with the spring lamb spareribs ($8), which turned out to be one of the best things we ate all night. Meaty and nicely caramelized, if a bit heavily dressed with sweet five-spice barbecue sauce, the tender lamb tore easily off the bone. A kimchee slaw added a tempered kick, and some warm cashews crusted in mustard lent a little crunch to the mix. This was lip-smacking bar food at its finest, with a good balance of salty and spicy cocktail-friendly flavors. For a second course, a warm tomato salad ($6) seemed appropriate for the season. The roma tomatoes were fresh enough, but the mozzarella, which was supposedly marinated in pesto, seemed more just to sit on top of piles of pesto with a slight tang of garlic. Only the tomatoes were warm, and the spinach gained little bite from a vinaigrette with mustard and pink peppercorns. Entrées were also hit and miss. The mixed grill ($26) seemed a good combo to test out the kitchen’s prowess with steaks and seafood. The filet medallions were, indeed, tender and the shrimp was nicely grilled. Baby carrots and asparagus were crisp and garlic mashed potatoes standard. But the drizzle of mango barbecue sauce on the shrimp was a tad superfluous, and the meat came in an unctuous brown gravy that added little flavor. The halibut ($24) promised a bit more gastronomic ingenuity. Here, however, the soy-marinated filet of halibut was a bit dry and broken into rugged pieces on two large wonton skins that made a kind of napoleon, with basmati rice and rock shrimp tossed very lightly in wasabi. The whole dish was covered with a pile of Asian vegetables difficult to distinguish in a viscous orange-sake sauce. As the wonton skins broke into pieces, it was hard to get anything to stick to the fork, though the flavors worked well together on the whole. Dessert provided the biggest disappointment. Few desserts are made in-house, but our waiter suggested that the grilled banana split ($8) was the restaurant’s “signature” finisher. A somewhat mealy banana, however, did minimal time on the grill before surrounding scoops of vanilla ice cream, a rather icy raspberry sorbet and tons of fluffy whipped cream. While our meal had definitely been several notches up from anything you could rightly call bar food, a few refinements might have made it the eats this city’s cool cats have now come to expect. Lulu’s 8487 Union Chapel Road 317-251-5858 Dinner Monday-Thursday: 5-10 p.m. Friday: 5-11 p.m. Saturday: 5-11 p.m. Lunch Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Food : 3.5 Stars Atmosphere : 4 Stars Service : 3 Stars