Lit candles rested in small piles of shell-studded sand at the center of each intimate table. Paintings of beaches hung on the walls and water trickled down the small waterfall in the corner. Everything about Lulu, Chef Colby Walloch’s pop-up in Studio 40, was calming.
Given the chance to create a sneak peek into his dream restaurant, Chef Walloch chose to go with the type food he started his career cooking: casual seafood fare from the Pacific Northwest (Chef Walloch grew up in Portland). He named the spot after his two-year-old daughter, who’s his “number one sous chef at home.”
The atmosphere at Lulu matched Chef Walloch’s personality: quiet but confident. He clearly wasn’t going to serve sous vide foie gras or deconstructed champaign infused caviar (whatever that would be), only clean, well-executed interpretations of classic dishes.
The meal began with a crab shell filled with the juices that emerge when you cook a crab.
The juice tasted more like crab than any crab I’ve ever eaten. It was fresh but decadent and super salty (in a good way). “This tastes like the beach,” Nate said joyously. It reminded me of the summer nights I’ve spent on Cape Cod, happily licking the fresh shellfish drippings off of my fingers. I’ll take dipping my bread in crab juice over olive oil any day.
The first course was a small square of pork belly coated in BBQ sauce with cheddar grits. It seemed like a deviation from the Pacific Northwest concept but Chef Walloch explained that the dish, like the rest of his menu, was “rooted within home.” The BBQ sauce stems from his time working for a southern family. The grits came from the Tillamook Creamery, a creamy on a river near Chef Walloch’s childhood home.
The grits were wonderfully creamy and slightly sharp. The cream did a good job of mitigating the sweet and spicy BBQ sauce. I was most impressed by the texture of the pork belly. I’ve had really dry fat-free pork belly and really jiggly fat-filled pork belly. Chef Walloch rendered the fat perfectly, deftly avoiding both of those results. The crispy outside of his pork belly gave away to a tender inside.
The next course was a mixed local greens salad served alongside a piece of steelhead that was sitting on a bed of roasted mushrooms.
Thin slices of pickled radishes added acid to the peppery local greens and strong blue cheese. The steelhead – which is a species of trout that lives in the Pacific Ocean – was covered in an acidic pesto-esque sauce. Charred, earthy mushrooms grounded the light flavors in the buttery fish and the sauce.
Chef Walloch followed it with my favorite course of the night: chowder.
Chef Walloch’s Portland take on New England Clam Chowder was the night’s superstar because (a) it was delicious and (b) replacing the crab with fried oysters coated in a cornbread breading was an imaginative but understated twist.
A deep bacon-created smokiness ran through the cream. On its own, the cream soup was a bit too salty for me. But with the oysters, the saltiness was replaced with wonderfulness. The breading added crunchiness, which is a texture that soups don’t often include.
The next course was a heaping pile of Dungeness crab legs covered in a chili garlic sauce. Here’s an action shot of Chef Patrick McElroy helping Chef Walloch plate:
When my plate arrived, I stared at it, wondering where to start. ”There’s no elegant way to eat this,” Chef Walloch warned. I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed the crab leg openers, and started cracking away.
I’ve never had spicy crab before. The combination of chili, garlic, lime, and cilantro added Asian flare. Actually getting through the shell was a challenge but we were rewarded with bites of succulent, tender crabmeat.
The meal ended with chocolate cake that Chef Walloch added as a “nod back to the first dessert” he ever cooked in a restaurant. It was 1987 and the pastry chef didn’t show up so Chef Walloch was forced to learn on the spot. And learn he did. I don’t love chocolate (I know… it’s a sin) but I loved Chef Walloch’s chocolate cake.
When I cut into it, warm chocolate oozed out and into the salted caramel sauce and thick whipped cream. Every bite was decadent beyond belief. The salty sweetness from the caramel cut through the rich, bitter chocolate. Yes. Yes is all I can say.
Lulu was clearly a true manifestation of Chef Walloch’s dream concept; its understated elegance could only stem from genuine passion.
As I was leaving, my friend Ish said: “it’s not fair, you get to go to all of them.” Ish, you’re right. It’s not fair and I hope that never changes. I get to eat delicious food while watching talented chefs like Walloch do what they love to do.
You can experience some of the magic too. If you’d like to attend a WU Restaurant dinner, “like” Dining Services on Facebook and join the event when they raffle off tickets for the next one. The dinners only cost $12.95. $12.95 for a five course meal is unheard of.
The very talented students over at Kuumba have posted a beautiful video about this night. Check it out:
Kuumba TV is a student group that creates short documentaries about creativity on our campus.