LuLu’s robust dishes never go out of fashion 

When Reed Hearon opened LuLu 17 years ago, he installed a huge open hearth with a wood-fired rotisserie, wood-burning oven and a grill, smack in the middle of an expansive red brick warehouse across the street from the Convention Center and a block from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

He convinced then-fledgling architect Cass Calder Smith to design it, and Hearon himself created a menu inspired by each cooking method.

Pork, chicken, veal and duck slowly turned on the rotisserie.  Pizza, vegetables and shellfish flash-baked in the super hot oven.  Small birds and fish were seared on the grill. Everything was served family-style on hand-painted ceramics.

At the time, LuLu turned out the most exciting and soul-satisfying food in San Francisco.

Hearon left his baby after four wildly successful years to open Rose Pistola and Black Cat. I hadn’t been back to LuLu for a decade.

But one night the dilemma of where to eat with a group before a performance at Yerba Buena had to be solved.

LuLu did the trick. The heart of the robust original restaurant still beat. The gigantic hearth in the center of the restaurant remains the physical and culinary focus of the restaurant, and the current crew — headed by John Hennigan — successfully recreates Hearon’s best dishes: simple preparations that never go out of fashion.

Mussels ($15), at their winter peak now, are cooked on a cast iron skillet in the wood oven. Their liquor practically caramelizes, leaving astoundingly tender, sweet morsels in very hot shells. Cooked this way, they need no butter or lemon. The chemistry of fire and shellfish produces a multidimensional dish.

Pork loin slowly roasted on the oak fired rotisserie ($21), cut into ¾-inch-thick slices, is another miracle of fire and flesh. Delicately scented with fennel, the pork is moist, nestling right into a platter of creamy, olive oil mashed potatoes.

These two LuLu classics are still the foundation of the best possible meal here, yet other dishes from a long menu can be woven in.

With the mussels, I particularly like spaghetti alla chitarra ($16) — thick, chewy, square-cut noodles tossed with smoky roasted eggplant and tomatoes.

A wooden bowl of green salad, in sharp and tasty red wine vinaigrette ($8), is a must with the pork, as are sides of winter vegetables ($7).

Groups can get a platter ($19) which includes them all: turnips and carrots; dark-edged halved brussels sprouts; cauliflower with garlic and preserved lemon; Tuscan kale with chiles and garlic; delicata squash with ginger. Roasting in the wood oven intensifies their flavor.

Puffy-edged, thin crust pizza ($17) topped with sliced meatballs, broccoli rabe or mushrooms works well with a glass of wine at the beginning of a meal — as do skinny, truffle-scented, Parmesan-dusted french fries ($8).

The huge wine list offers tastes, glasses, pitchers and full bottles from California, Spain, Italy and France.

Desserts ($8), like the savory dishes, are straightforward and perfectly executed. Warm housemade sugar doughnuts, light and puffy, come with barely sweetened pear and currant compote and some sunny lemon curd. Each bite of crisp little profiteroles delivers housemade vanilla ice cream, toasted walnuts and lemony, buttery caramel sauce.

With its strategic location, a full bar, robust food and long hours of operation every day, constant, enduring LuLu deserves an award for public service.

LuLu

Location: 816 Folsom St. (near Fourth Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 495-5775; www.restaurantlulu.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to “close” daily
Price range: $6 to $29
Recommended dishes: Iron skillet mussels; rotisserie pork loin with olive oil mashed potatoes; cassoulet; platter of seasonal vegetables; spaghetti alla chitarra; hot doughnuts; profiteroles
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner’s Club
Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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