In my 20s, I used to go to Gramercy Tavern a lot. I loved the food, of course, but what I liked most about that restaurant (and attendant bar, which was only a few blocks from where I worked and which served cheese plates well into the night) was the smell. I know, that probably sounds like an absurd reason to keep visiting a restaurant over and over again. But when I think of Gramercy, I think most often of the smell that greeted me when I walked in, which I defined, regardless of the season, as the smell of Christmas.
It wasn’t actually Christmas, per se. Gramercy Tavern is anchored by a wood-burning oven, which is across the room from the bar, and the burning embers from that oven permeate the entire space. And so, the room always smelled like my New England childhood, a cold Christmas morning, some mix of nostalgia and aspiration, since I was actually raised Jewish, although we did start celebrating Christmas when I was seven.
This meandering intro is my way of explaining Lulu’s, which opened in Sag Harbor a few years ago. That restaurant is anchored, too, by a wood-burning oven, and I’m tossed back into the same series of memories when I enter that room. Lulu’s oven is not just a set piece, of course; it’s a mission statement. Their food, they announce with the oven and open kitchen, is dependent upon this one feature, and you can reasonably expect that your experience will be defined by it. In fact, the menu adds this disclaimer: “every grilled item is prepared in our wood-fire grill.”
That includes grilled Spanish octopus, served with potatoes, piquillo aioli, and feta cheese. It includes roasted meatballs, which come atop goat cheese risotto and bathed in marinara sauce. It includes a whole grilled heirloom cauliflower — a cultish favorite — which arrives with local grapes, toasted sesame seeds, and cooling yogurt. Those dishes, actually, aren’t even entrees. Those are starters and shares, and they demonstrate how fully Lulu’s dedicates itself to the ethos of the oven.
I say that, of course, because there’s more to come: three wood-fired pizzas, for instance. The Artisan boasts heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella, basil pesto, and an olive tapenade, while the Trufata teems with stracciatella cheese, wild mushrooms, arugula, pickled onions, and truffle paste. The Khachapurri combines richer elements, like egg, yogurt, and raclette, a dairy enthusiast’s dream.
Most of the entrees — and you were probably expecting this — are, in fact, grilled. That includes the massive cauliflower steak, whole-grilled branzino with smoked tomatoes, buttermilk chicken with garlic kale, skirt steak with chimichurri, and 40-ounce ribeye with grilled vegetables and skillet macaroni and cheese. Are the sides grilled, too? Some of them, like the harvest pumpkin (stuffed with turkey, foie gras, chestnuts, mushrooms, cranberries and brioche) definitely are.
Apart from that oven, another persistent theme reigns at Lulu’s, and it’s the theme of sharing. On Thursdays, the paella for two is a rotating special. An appetizer of foie gras, served with caramelized figs, apple-truffle honey, pickled onions, and brioche, is also a two-person serving. So are the cauliflower appetizer, the house salad, the lobster cobb, the cowboy ribeye, and the stuffed pumpkin.
Even desserts are available in large-format iterations. An apple croissant crisp with Kahlua crème Anglaise and buttermilk brown sugar ice cream can feed up to three people, and the half-baked chocolate-macadamia cookie is equally substantial. Actually, when I think of it, that feels like Christmas, too, or, more broadly, like the holidays in general: meals big enough for everyone to dig into, with a fire blazing in the corner.