Naming a famous Spanish chef isn’t difficult. Most educated gourmands know the work of Andoni Luis Aduriz or Elena Arzak. Many more could pick out the charismatic Jose Andres in a lineup; his U.S. establishments, including Minibar, Jaleo, and Bazaar, surely receive hundreds if not thousands of visitors every day. And Ferran Adria might still be the world’s most famous chef years after the closure of El Bulli, a restaurant that regularly fielded millions of reservation requests per year. Now try to name a famous Portuguese chef. Isn't as easy, right?
So it’s with that dichotomy in mind that we consider the Iberian food scene in New York. Spanish restaurants have skyrocketed in diversity over the past decade, from Basque spots like Txikito and Huertas, to the Asturian-inspired Tertulia, to the pan-regional Toro, to the Moorish and Sephardic-tinged La Vara. But Portugal, a country of just 10 million, has seen just a handful of chefs rise to upper echelons of Manhattan dining in the 21st century. George Mendes, without question, is the most accomplished of them. And while his peers have built global empires in the past half-decade, Mendes has run just one restaurant, Aldea, since 2009. Now he finally has his sophomore venue. And it's awesome.
Welcome to Lupulo in Midtown South, a no-reservations spot selling pimenton-laced mackerel spread and wood grilled sardines. It’s rustic fare, mostly. And that’s an important distinction. If Spain, as a country, is often touted as the future of food, with its foams, spheres, airs, and other modernist techniques, Portugal is perhaps more famous for its creations of yesteryear, like its caldo verde, a collard green soup traditionally served at weddings, or its its bacalhau, a salt cod whose underlying technique allowed explorers to preserve fish caught off the coast of Newfoundland as early as the 15th century. Then there's Mendes, trained by the likes of Spain's Martín Berasategui and, for a two week stint, by Adria & Co. at El Bulli. He defied tradition when he opened Aldea, combining Portuguese sensibilities with his modernist techniques to create sardine napoleons and soups with alginate mushroom spheres.
Aldea, even though it’s toned down some of its cutting edge impulses, remains New York’s fanciest Iberian restaurant, selling $30 entrees, $79 set menus, and $135 tastings. That's great for the future of Portuguese fare — the food is stunning — but that's not necessarily the most democratic way to introduce a skeptical city to an under-represented cuisine. We now have our cheaper, albeit equally ambitious Lupulo.
Pair shrimp porridge with tart cider and there's your $25 meal.
For now, walk on in, sit at the U-shaped bar, and order a bowl of porridge. Mendes melts down a mess of day-old bread with raw egg, soffrito and shrimp head stock, imbuing the poor man’s stew with the soft texture of good polenta and the lingering aromas of expensive shellfish ($16). Pair it with a tart apple cider and there’s your $25 meal. Others will double up and order soft shrimp turnovers, essentially a high-end version of Totino's pizza rolls stuffed with creamy shellfish. Or triple down with the the grilled carabinero, a crimson crustacean so sweet and heady it can easily put a langoustine to shame.
The setting for such humble riches is the ground floor of the Eventi Hotel, the same building that once housed Jeffrey Chodorow’s failed FoodParc and Blade Runner Basque restaurant (long story). Some seats at Lupulo overlook the polished kitchen, with its wood and charcoal grill; others afford a view of the second-floor male spa across the street, with its a visible sign advertising body scrubs. Oh, and just down the block is a check-cashing business. This slice of Sixth avenue, in other words, doesn’t quite feel like the hip corner of Midtown that The Breslin, Marta, and The NoMad have carved out for themselves just a few blocks over. And that’s okay, because Lupulo, with its bustling counter at 10 pm on a Monday, will help change those perceptions, spreading the culinary coolness further West toward the dreaded Penn Station district. Maybe.
Keep in mind that Lupulo’s more rustic platings and preparations aren't at odds with Mendes’ global outlook, or his desire to push the cuisine forward. Authenticity isn’t so much a shackle as it is a springboard for the 42-year-old, Connecticut-born chef. So for now, there are no clams with chorizo, a classic surf and turf informed by the short distance between Portugal's inland regions and its Atlantic coastline. Instead, Lupulo serves a "surf and earth" – grilled asparagus christened with gobs of urchin from Chile (briny and slightly tan), and Hokkaido (fruitier, with a stronger orange hue). Gorgeous.
Mendes tosses a warm salad of oniony ramps, earthy chanterelles, and snappy favas, which would be enough for some, but then he throws in a handful of morcela (blood sausage), whose luscious fats soften out any rough vegetal edges. The dish speaks as much to the chef's Portuguese heritage as it does to the contemporary style of dining where vegetables are seasoned with small bits of meat or fish, rather than the other way around. And while the salad, along with the asparagus and uni, wouldn't taste out of place at Aldea, it's plated casually enough to look more at home at a backyard pool party than at a fancy restaurant.
Lupulo could easily double as a raw fish bar on par with the John Dory down the block. Mendes takes fluke, soft and neutral, and salts it up with fat beads of smoked trout roe. He cuts razor clams into fat, silky chunks, letting the meat show off its briny, metallic overtones amid slices of charred cucumber. He spikes red snapper with fermented chiles and kaffir lime, a hat tip to Portugal's role in the spice trade; he douses the fish in coconut milk, which softens the blow of the chiles, and whose white colors turns the entire dish into a maritime blanquette de veau.
Meats are strong. Organic chicken, crisped over the embers and paired with a tart, spicy piri piri sauce, is notable as much for as deliciousness as its price: $14 for half a bird, a much needed break in a city where poultry, in recent years, has gone from the cheapest item on the menu to a large-format luxury. And 60-day dry aged ribeye is striated with intramuscular fat so silky that it yields to a gentle chew even when cooked rare.
Charred young chicken is notable as much for its deliciousness as its price.
But you don't go to Portugal for the steak. You go for the octopus. At Lupulo it's served as part of a rice dish that's as studied as Aldea's famed arroz de pato; the brothy creation packs a gentle scent of the sea and a wallop of cilantro. Even better is the $36 salt cod casserole for two. Imagine: a layer of black olive-topped potato slices hiding a parfait of caramelized onions, hard-cooked egg, and fish. The cod, reconstituted from a salty tomb, has been transformed from a flaky, neutral filet to a briny luxury that's as toothsome as dry-aged duck. Take home the leftovers, add hot sauce, and that's your brunch for tomorrow. One day we'll look back and swoon over this masterpiece the same way we now swoon over the prime rib hash at Keens. It's that good.
So there you go. A little bit of new Portugal, a little bit of old Portugal. It's all very Mendes. It's all very good.
Cost: All but two dishes under $30; many under $20.
Sample dishes: Charred cucumber and razor clam salad, mackerel spread, shrimp turnovers, asparagus with sea urchin, salt cod casserole.
Bonus tip: For dessert try the excellent sheep's milk cheese with kaffir lime ice.