Sweet Lula's: Sweet Satisfaction
28 S. Broadway, Pitman
As soon as I walked through the door, I could sense the potential for tragedy. There, projected against the side-back wall of the dining room, was a huge, malicious-looking Sylvester the Cat, silently pawing at Tweety Bird’s cage. It was quite a welcome, and an unexpected one at that, to Sweet Lula’s in Pitman, the utterly charming BYOB from the husband-and-wife team of Louise (Lula) and Anthony Asbury.
But that cartoon, it turns out, was by no means an illogical choice. Anthony came to this cozy open kitchen after two decades as a master puppeteer. He has given life to some of the most iconic creatures of stage and screen—in everything from The Flintstones to Little Shop of Horrors to the puppets in the Genesis video, “Land of Confusion.” In a world of restaurants decorated with signed celeb headshots, the choice of projected silent films is particularly notable, eliciting childhood memories and spurring conversation in surprising directions.
The result is in an interesting, pleasant tension throughout the experience of dining here: It’s not often that such ambitious food is served in such a light-hearted atmosphere.
And the food is ambitious. The kitchen here is an accomplished one, generally sending out dishes that are deeply expressive, even when they’re seemingly straightforward.
Sautéed asparagus in a white wine-garlic broth, usually a throwaway dish, was almost shockingly delicious here. Those spears were tender and snappy at the same time, bathing in a broth enriched by a laser-sharp sense of equilibrium.
A salad of organic spinach with mushrooms and bacon also sounds like familiar territory, but the preparation of the individual components was unexpectedly thoughtful. Those mushrooms, wild, nutty and sliced into thin strips, joined the smoky bacon in an exercise in balance and interplay, set against a sweet vidalia onion vinaigrette.
The corn chowder too, boasted intriguing combinations, studded with sweet potato and smoked sausage. The only thing holding it back was a slight lack of acid. The burnished, amber-toned liquid, the sweet pop of corn kernels, the earthy heft of pork: solid as they were, a drizzle of, say, sherry vinegar would have acted like a splash of water on a hot day, waking everything up and making it even more expressive.
Pork chop, however, was an object lesson in how to properly cook this cut, which far too many places send out to the dining room as dry as leather. And though the Port-based sauce may be a bit rich for some, its flavor—deep with gorgonzola—sparkled.
If only the side dishes had been as thoughtfully considered. So many restaurants insist on universalizing their vegetables—a choice that neither frames the focal component particularly well, nor shows the respect to the vegetables that they deserve—and Lula’s did the same. So while the carrots and string beans were perfectly fine with the pork chop, they served no discernible purpose alongside the otherwise nicely prepared cajun shrimp. Not only were the carrots a poor choice aesthetically—orange set against paprika-red—but they were lost flavor-wise, too.
But this is a quibble among a procession of otherwise passionate, well-executed dishes.
When it came to desserts, the kitchen here did not stint. The fudgy chocolate brownie was, as always, a perfect foil for its fist of vanilla bean ice cream on top; and apple pie, if the crust was a touch too glutinous, made up for it with its exuberant glaze of molasses and fruit-sugars bubbled up from its depths.
Sweet Lula’s has the potential to become a real destination restaurant in South Jersey. In many ways, it already is: It’s a comfortable, unexpected spot in Pitman that boasts passionate cooking with attention to detail.
For now, I’m content to visit again and just enjoy the show as it is, from the cartoons on the wall to the food on the plate. Chef Anthony told me in a post-visit phone interview that he wants to send out food that’s “succulent and yummy.” It’s a goal he’s achieving, night after night.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (October, 2011).
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