A glance at the new Central West End eatery's exterior, and the place seems like a den of tragic hipness. The illuminated yellow sign out front, the restaurant's moniker printed in a self-consciously simple font, has a socialist-chic feel to it, like the directional placards at Orly airport. The menu, displayed in the window, contains all the latest foodie buzzwords: "polenta," "fennel," "Yukon Gold potatoes," "tilapia."
As you peek through the glass, the inside looks like what the set designer from Friends or Will & Grace would whip up for a scene at "a trendy Manhattan restaurant," all beige with hints of gold. In the corner property that once housed the come-as-you-are C. Whitaker's, Liluma seems too cool for school.
Then you walk through the front door, and you're abruptly confronted with another side of Liluma's personality: manic, disorganized hash-slinger. Open about two months now, Liluma is still far from finding its rhythm, especially on a packed Friday or Saturday night. The hostess is absent from her post up front because she has been called on to serve desserts and deliver creamers. Not that it matters, because you won't be seated until about 45 minutes after your reservation time anyway, so you may as well have a seat at the bar -- except that its five-or-so raised chairs are already taken by other diners-to-be, and besides, the chardonnay's not chilled and they're already out of Bombay and Stoli for the night, so scratch that. But where else to go? Liluma's dreadful layout (not that the restaurant's creators designed the actual structure) guarantees a constant traffic jam as waiting customers look for somewhere to stand, bar patrons jostle and elbow for drinking room and waiters try to maneuver their way to and from the kitchen. It's an awful way to kill time before sitting down to dinner.
But then you are finally seated, and you take a look around and see that the clientele is just as confused as the house itself. On one side, a table of well-heeled bluehairs makes the case for a Liluma slogan reading, "Where Clayton comes to eat." (No big surprise there; the owners of Liluma also run The Crossing.) On the other, a dozen teenage girls wearing the exact same hairstyle celebrate a Sweet Sixteen.
The menu presents another personality clash within itself. It's equal parts Italian and French influence, with lots of head-scratching culinary curios such as braised Arkansas rabbit, collard greens and ham (offered under "Sides & Things"), and a croque madame, an item rarely seen this side of the Atlantic: a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich dipped in egg batter.
And then, at last, it is time to eat. This is when the saving-grace facet of Liluma's character comes to the fore: Though the back of the house still has its share of glitcLhes, chef Cary McDowell has assembled an accomplished and self-assured bill of fare. Many of the dishes are top-notch.
To begin, Liluma can even make soups and salads something to coo about. The butternut-squash purée, a staple on many fall and winter menus, hits the palate strongly and sweetly, almost as if it's really pumpkin-pie purée. A simple mixed green salad is made unique and earthy-tasting with a topping of julienne apples, honey and lemon. The chopped iceberg salad with tomatoes and bacon is expertly done; blue-cheese dressing clings mercilessly to its fellow salad ingredients, playing wonderfully off the bacon's sharpness. Likewise, the one non-soup or salad appetizer, grilled shrimp with white beans and tapenade, hits the mark because of how the clean tastes of the shrimp and beans interact with the tang of the tapenade's capers and olives.
The starters are so good, in fact, that a hush of disappointment may fall over the table when the entrées are brought out, because they're a bit undersized. But what they lack in mass, they make up for in taste. The aforementioned rabbit has the succulent flavor and stringy texture of excellent roast beef and is well paired with a side helping of gnocchi. The pastas taste truly homemade, are cooked to perfection and come tossed with just the right amount of marinara, such that you could calibrate on your tongue tasting 50 percent pasta and 50 percent sauce. The pan-roasted tilapia, served over a bed of lemon-tinged spinach, is simple, light and unassailable, and the same goes for the grilled salmon atop fennel. The duck confit tastes as mouth-watering as any choice cut of duck leg cooked and preserved in its own fat would.
Liluma offers about a half-dozen side dishes, and they all sound quite tempting: crushed Yukon Gold potatoes; parsnip gratin with fontina cheese and fresh honey; shiitake, portobello and button mushrooms sautéed with parsley. All of them live up to the hype and taste as interesting as they sound. There's lots of good flavor contrast going on here, especially in the Brussels sprouts with Bermuda onions and the broccolini with anchovy and red pepper. Collard greens and ham resonates with a rich smokiness, and the parsnip gratin is so light and sweet it could pass for a dessert.
But, just as it is with everything else about Liluma, the kitchen can perform unevenly. On my second visit there, half of what was brought to the table came out either lukewarm or oversalted. The chopped iceberg salad, a highlight of the first visit, elicited a sourpuss expression with just one bite, as did the frites part of the steak frites. Two soups, a yellowfin-tuna entrée and the side of Yukon Gold potatoes all arrived as if they'd been sitting in the kitchen waiting for pickup for a good five minutes.
This was probably the case; the service at Liluma is still operating at a novice level. The waitstaff is young, dewy-faced, pleasant and relatively inexperienced for such a high-end establishment. When I asked for salt to put on a salad (there weren't any salt or pepper shakers on the table), I was given a small dish of rock salt, which is not for putting on salad. The waitstaff needs to become more knowledgeable about food in general and Liluma's menu specifically; for one thing, it would be nice to be offered advice on pairing side dishes with entrées. As for speed of service, on one visit the wait for drinks before dinner (when the restaurant was virtually empty) and for the check after dinner were both inexcusably long, the sort of long where you've run out of things to talk about at the table except for where the damn drinks are or where the damn check is. On another visit, the entrées actually came out too early, but then dessert took so long to arrive that the table almost gave up on the course altogether.
This would have been a mistake, though maybe not quite a tragedy. The only true misstep among the rotating desserts is the homemade s'mores; the marshmallow tastes like the moons and clovers and such from a box of Lucky Charms, and there isn't nearly enough graham cracker or chocolate to compensate. The rest of the desserts, straightforward and traditional, do just fine. Crème brûlée and flourless chocolate torte are as good as it gets, a gingerbread pudding offers an autumnal-tasting alternative to heavy sweets and if you're one of the rare palates who raves for the tame Italian dessert panna cotta -- an eggless custard with the relative sweetness and consistency of yogurt -- you've just hit the jackpot.
Liluma may hit the jackpot someday soon as well, once it takes a good, long look at itself and figures out just what it needs to do and just what it wants to be.