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Corbin Evans might not have grasped all the formalities with his second venture, LULU'S IN THE GARDEN, but his approach to local-seasonal cooking remains peerless.

Corbin Evans isn't the first chef to buy locally and cook seasonally; cooking from the field is a standard philosophy in many of the city's exclusive restaurant kitchens. Still, when his original restaurant, LuLu's, opened in the French Quarter in 2002, the simply dressed Maras Farms sprout salad, the sandwiches made with yard eggs and the roasted vegetable platters suggested a sea change. In a sidewalk cafe with kitchen dimensions that match that of a mop closet, Evans packaged the local-seasonal philosophy in an economical, unpretentious, virtually unprecedented way. LuLu's remains peerless.

In establishing his second restaurant, LuLu's in the Garden, Evans entered the fray. He commissioned a spacious kitchen and a wide-open dining room where white linens and heavy silverware dress the table, where wooden floors appear as solid and shiny as a No. 2 pencil, and where larger-than-life portraits of European pastries and other delicacies illustrate an appreciation for the beauty of food. He hired a professional pastry chef, Anne Weatherford, to bake childhood favorites such as butterscotch pudding and marshmallow fluff into adult desserts. And he extended the scope of his menu in content and in price.

It's too early to tell how well LuLu's in the Garden can compete in the upper-end restaurant market. Evans has an eye for bucolic details that I find charming -- serving pickled radish chips as lagniappe and presenting warmed biscuits in terra cotta flowerpots, for example. But his stubborn disregard for certain formalities is nerve-wracking. Having opened the doors to LuLu's in the Garden prior to acquiring a liquor license, arranging for credit card processing and establishing set opening hours, he may already have alienated local gourmets who demand a higher level of polish. I hope the damage is minimal.

I happened to visit the farmers' market just hours before my first meal at LuLu's in the Garden, resulting in an extraordinary deja vu during dinner. Watermelon had turned to sweet watermelon pickles, and it flavored a barely sweetened lemonade. Crisp corn, weeping tomatoes and lump crabmeat -- all in peak season -- composed a warm "salad" bound by a touch of mustard. Chanterelle mushrooms and collard greens collaborated in earthiness on an entree special. Peaches starred in dessert shortcake. All dishes were characteristic Evans, most impressive for the natural depth they acquired from ripe, seasonal ingredients.

Evans also deals in farmhouse portions. A heap of slender, hand-cut French fries crowned an already toppling pile of shells to comprise a gigantic appetizer portion of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels. Diners who fear that eating every last pumpkin-fleshed mussel will spoil their appetites should at least excavate down to the broth, which one night tasted like an elegant red pepper bisque.

As befits a produce-centric chef, salads and entrees get equal menu time and attention. Nuggets of smooth-battered fried chicken encircled a tuft of greens coated with salty, Ranch-style buttermilk dressing; wispy onion rings piled on top. This salad cures more cravings than a trip to Angelo Brocato's and still manages to taste backyard wholesome. The mixed greens used in all salads -- including the pink, peppermint-striped beet salad with fennel and farmer's cheese -- were springy and pungent, clearly not delivered in the same boxes I've seen stacked behind restaurant kitchens all over town. The chef lets these greens sing a cappella, applying just whispers of dressing.

He nudges nature along a bit more on entree plates, a number of which incorporated deeply seasoned beans. I had a thick pork chop with a honey glaze that trickled over into roasted vegetables and an ingenious side of garbanzo beans; two softshell crabs sheathed in eggy batter served with broad, turgid white beans; and medium-rare yellowfin tuna set on a plate of smaller white beans stewed to a thick creaminess. Perhaps not by coincidence, the best entree included the most memorable beans. The menu description, "pork medallions," foretold almost nothing of the sweet, gamy pork rounds cooked medium-pink, nor of the accompanying juicy pork chopped to atoms Carolina-style. The perfect country pork side dish, "BBQ black beans," were sweet and soupy with a hint of bacon that may have existed in the beans but could just as well have arisen from conjured memories of picnics and crock pots.

The few dishes that fell short of splendid fell hard. Tragic as it is to squander pan-seared chicken livers -- especially when served with savory tomato jam -- I did when they arrived barely seared and oily. Vegetable risotto had an unappetizing sweet-funky flavor I can only attribute to some strange stock. A Moon Pie dessert contained unchewable pieces of marshmallow and a true-to-life taste of cardboard. It seemed improbable that these debacles emerged from the same kitchen as did the distinguished lobster mashed potatoes and the nectarine-blueberry cobbler, both of which were illicit in butter content.

I doubted this project at the outset. In large part, the original LuLu's is enchanting because its food so far supercedes the expectations set by low prices and bare-bones decor. It was difficult to envision how Evans' sensibilities would translate into a full-blown restaurant environment. I should have known that eating this food makes sense anywhere.

click to enlarge Sign of the times: LULU'S IN THE GARDEN not only - suggests Corbin Evans' expansion into Uptown, but - also a yen for visits to the farmers' market for fresh - ingredients. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Sign of the times: LULU'S IN THE GARDEN not only suggests Corbin Evans' expansion into Uptown, but also a yen for visits to the farmers' market for fresh ingredients.
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