Since opening the modern Portuguese restaurant Aldea in 2009, Michelin-starred chef George Mendes’s affection for his ancestral cuisine has only deepened, furthered by his travels throughout the country. A week ago, he opened the doors to casual Chelsea gastropub Lupulo (835 Sixth Avenue, 212-290-7600), a livelier and larger younger sibling. As it stands now, even with a more dressed-down approach, it’s already one of the most ambitious dining options in the neighborhood’s depressing upper reaches. Mendes saw an opportunity to fill a need, saying, “I see Lupulo functioning in the neighborhood as a place where one can eat and drink almost every day. There’s a dish for everyone.”
The restaurant’s name translates to “hops” in Portuguese, and in tribute to the suds stands a giant U-shaped bar that juts out from the multi-pane windowed kitchen, whose most prominent feature is a roaring wood-fire grill. While it’s not as grand as some of the city’s other beer halls, the pub fills out its modern, spacious environs with style, accented with nautical knotted-rope sculptures. The drinks menu leans toward Portuguese and craft American beers, with Portuguese wines and light cocktails rounding out the offerings. Eighties and Nineties pop plays on the stereo, and the menu of seafood-heavy Portuguese home cooking begs for sips of the nearest beverage.
While small plates are a scourge of modern menus, the modest share portions make sense here, where drinking shares equal billing with Mendes’s food. As with all drinking food, the kitchen puts out bold and often bright flavors, from creamy mackerel spread to whole Portuguese sardines and plates of country ham. Some dishes, like grilled asparagus topped with cured sea urchin and a jumble of charred cucumbers and tender razor clams, wouldn’t feel out of place at Aldea, where Mendes works progressive wonders from the back of a diminutive chef’s counter. He can’t help but chef up even the simplest of his entrees, like grilled chicken with perfectly crisp fries and painfully spicy piri-piri sauce, or a bar steak with buttery baby potatoes that reverberates earthiness thanks to 60 days of aging. And while an eight-course tasting at Aldea will run $135 before tax, tip, or booze, Mendes keeps prices here mercifully low — that ribeye steak, while on the thinner side, nets you dry-aged beef for under $30. If that’s not something to toast to, I don’t know what is.
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