That's one of the pitfalls of opening a new restaurant when the service is still shaky or the kitchen isn't up to speed. And two months after Lulu's Thai Noodle Shop and Satay Bar opened, I still was hearing mixed reviews.
"You sit down and the servers walk right past your table, ignoring you," griped one friend who usually is easygoing about such things.
I didn't want to believe it. I had been excited about the news that restaurateur Malisa Monyakula was moving her noodle spot from Lawrence to downtown Kansas City, into the urban space once occupied by The Tuba and the Liquid Lounge. But after four visits to the hip, appealing restaurant, I'm not sure I'll ever go back. The food may be memorable, but all the servers seemed to have forgotten me. Finally, on my last visit, when I was the only diner in the place, I didn't have to stop one of them and say, "Excuse me, can I get some service?"
By that time I'd had to ask the question so often that I'd already heard a favorite response. It was from a lanky young waiter who looked at our group as if it had materialized suddenly out of thin air, even though it was 8:30 p.m. and all of three other parties occupied the dining room. At the back of the restaurant, one waitress was counting money; another was tidying up the counter area.
"Oh, hasn't anyone been here?" said the waiter. "We had a server who, well, left."
The dinner went swimmingly after that, but having been an "invisible" customer once again left a sour taste in my mouth that no amount of Thai chile sauce could remove.
"That's too bad," said my friend Kathy, who was dipping a crunchy, fried Lulu Roll filled with pork, ground carrots and onion into a puddle of translucent pepper sauce (one of the few, according to the waiter, not made in the restaurant's kitchen), "because this place has a lot of potential. It's very Big City."
Lulu's has all of the eccentricities of a restaurant in an urban neighborhood: no parking lot but a remarkable interior space with a soaring ceiling, hardwood floors, a bubbling fountain and huge windows that look out on the traffic of Southwest Boulevard. Lively and unexpected music fills the room (hippie folk ballads one night, jazz and Willie Nelson another, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars the next), so the ambience is laid-back and -- despite the hard benches -- comfortable.
And there's another saying, this one an old Oriental expression: "Talk does not cook rice." It's to Monyakula's credit that none of my harping about the lazy service can diminish the skills of her talented crew, whirling away in an exposed second-floor kitchen. Lulu's is such a unique addition to the downtown restaurant scene that you want it to succeed at all costs. And some of the dishes are so good that the interminable wait between an appetizer and dinner, or the bizarre amount of time it takes to get a bowl of soup, might not seem so irritating.
One chilly night, I ordered a bowl of wonton soup before dinner. Thirty minutes later, a server (noticing me looking at my watch) stepped over. "Um, we make the wontons to order," she said. "It takes a while." That might have been an interesting announcement to make when I first ordered the dish; instead, I had to sit cluelessly for half an hour before enjoying the fragrant broth heaped high with egg noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, scallions, cilantro and fat pillows of wonton wrapped around deliciously seasoned pork. It was such a heavenly soup that I practically inhaled it, and by the time the main course arrived -- a mound of fried rice prepared "Lulu-style" (with lots and lots of ground ginger, which I loved) -- I had forgotten how ravenous I had been during that long, lonely wait.
Not all of the dishes are perfection, but the beautiful Vietnamese spring rolls, chilled cylinders of rice paper wrapped around rice noodles, strips of tofu, lettuce, slivers of carrots and pungent chopped cilantro, were almost too pretty to eat. And the restorative tom yum soup, a hot and tangy amber-colored brew flavored with lemon grass and jalepeno peppers, was more potent than a dry martini.
You can order tom yum by itself, but it also comes with the satay plate, an assortment of the restaurant's signature appetizer dish. Satay, the Thai version of a classic Southeast Asian delicacy, is skewers of grilled meat and shrimp or, at Lulu's, marinated tofu. Lulu's satay comes in individual portions or on a Satay Plate, where a mound of jasmine rice comes topped with mini-skewers of grilled chicken, shrimp and beef, served with a nearly microscopic portion of cucumber sauce and a syrupy, spicy peanut sauce.
In addition to the menu offerings, there are daily specials printed on a hard-to-read blackboard; one evening's feature dish was an artistically arranged plate of broccoli and chicken with pan-fried egg noodles. The pad thai is more sweet than spicy, served with bits of fried egg, squares of fried tofu, cool bean sprouts and crunchy peanuts. I was less entranced with the dry spicy Malaysian noodles, a pile of rice vermicelli stir-fried in curry sauce and tossed together with sweet red peppers, mushrooms and tofu; despite all of those splendid ingredients, it still was oddly flavorless.
Except for the three curry dishes, which range from the fiery red version to the milder, sweeter panaeng (a soupy toffee-colored sauce served with slices of cooked potatoes and green peppers), most of Lulu's dishes aren't that spicy. Customers can liven up the soups or noodle dishes with condiments on the table -- chile sauce or pickled peppers, a pinch of sugar or spoonfuls of the wonderful crunchy, caramel-colored fried garlic.
Lulu's doesn't have a liquor license yet, so diners can't wash down a plate of hot Pepper Beef Basil (the restaurant's one truly spicy dish) -- or while away their time waiting for a server -- with a cold Thai beer. But the restaurant does offer domestic soft drinks and thickly sweet Thai iced tea and coffee (flavored with condensed milk) as well as green, jasmine and oolong teas. Smoking isn't an official option for passing a potentially long evening, either, although one waitress told me, "If there aren't many people in here, it's okay."
And while Lulu's cuisine might be for every diner's taste, that sort of lackadaisical attitude isn't.