A Single Shrimp for $13? Yes, It's Worth It at Lupulo
It’s not every day you come across grilled carabinero in New York. These big lipstick-red shrimp, with their firm, sweet meat, come from off the coast of Portugal and Spain. If you’re eating the buggers properly—that is to say, breaking the heads off and tipping them into your mouth, then crushing them to get at the tasty bits inside—you might not even feel badly about spending $13 on each.
That’s the going rate at Lupulo, a new Portuguese restaurant on the edge of K-town that serves these delicious shrimp confidently—hot off the grill, nearly plain. On a recent evening, the couple next to me ordered a bottle of wine and 18 carabineri. They took them apart one by one, tearing bread to swipe on the plate where the rich, dark-colored juice from the shrimp heads was melding with olive oil and lemon juice. By the end, nothing was left but the thin outer shells of the shrimp heads, sucked clean and flattened as if ready for the recycling bin.
While this is one extremely tasty way to spend an evening at Lupulo, there’s a lot more on offer, from wee little bites like salt cod fritters and shrimp turnovers, to clams in wine with crusty grilled bread and a mousse-y chicken liver pate with pickled grapes. Not everything is traditionally Portuguese. (That delicious ham is, in fact, from Virginia, and a couple of beers on the list are brewed in nearby Brooklyn.)
Portuguese food is not so well-represented in New York, and Lupulo goes out of its way to show off some simple, rustic Portuguese cooking, such as a delightfully shrimpy acorda, somewhere between a savory bread pudding and a bowl of grits. It’s no surprise that chef-owner George Mendes is also behind Aldea, the brainy, modern Portuguese restaurant in Flatiron that opened in 2009. In that sleeker, more luxurious space, Mendes turns out sleeker, more luxurious food. (The four-course dinner for $79 at Aldea can be fantastic and full of surprises.) But Lupulo is not that kind of restaurant, nor is it trying to be. The mood here is more casual, noisy, and messy—a place to stand around and gulp cold beer, rip the heads off crustaceans, and pull tiny sardine bones out of your mouth. (Of course, they’re served whole.)
While it seems Mendes can’t resist slightly more complex compositions such as that asparagus dressed up with globs of sea urchin, the best dishes at Lupulo are truly unfussy: a few grilled sardines strewn with red peppers, a pot of bacalhau a gomes de sa, the traditional casserole of salt cod. Lupulo doesn’t mess around with the structure of the latter too much: It comes in layers of potato, caramelized onion, and big pieces of salt cod with olives and hardboiled eggs. The olives on top have been almost dehydrated by the heat, so they’re intensely flavored and crisp. As you eat it, your mouth buzzes with salt and umami. It’s delicious, generously portioned, and could easily serve more than two people.
If you need something faster and more consoling, there’s half a chicken, marinated in white wine and smoked paprika and cooked over the grill, served with a bowl of skinny French fries and an endless supply of piri piri sauce—a Portuguese crush of hot peppers in oil. What else do you need? A glass or two of cold, barely sparkling vinho verde and the kind of friend by your side who can talk over a crowd. It’s loud in Lupulo, especially around happy hour, when Midtown Manhattan’s after-work crowd takes over the massive, stretch, horseshoe bar in the center of the dining room, along with the few tables at the edges of the room.
Desserts don’t always deliver. The eggy custard, charged with vanilla and cinnamon, has a wonderful flavor, but half the pleasure of a classic pasteis de nata stems from the buttery, layered pastry; this one is thin, flat, and tough. The rice pudding is better if you like a stubbornly milky rice pudding, loose and creamy.
Service can be inconsistent, with inaccurate wait times. Some dishes you order never arrive. A few of the restaurant’s ticks are downright confusing: Why do you get large plates for your appetizers, then tiny ones for the larger dishes? Why don’t the servers ever seem to know if a dish is meant for you or for someone else? “Did you order the clams?” “Did you order the sardines?” Yes, we did—but on one evening, they never arrived. Sometimes this chaos is enough to spoil an evening. Other times, a warm bowl of the kitchen’s thick, comforting bread soup made rich with shrimp stock and a wobbly poached egg will be more than enough to temper any exasperation.
Lupulo is at 835 Avenue of the Americas (Midtown West); +1 (212) 290-7600 or lupulonyc.com
Rating: One star (Good)
What to Order: Carabinero ($13 each); Salt cod croquettes ($5); Fava beans with blood sausage ($9); Grilled chicken with piri piri ($14); Bacalhau a gomes de sa ($48)
Who’s Next to You: Midtown after-work crowds, visiting chefs from out of town, chic groups of Portuguese-American friends, seafood lovers
- For the best in travel, food, drinks, fashion, cars, and life, sign up for the Pursuits newsletter. Delivered weekly.