[Editor’s note: Since time of writing, the menu at LaLou has changed. We’ll be back soon to update our review.]
Natural wine has no official definition, but that hasn’t kept people from evangelizing it like it’s a billion dollar tech company with no revenue. Whether it’s due to a misguided fear of sulfites, or a totally reasonable desire to support independent winemakers, more people than ever want to drink natural wine. So it’s not a surprise that the number of places serving it is skyrocketing. But very few of them actually have excellent wine programs. Even fewer have food you should seek out. LaLou has both.
At this casual spot in Prospect Heights, the wine list isn’t particularly long, but every glass and bottle offers something unique, and there are options no matter how far you want to go down the cloudy, odd-smelling rabbit hole of natural wine. You can do a very deep dive down that rabbit hole at places like Ruffian and The Ten Bells in Manhattan, but while we’re big fans of both those spots, it’s hard to recommend them to people who aren’t really into natural wine. LaLou, on the other hand, serves natural wine, but that’s not its defining trait, and the servers here actively try to make wine seem accessible to everyone. You can walk in and request something “funky,” and instead of the bartenders pouring you something that’s borderline spoiled, they’ll ask you questions to help you understand what you’re actually looking for. You can also ask about any wine on the list, and not only will they offer an explanation ranging from a TL;DR to a thesis, they’ll recommend dishes that pair particularly well with it.
The 12-item food menu is mostly made up of small plates you’d generally expect to find at a wine bar, but don’t let the presence of a cheese plate and charcuterie fool you - food is definitely not an afterthought here. That’ll be clear as soon as you try the crispy fried olives, which are covered in lemon zest and sit on top of tomato aioli, and are the best drinking snack you’ll find in the city, with the possible exception of leftover mozzarella sticks when you get home at 3am. The zucchini escabeche and the farmers cheese are other starters you’ll still be thinking about after dealing with the fact that a bottle-and-a-half of wine gives you a hangover whether it’s natural or not.
But LaLou isn’t just special by the standards of wine bar small plates, and the entrees here make it a place everyone should seek out for dinner. Despite using chickpeas rather than cheese, the spaghettini still tastes like an extremely rich cacio e pepe, and the flank steak is topped with bitter greens, which use the brilliant cheat code of honey and spicy guanciale so they’re even more memorable than the meat. There’s also buttery roast chicken served in a bowl of jus that functions like a chicken jacuzzi, making the meat more and more tender the longer it soaks.
Finish things up at LaLou with the crunchy beignets and a glass of dessert wine in the very nice backyard, and you’ll realize this isn’t just a wine bar. It’s a place where you want to spend an entire night ordering share plates and glasses of wine until you run out of stomach space or sobriety. If you come with a group, you’ll find yourself saying “why not” to one more bottle of Czech orange wine or Grand Cru Champagne an hour after you finish eating. You’ll be happy with either one, and the amount of sulfites will have nothing to do with it.
This is the best drinking snack in New York City. The lightly fried olives are crunchy and meaty, and the green tomato aioli on the side adds richness and balances out the salt. Drink wine, drink beer, drink water - it doesn’t matter, order these.
Cheese at a wine bar sounds as unique as Instagram stories of dogs you don’t care about, but this is no ordinary cheese plate. The big portion of soft, crumbly cheese is topped with pesto-like sauce, nuts, and herbs. It’s good enough to eat with a spoon, but if you want some semblance of a normal wine bar experience, spread it on the grilled seed bread served on the side.
This is kind of like a vegetable crudo, and while that may sound like something you’d only order after seeing a local news special on the dangers of mercury, this salty, citrusy bowl of zucchini and summer squash should be on your table.
Ordering this scallop is kind of like ordering a natural wine. You’re familiar with what’s listed on the menu, but when you actually taste it, reality and expectations split like a middle school couple after sleepaway camp. It looks like a thinly sliced scallop, but all of the flavor comes from aioli and brown butter underneath. It’s enjoyable, but like with many natural wines, you need to be OK paying $20 for something totally unexpected.
Your servers will probably recommend ordering this dish, and it’s the only suggestion of theirs you should ignore. The gnocchi just taste like under-seasoned bites of baked potato, and they get all their flavor from being drenched in a butter sauce. Butter-soaked potatoes can’t be bad, but if you want starch, get the spaghettini instead.
This vegan take on cacio e pepe, which includes chickpea puree rather than cheese, is the heaviest dish on the menu, and it’s also one of the best. Just know that if you’re planning on trying any other dishes here, you should share this.
The lightly breaded fish on its own is meaty, salty, and pretty enjoyable, but it’s $27 for a small portion, and the charred eggplant puree overwhelms everything else on the plate. Go with any other entree instead.
The menu gives no description of this dish beyond “Roast Chicken,” which is kind of like a concert venue listing “Music” for a legendary reunion show. The chicken - either a half or full one - has thin, crunchy skin, and meat that tastes like it’s coated in butter. It’s served in a deep pool of juices and herbs, and when you add the garlic aioli that comes on the side, it’ll feel like a surprise appearance by JT at an NSYNC reunion concert.
It’s not easy for a green salad to outshine thick pieces of perfectly prepared steak, and yet that’s the situation with this entree. The bitter greens on top of the meat are tossed with spicy guanciale and honey, which is another example of how this place makes simple dishes memorable.
These beignets have a crunchier shell and denser inside than most other ones we’ve had, and they’re kind of like hush puppies coated in honey and powdered sugar. In other words, order them.