Chef Todd Elder makes a fine first impression with creative Spanish fare at Lupo, and its owners solidify their niche in neighborhood restaurants.
With the opening of their fifth restaurant, Rick and Krista Lopez seem to have found their niche. While other restaurateurs flock to new developments, the owners of La Tavola—and now Lupo in Upper Arlington—have become masters of the upscale neighborhood restaurant. The Lopezes’ most successful locations are on charming and walkable side streets, where customers know them personally and the bussers are local high school kids. In an industry that increasingly celebrates “concepts,” the Lopezes instead prioritize community. But while Rick is usually the one donning the chef’s coat in his restaurants, for this newest venture he’s given auteurship to Todd Elder, his sous chef from La Tavola and a Barcelona Restaurant & Bar alum.
The Spanish-inspired restaurant, which has an open dining room, a bustling bar and outdoor seating with views of Old Arlington, is consistent with other Lopez joints in its look and feel. The most notable feature is the ever-present chalkboard with specials. (I recommend photographing it before heading to the table, so that your server doesn’t have to recite the specials from memory.) Vintage food prints and an antique-y “oysters” sign adorn the walls, and real plants add life to the place. The vault in the back of the restaurant hints at the space’s past life as the Ohio National Bank. Intended to serve someday as a private dining space, the vault was filled with clutter on my visit and not being used as a functional (or aesthetically pleasing) part of the setup.
Wine and cocktails are central to the Lupo experience. The wine list was curated by Lopez’s friend Dan Frey, a wine importer who has planned all of his wine lists. While wine is available by the glass and bottle, Lupo also offers discounted bottles of wine, demonstrating to wine geeks a commitment to an ever-changing menu. The seasonal cocktails offer a solid showing as well and often make use of the bar’s nice selection of sherries, vermouths and amari. The Campari-based Americano ($6), for example, features a light grapefruit fizz with a floral finish, and comes served in a heavy midcentury modern glass.
As is typical of a Lopez restaurant, the menu is driven by the availability of seasonal ingredients, but this one stays mainly within the Spanish realm—with hints of the Italian for which Lopez is known. Lupo’s offerings are made up of snacks, tapas, a significant fresh oyster selection and mains, which are recommended to be split or served family-style. To order means to select a variety of plates across the menu to share. This requires that servers deftly anticipate timing, which was not a consistent strength on my recent visits. In one case, the first course was served awkwardly late (well into the second drink), and the next three offerings were served at the same time. During a second visit, the timing was perfect. Tempo issues aside, the service is knowledgeable and approachable.
A tour of the menu starts with a snack selection that mostly comprises items sold at an upscale grocer—nuts, cheese and olives. That said, the spicy stuffed piquillo pepper ($7) is worth a try. Mayonnaise-free tuna salad with carrots, peas and a lot of heat is stuffed into the pepper. The dish—which is topped with half a boiled egg—offers a vision for what tuna salad could be if always made with premium ingredients.
The tapas menu changes frequently, but there are a few mainstay dishes, octopus among them. In octopus a la plancha ($19), tangy pieces of chorizo and a single piece of tender charred octopus are piled atop a pancake of fried saffron rice. Bright peas and peppers join the mix, with a cream sauce billed as aioli drizzled on top.
The lamb meatball ($10)—another menu regular—is a softball-sized orb resting on a falafel disk. More Mediterranean than Italian, it’s topped with an amazing, tart onion pickle and served with a thick Greek dill yogurt and fried quinoa.
A mix of umami-forward mushroom varieties and textures bring life to setas al ajillo ($12), which does not disappoint. Elder uses flat leaf parsley as an ingredient (and not a garnish), which brings a brightness to the earthy and almost Asian flavors of the dish. While the mushrooms are
the star, copious amounts of garlic are equally present.
Garlic is never far from sight at Lupo, and in gambas en sidra ($15), countless slices of the allium are nestled alongside slices of chorizo and three pieces of tail-on shrimp poached in Spanish cider and served in a sweet pool of oil.
Add three clams to salty, stringy ham reminiscent of a Sunday dinner, large al dente beans, full slices of—yes—garlic, and some hints of tomato, and you’ll have Lupo’s pork and clams ($12). Spoons are absent, but the clamshells work just as well. A chunk of bread would have been a nice addition for soaking up the juices.
Lupo doesn’t skimp on the good stuff with its chicken liver mousse ($17). A 5-inch slice of the cold, fatty, salty paté is grouped with seasoned fig jam, two pieces of toast, grapes and Marcona almonds to make a grown-up assemblage of PB&J (sub paté for peanut butter). Topped with fresh cracked pepper, each bite is beautiful.
The bocadillo from the specials menu ($9) was a bite-size disappointment. Herbed focaccia, a thin slice of manchego cheese, kale and pork make up a sandwich that is just OK. The promised pickled onions were absent. On its own, the well-seasoned pork exhibits complex flavors, but that gets lost within the context of the greasy slider.
That said, one of the best meals came from the chalkboard. The pork shank ($37) was pricey, but big enough for two, with plenty to bring home. It was a challenge for the server to find room on the table for the display of on-the-bone pork, fingerlings, kale and mushrooms. Joined by a smear of gravy with an essence of apple cider, the crispy and hearty dish showcased cooking skill not only apparent in the big hunks of meat, but also in the vegetables, which were worthy of fighting over.
Those who enjoy Krista’s desserts at La Tavola (and remember her desserts from long-gone Knead) will be happy to know she has a hand in Lupo’s extensive scratch-made dessert menu. While the flan ($7) did have some curdling in the middle, the bath of buttery syrup on the plate made up for the flan’s inconsistent texture.
In all, Lupo provides a pleasant night out and an exciting step forward for its owners and the UA dining scene. Like La Tavola, its regulars are likely neighbors. But don’t let them have all the fun. For those who live outside UA, it’s certainly worth the drive for a glass of wine or a seasonal cocktail and a stroll through Spain via Lupo’s chalkboard of specials.