As a chef, Jess Bourgeois is in his natural domain in the kitchen of his new restaurant Lula, discussing the molasses fig sauce for his boudin eggrolls, the pork trotter garlic butter for his escargot or the glaze on his Gulf shrimp.
Just across the corridor, in a glass-enclosed distilling room, Bourgeois talks with equal zeal about refining his vodka, steeping botanicals into his gin and building the flavor profiles of his pot-stilled rum.
“I’m passionate about what I’m doing in the kitchen, and passionate about what I’m doing here,” he said, while inspecting the gleaming fixtures of the new copper still.
Bourgeois is a chef and also a distiller, and Lula is the unique new hybrid combining these callings. It’s a restaurant with a menu of Southern-inspired dishes, a bar stocked, in part, with spirits produced on site and a view of the still actively making more.
This concept is more than just novel. It wasn’t even possible until new state legislation passed in 2015 cleared the way, effectively creating the category of restaurant-distillery in Louisiana. Lula is the first example to emerge in the Deep South, and it joins a growing clutch of similar hybrids around the country.
“This model just didn’t exist before,” said Bourgeois. “We felt strongly about creating it, that we should be able to do this under one roof.”
Lula Restaurant-Distillery, as it’s properly known, opened Monday after a long collaboration between the chef and his friend and business partner Bear Caffery, a Baton Rouge-based physician. For the past few years, the two young men have pursued specialized training in micro-distilling together, turning a shared interest into a new business venture.
In form and function, Lula resembles a brewpub devoted to spirits. On the business side it represents a different approach to the burgeoning field of micro-distilling, where many new players have entered the market. And as a restaurant it brings a unique and untapped angle to a local dining scene that has never been more competitive.
Lula Restaurant-Distillery is in a one-time storefront along St. Charles Avenue that has been thoroughly redesigned for the purpose.
The address was for many years a showroom for Halpern’s Furniture. There’s now a broad patio fronting St. Charles Avenue for outdoor dining (or, during Carnival season, parade viewing), though otherwise from the street the building looks unremarkable, blending in with its strip mall setting.
Inside, however, the high open rafters show the building’s vintage character. Salvaged wood and industrial fixtures set a rustic tone. Halpern’s fabricated the tables and chairs and even the bar at Lula.
Over the bare wood of those new tables or across a long bar, Bourgeois and his crew serve an upscale casual menu with a mix of contemporary and rustic Louisiana flavors. There's pecan-smoked pompano and fried mirliton pickles, a Gulf fish club sandwich and a burger, and braised rabbit over white beans and boudin-stuffed quail, glazed with Lula’s own rum. The kitchen also turns out seasonal boiled seafood, with a traditional seasoning mix, a Vietnamese-style ginger/lemongrass boil and a hot garlic version.
At the far end of the long dining room, the distillery stands behind a high glass wall, with each phase of the process on display. The collection of gleaming copper towers, with their many hatches and portals, makes it all look like some combination of the Norco skyline and an orchestra’s brass section.
“People get to see the distilling process, and then have a cocktail made right here from our spirits or sit down for a whole meal,” said Bourgeois.
Lula is named for Lula Sugar Factory, a mill in Belle Rose near Bourgeois’ hometown of Donaldsonville. For their restaurant-distillery, he and Caffery combined the heritage of Louisiana cane country with their interest in craft spirits, producing their gin, vodka and rum from local cane sugar. Around the still sit drums of molasses and big sacks of sugar, which the chef collects himself on a trailer.
“We have to have our hands in every step of every single batch,” Bourgeois said. “That batch process is what really makes it craft.”
In a 2016 industry report, the American Craft Spirits Association found 1,315 craft distillers in the U.S., tripling the number active in 2007. But the restaurant-distillery is a new twist, and much rarer breed.
Lula has the capacity to make up to 5,000 cases of liquor a year, or 60,000 bottles. But Caffery said the actual output will likely be lower as the operation gets started. Lula will sell bottled spirits from a separate retail shop built into the side of the restaurant, beginning as soon as this week, while Lula’s gin, vodka and rum power a specialized cocktail program at the restaurant’s bar.
Bartenders pour batched cocktails from special taps — like a cucumber vodka Collins, a turmeric gin sour and a classic (read: not frozen) daiquiri. They also serve batched drinks by the bottle, like a negroni. This way, Caffery explained, Lula’s signature drinks can be chilled to a precise temperature, and they can be served fast.
“It’s about precision, consistency and speed,” Caffery said. “We want our cocktails to showcase our spirits, we don’t want to cover them up.”
While Lula’s own spirits are a clear focal point, the restaurant has a full bar with wine, beer and other liquor brands.
“I just want this to be a fun place to go,” said Bourgeois. “We’re not interested in forcing it, but making it an option for people.”
1532 St. Charles Ave., 504-267-7624
Lunch and dinner daily
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