Ryan Mauban was bartending at Brooklyn’s venerable Tørst (which twice earned a spot on DRAFT’s top 100 beer bars list) when he struck up a conversation with a couple sitting at the bar. Eventually, he brought the woman a lemony, lightly salty gose to try; she was impressed, and admitted she’d never had something like it before. She casually asked what kind of food he’d pair it with. “I told her I’d pair it with seafood,” Mauban says.
It was the right answer. Her companion just happened to be George Mendes, the celebrated chef behind sleek, Michelin-starred ALDEA, who also just happened to be in the process of opening Lupulo, a craft beer-forward Portuguese restaurant, which, among other things, serves a whole lot of seafood.
The Midtown spot flung open its doors this past summer with quite a bit of noise and critical acclaim, primarily for its exquisite cuisine, which is toned-down and less pricey than its star sister’s. But for his part, Mauban, hired on as the beer director after that chance meeting, has done quite a thing with the beer program as well, upholding Mendes’ spin on a Portuguese cerveceria. (Lupulo is Portuguese for hops.) Equally slinky and casual, low-lit small tables are intimate enough for a first date or special occasion, but the U-shaped bar is airy and buzzy with the sounds of a young, post-cubical crowd and yogis fresh from shivasana (we saw all of the above). It’s no-reservations, no velvet rope; really, the sort of place we crave these days. “People like to roll into a dining establishment after work or after the gym when they’re hungry, and eat something really high quality,” Mendes says.
For those a little rusty on the tenets of Portuguese cuisine, Mendes explains that it leans rustic: fresh ingredients, heavy on shellfish and game in unfussy constructions like stews. Here, it’s served family-style with shareable (but substantially portioned) small plates that accompany the option of shareable but substantial “small” beers (5-ounce pours). The 16-tap draft list is choice: Mauban takes care to source IPAs locally so that they’re as young as can be, with two or three different takes (a regular, an imperial, a Brett version). “There’s always going to be something sour and Belgian beers that are on the lighter side, mostly below 6.0%,” he says. “The food menu’s flavors are pretty delicate, so I don’t want the beer to crush your palate.”
We heeded Mauban’s advice, working our way through the raw bar, slurping fresh, fleshy oysters with Lost Nation Gose (his fortuitous suggestion for seafood); the briny bivalves and lemony beer were, as expected, a win. That same gose was also a beautiful match with the intensely fishy, unctuous Pâté de Carapau, a mackerel pâté served with crisp toast; it cut the sinfully creamy spread with light acidity, the beer’s salt playing against the dish’s own sea-heavy flavors. Fortunately, we also had Evil Twin’s Cowboy, a smoked pilsner, at the table, whose quiet smoldering notes added yet another dimension to the dish. (Ping-ponging between the two, we couldn’t decide which pairing we liked better.)
If you haven’t had octopus in a while (or ever), it’s time: the star dish, Arroz de Polvo Assado No Forno, arrives in a charming, small cast iron pot, and looks simple enough: a stew with chunks of baked octopus in an aromatic octopus broth mixed with rice. But it unfolds in gorgeous, entangled layers of citrusy lime, olive, spicy paprika and cilantro. Its kindred spirit was the Tired Hands/Other Half collaboration Oat Junkie IPA, a complex hop bomb that’s spectacularly smooth, thanks to the addition of honey and oats. Leafy, green hops dance with the cilantro, the beer’s juicy nectarine sweetness mingles with the spritz of lime.
Dessert is simply mandatory, especially when Prairie Artisan Ales Bomb! is on draft: the sumptuous chocolate, vanilla and espresso sip prickles into a sparkling chile spice and could easily own the course all by itself. But alongside warm Portuguese doughnuts, flakey eggy goodness sprinkled with cinnamon and dipped in luscious sides of gooey caramel and passionfruit glaze, it’s otherworldly.
As a dining concept, small plates and small beers is smart, especially when the flavors might be unfamiliar, but the price point doesn’t prohibit exploring: sip from a few half-glasses, extend a fork across the table to pick at your companions’ plates. We lingered over six dishes and six beers, the equivalent of drinking a bit less than a proper pint each. Though, evidenced by the sideways glances from our neighbors (when yet another glass appeared at the table), family-style beer isn’t actually a thing… yet. But, it should be. Especially at Lupulo.