210429LILIANAS

After picking up a to-go order from Liliana’s in Fitchburg recently, Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin came away feeling the popular New Orleans-style eatery might be moving too far away from its core menu. In addition to Cajun delicacies, Liliana’s has added a pop-up menu that includes burgers and Mediterranean items such as the gyro at right above.

MADISON

If you’ve ventured through Fitchburg anytime in the past few decades, you’re probably familiar with Liliana’s—the New Orleans-style restaurant known for its delish takes on traditional Cajun dishes (think jambalaya, red beans and rice, a spicy blackened chicken pasta, etc.).

We’re willing to bet you’re not at all familiar with Liliana’s, the Mediterranean restaurant. Or Liliana’s, the burger joint. Or even Liliana’s, the pizza palace.

But just like the multiverse in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all of these things can be and are simultaneously true. Thanks to both the COVID-19 pandemic and last fall’s untimely closure of Charlie’s on Main in Oregon (the other restaurant Liliana’s owner/chef Dave Heide owned and operated), Liliana’s has unexpectedly diversified its menu—with some seriously mixed results.

When the pandemic forced Charlie’s out of business last October, Heide promised its beloved fish fry and gluten-free cheese curds would make the leap to Liliana’s—and, thankfully, they have. But a whole bunch of other things also have popped up as well.

There is now a Charlie’s Burger Bar section to the menu featuring six different smashburgers ranging in price from $7 to $10 depending on the toppings. Surprisingly, not one of them features any type of New Orleans bent—no blackened beef or Cajun spicing in sight. Mostly it’s the kind of thing you’d find at your average burger joint.

The most successful new pop-up element is easily the Mediterranean section. The fluffy pita that encircles the gyro ($10) is enormous, and it will stretch your jaw as you try to inhale it.

With most gyro sandwiches, the lamb and/or beef is the dominant ingredient. In Liliana’s version, enormous chunky squares of feta cheese steal the show, and so does the tzatziki sauce, which is copious. In fact, you might want to consider asking for the sauce to be served on the side to better control its influence on the experience.

The gyro, which also comes in a veggie version featuring house-made “meat,” pairs nicely with a modest Greek salad ($10) dotted with flavorful kalamata olives and a vinaigrette that brings it all together. If gyros aren’t your thing, the Greek party continues with options such as a falafel plate ($8) and quinoa tabbouleh ($7). To his credit, Chef Dave doesn’t do half measures.

That said, there’s evidence elsewhere that suggests Heide might be stretching himself in too many directions.

Take the Detroit-style pizza, offered in a pop-up menu that touts nine (!) different varieties. The Detroit Pizza’s signature feature is a thick, crispy crust, made so because it’s baked in a metal deep-dish pan at high temps.

While the sausage and tomato sauce on Liliana’s sausage pizza ($9) were spicy and flavorful, the crust was limp and shockingly soggy. It’s possible the kitchen was overcompensating: My curbside order was delayed because the staff accidentally burned the first pizza and had to start over. But even taking that into account, it’s hard to shake the visual similarities between this pizza and the ones you used to buy at the high-school cafeteria.

It’s not a great look, and it’s not a great taste, either. Give this part of the pop-up party a hard pass.

Other areas of the menu aren’t designated as “pop-ups” but still maintain a head-scratching, scattershot type of feel.

A Thai peanut pasta ($18) on the “Something Fresh” menu feels as if it has crashed in from a different restaurant, with a sauce that carries a serious sriracha wallop. The spice seemed to be concentrated on the slices of chicken rather than the cucumbers and carrot slivers, and that evened out the experience considerably. The “Fresh” menu also includes a new salmon entrée ($22) that is seared and drizzled with an Argentinian chimichurri sauce.

It’s probably coincidental, but it’s interesting to note Liliana’s Cajun menu is now near the bottom of the list of tabs on the restaurant’s online ordering app. It ought to be at the top because that’s what Liliana’s has always done best.

We can’t and won’t begrudge a restaurant for expanding offerings to reach new audiences—particularly in the middle of a pandemic when survival is anything but guaranteed. (As the staffer who handled my curbside order correctly noted, most folks aren’t ordering jambalaya every day of the week.)

But by flinging a wide range of cuisines into the Liliana’s blender, Heide, a thoughtful and community-oriented chef, might end up watering down his brand. And that’s not something we want to see.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.

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