Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lucques - Uneven

Lucques has been a favorite amongst many a food lover in Southern California. Chef-Owner Suzanne Goin has won many awards and accolades, and so it was with great anticipation that we arrived at the entrance of Lucques on Melrose.

The first impression upon entering is that of charming simplicity, with red brick walls, and a beautiful outdoor patio in the back. We were seated at a quiet corner table, and were presented with complementary Bread and Butter, as well as Toasted Almonds and their namesake: Lucques Olives. The bread was fine, but the standout would have to be the Toasted Almonds that were so nutty and delicious, and the Lucques Olives, which had a light, fragrant taste.

Lucques serves a special Sunday Supper (a limited tasting menu) every Sunday, and the menu changes depending on the ingredients available. For the Sunday of our visit, we started with a salad:

Market Lettuces, Green Goddess with Avocado, Ruby Grapefruit and Soft Herbs. The Green Goddess dressing was nice and rich, but not heavy, and it was just the right amount to coat the fresh greens. Avocado is always a nice complement with Green Goddess, and the Ruby Grapefruit was an interesting foil to the rest of the salad. Its bitterness was perhaps a bit too striking at times and jarred with the salad, but at the same time, the citrus notes and bitterness added a refreshing twist to the usual salad starter.

I tried their much-touted “The Melange” Cocktail, made up of Hendrick’s Gin, Chinaco Tequila with Lemon Juice, Muddled Mint, Orange and Cucumber. It sounded tasty and our waiter was raving about it, so I ordered one to see what the fuss was about. I don’t know if the main bartender was present that night, but it was a huge misfire: The Melange tasted like a giant Gin & Tequila Bomb. It was so heavy on alcohol I couldn’t taste any of the Muddled Mint, Orange or Cucumber. For $14, this was disappointing and I couldn’t finish it because it was like drinking a double shot of Tequila and Gin, straight.

The only choice on the Sunday Supper was for the entrĂ©e, and I chose the Hand-Cut Noodles with Dungeness Crab, Sugar Snap Peas, Pea Shoots and Breadcrumbs. The Hand-Cut Noodles were definitely the highlight: There’s always something wonderful about eating freshly-made pasta and it was just beyond al dente, which worked well in this dish. Sadly, the rest of the dish was a misfire: The Dungeness Crab wasn’t properly de-shelled. While an occassional small piece of shell may get into a crab meat dish, getting 5 (FIVE) pieces of Crab Shell in my pasta dish was ridiculous. I could’ve cut my mouth if the shell had hit the inside of my mouth at the wrong angle. It also tasted like it was pre-packaged crab meat, not very fresh at all.

The rest of the pasta dish also fell short: The Pea Shoots were disappointing as well, being too old and overcooked so that many strands of the Pea Shoots were tough and stringy. Anyone familiar with eating the large Chinese Pea Shoots (Dah Dou Miao) that are too old or overcooked will understand the problem here. The Sugar Snap Peas didn’t combine well at all with the rest of the dish. Ultimately it felt like a nice pasta noodle, thrown in with random ingredients that didn’t complement each other.

The Grilled Niman Ranch Culotte Steak with Arugala, Potato-Wild Mushroom Gratin and Red Wine Butter was better. Being Niman Ranch Steak, I had decent expectations, and the beef was tender, but a little too chewy at times. The Red Wine Butter sauce worked nicely with each piece of the steak, and the Potato-Wild Mushroom Gratin was competant, but nothing to write home about.

Finally, there was only one dessert served that evening: Lemon Chiffon Cake with Huckleberries and Ginger Meringue. This was probably the most disappointing item of the night: The Ginger Meringue that topped each slice of the cake was nearly inedible, being really hard and only slightly pliable. It was so hard that you had to use a knife and fork to cut through it to break off a piece to match each bite of the cake! The Cake itself was also extremely sweet so that after a few bites no one at our table could finish it (and we had some major Dessert Hounds with us that night).

Our first encounter with Lucques turned out to be a real disappointment. There has been mention that Sunday is actually Lucques’ weakest night due to the limited menu, so I wanted to return on a weeknight and try their regular menu.

We arrived and were seated at a nice corner table, and I decided to try another cocktail, hoping that with a different bartender tonight, the results would be better. They had a few "Seasonal Cocktails" on the menu, so I tried The Rosie Plum: Pyrat Rum with Plum and Rosemary. This was an interesting cocktail in that the majority of the drink was made up of freshly blended Plums with some alcohol and a touch of Rosemary. It was quite refreshing and much better in execution than The Melange.

We started with their Colorado Lamb Carpaccio with Fried Potatoes, Romesco and Scallion Aioli. The Romesco sauce and the Scallion Aioli worked beautifully with the slices of Colorado Lamb, lending fragrant notes of a good olive oil and roasted garlic. Unfortunately, the Lamb itself was a disappointment: It was fresh, and had a good meaty flavor to it, but the knifework and preparation fell short. Each slice of Lamb Carpaccio was too thick, and each piece my guest and I had suffered from some gristle / connective tissue, which made each bite extremely chewy. With a proper cut, this dish would be remarkable, but as it stood, it was disappointing.

For our other Starter, we tried the Soft-Shell Crab with String and Shell Beans, Cherry Tomato and Dijon Mustard. The Soft-Shell Crab was good, but the dish was overdressed: The Soft-Shell Crab was drowning in the Dijon Mustard-based Sauce, which overpowered the sweetness of the Crab. With less Sauce, this dish would've been just right.

The first Main Course arrived soon after (nicely paced): Crispy Pork Belly with Reiger Farm Peaches, Saba, Ricotta Salata and Crushed Pine Nuts.

Pork Belly cooked right is always a wonderful thing, and we were looking forward to Goin and staff's interpretation. Unfortunately, the Pork Belly was over-caramelized: Each bite of the Pork was unctuous and flavorful, but portions of it stuck to my teeth and the insides of my mouth. The fatty portions had been cooked to the point where it was a thick, gooey consistency, but with most of the moisture removed, it ended up getting stuck to my teeth. My guest also suffered the same fate. The rest of the dish was great, though, with the fresh Peaches providing a great counterpoint to the Pork Belly. And the flavors of the Pork Belly were just fine, with the fragrant nuttiness of the Pine Nuts complementing the Pork.

Our other Main Course of the evening was the Spring Lamb Catalan-style with House-Made Merguez, Grilled Leeks and Salbixada. Visually, the dish looked like a mess, but our server mentioned to us that this was a rustic style reminiscent of the way it's served in Catalonia, Spain.

Deconstructing it a bit, the dish was made up of an exploration of Lamb, three ways, and the aroma was enticing. The Lamb Confit was made up of Lamb Shoulder Meat, and it was the highlight of the evening! Wonderfully soft and tender, with a deliciousness that can only be had when a meat is cooked Confit style, I would order this again and again! :) The Salbixada (a chili-based paste from Spain) paired nicely with the Lamb Confit (although I thought the Confit by itself was just fine :).

The Lamb Merguez (a type of North African Sausage) was also outstanding: Smoky and lightly spicy, the Lamb's inherent flavors stood up to the accents of Paprika and Pepper, and the light spiciness made the dish as a whole more engaging and delicious. The Lamb Merguez was made up of Leg of Lamb, in continuing with the exploration of all things Lamb in this dish.

Finally, the Lamb Skewers (from Lamb Loin) was the only disappointment of this dish: Each bite from the Lamb Skewer was a tough, chewy mess. The Lamb seemed to be cooked properly (about Medium), but the cut of Lamb was the problem. Having had Lamb Skewers at a variety of Persian restaurants, and even at some home BBQ events where friends cooked up their versions, none of them approached the level of tough, chewiness found here.

Service was a little inconsistent on our visits: For the Sunday Supper, the service was noticeably inconsistent, with us having to get the attention of our server (who was non-existent for most of the meal), or a passing waiter to get additional drinks or refills. The weeknight visit was much better, with a great waitress who was attentive and spot-on.

For ~$70 per person (including tax and tip), the Sunday Supper wasn’t worth it, for the poor execution of the entrees and dessert, and their signature cocktail was a disappointment as well. For our weeknight visit, the total came out to be about ~$90 per person (including tax and tip).

Lucques has the potential to be a great, classy neighborhood restaurant, but with the inconsistencies of the Sunday Supper and a few of their regular dishes, there isn't enough there to make it a destination restaurant. Lucques has gotten high praise from many foodies around town, and I went in so excited, wanting to love it, but there are too many problems in the execution of the food to be ignored. Lucques has a warm atmosphere and decor, an unpretentiousness about the room and menu, but the uneven results from the kitchen hamper the overall experience.

Rating: 7.3 (out of 10.0)

8474 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Tel: (323) 655-6277

Hours: [Lunch] Tues - Sat, 12:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Tues, 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Wed - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Sunday Supper, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.


Chelsea R. said...

The food was very good. Big portions and wonderful flavors but my halibut was completely overdone. Unfortunately, it was the worst service we've had in a very long time. The waitress who accepted our tip was not the same who started the table. We also had to get a servers attention for anything we wanted. To finish it off, the woman who received our money only took our dessert order and brought it to the table. Very disappointing overall.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Chelsea,

Sorry to hear about your experience; sounds like I wasn't the only one unfortunately. As we all know, one's dining experience depends greatly on the quality of one's server, and it sounds like in your case it was bad. In my case, it was the uneven food coming out of the kitchen mainly.

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