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Count on Lucques to get it right
AFTER the din of the restaurant last night, Lucques is heaven. No raucous birthday parties or pounding heavy-metal soundtrack. No standing around waiting for our table, whacked by passing monolithic handbags. I don't have to fight my way in or worry that the reservation desk has lost our reservation. I don't have to wonder whether the chef is in or not, because either way the food is consistently delightful and original.
I'm forever suggesting Lucques to anybody who loves to eat but also wants to spend time with friends or family over dinner. It's a great restaurant for entertaining and quiet enough to talk. The atmosphere is sophisticated and understated. Designer Barbara Barry's transformation of silent-film star Harold Lloyd's former carriage house into a smart, contemporary restaurant still holds up nine years later. I love the small, 10-seat bar backed with rows of wine bottles; the comfy upholstered booths; the soothing palette of taupe, cream and dark wood; and the square box lampshades that dangle overhead.
As soon as you sit down, thick slices of crusty bread arrive in a coiled reed banneton, the basket French bakers use to proof their dough. Beside it is a shallow tin of fragrant almonds toasted in olive oil and the green, torpedo- shaped Lucques olives that give the restaurant its name, along with good butter and crystals of fluffy fleur de sel.
What a pleasure. Everything about Lucques is just so, well, civilized.
I hadn't been back for more than a year when I stopped in recently -- more than once -- for a few thoroughly enjoyable meals. The cooking from owner-chef Suzanne Goin, author of the cookbook "Sunday Suppers at Lucques," has a strong point of view. It's Mediterranean filtered through a California sensibility, sensuous and direct.
Goin doesn't cook with an eye on fashion. She just cooks. And her food is very personal, very seasonal. She's a chef's chef, one much appreciated by her peers, who go to Lucques for her sophisticated comfort food.
Goin keeps it simple. It's such a relief to slide into one of Lucques' plush, curvy booths and be handed a single-page menu and discover that every dish sounds delicious.
Instead of scouring a long, verbose menu to find even one dish I want to order, here I could happily order anything listed.
At this time of year, you'll find chestnuts and persimmons and winter greens dotted throughout the menu. Flame grapes and walnuts, scallops in the shell, and the short ribs that are Goin's signature, along with the swell grilled club steak for two.
There's something for everyone -- carnivores, vegetarians, adventurous eaters and fraidy-cats who aren't comfortable venturing beyond lamb chops and potatoes. And that's exactly why Lucques is such a good choice for entertaining.
On a rainy night, five of us order practically the entire menu. The restaurant is half empty when we arrive, then bit by bit fills up with an urbane grown-up crowd -- women in suits or interesting dresses, men in buttery black leather jackets and black T-shirts or turtlenecks. You don't see a lot of baseball caps worn backward.
Service is always warm and professional. The wait staff knows practically everything about the food, and if there's a question a server can't answer, someone will go and ask. Without hovering or intruding, servers are there when you need them, watching over your table in the best possible sense.
To start, there's a perfect autumn soup -- puréed white beans garnished with little, wonderful sheep's-milk ricotta gnocchi and roasted chestnuts in a swirl of olive oil. Everybody at the table wants more, the flavors are so beguiling.
Hamachi (yellowtail) crudo is terrific too, thin slices of raw fish with a dab of green harissa, a variation on the North African-inspired hot sauce that's hot and salty and sour at the same time, a brilliant contrast to the crudo.
Bite through the crunch of sautéed veal sweetbreads to find an exquisite creaminess underneath. That's all about texture, but what's equally intriguing is the flavors of slivered dates, sunchokes and fingerlings in a honey vinegar against mild sweetbreads. The combination is sublime.
Beet salad must appear on practically every menu in town, but this one stands out for brilliant red beets mixed with striped Chioggia beets and long skinny gold carrots, the root vegetables' sweetness a natural with the black oil-cured olives and the creamy, salty feta crumbled over the top.
Goin's starters are always so strong that I'm tempted to make two or three of them a meal. And sometimes do.
Bucking the trendy
WITH so many new restaurants opening this year, older, very good restaurants sometimes get lost in the stampede to check out the latest hot spot. But for an important dinner, let me remind you that the trendy new places are still works in progress: You never know what you're going to get on any given night. One time, everything could go like clockwork. Another night, everything's off.
But at Lucques, you can count on the fact that you're going to have a first-rate experience.
Goin and her chef de cuisine, Rodolfo Aguado, rewrite the menu every few days, depending on what's in season. Right now, they're serving fabulous sweet Taylor Bay scallops in the shell with black rice and a nuanced Thai-style green curry. It's a beautiful dish, fragrant with coconut milk and very rich. That seems to be the way Goin has always liked her main courses.
She's an eater and cooks for people who love to eat. Her short ribs, braised on the bone until the beef is tender enough to cut with a spoon, are sumptuous with sautéed kale, kabocha squash and truffle butter.
Braised veal cheeks are a wine lover's dream, suffused with flavor and served with grains of farro dotted with chestnuts and red flame grapes in a swirl of sherry and the meat's juices.
Deep-flavored lamb chops are surrounded with a delicious mess of "last of season" tomatoes punctuated with capers and a dreamy artichoke gratin.
Flavorful blue-nose bass is wrapped in cabbage and cooked, then set down in a sauce of cream and whole-grain mustard. Another very rich dish.
It's also fun to come in after 9:30 on weeknights, after 10 on the weekends, and order steak frites from the bar menu. The frites are hot and golden, the béarnaise sauce made to order. What could be more satisfying?
Follow it up with a plate of cheeses and a dessert. The perfect meal on the run. And so companionable, sitting there at the bar, that you feel like a regular, whether or not you are.
We've all watched Goin grow up. At Campanile in the '90s, her wide, gleeful grin under a low cap lighted up the kitchen where she was chef de cuisine for several years, soaking up every bit to be learned from Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel.
When she left in 1998, it was to open her own restaurant with partner Caroline Styne. What a great team they make, so successful because they trust their instincts over received wisdom about the restaurant business.
Styne, who runs the front of the house, has become one of the shrewdest wine buyers in town. As she's gained confidence, she has put together smart, eclectic wine lists that are never static and that corral new and Old World classics and cutting-edge selections both here and at AOC, the partners' second restaurant.
(Goin, with her chef-husband, David Lentz, also owns the Hungry Cat restaurants in Hollywood and Santa Barbara. Lucques hasn't suffered a bit, despite the distraction of the other restaurants.)
Finish on a high note
THIS is one place where I love to order cheese. The selection is not overwhelming, just three or four cheeses that are perfectly à point, as the French say.
Served simply, three of them -- maybe a raw-milk goat's cheese from France with a seductive chalkiness, a raw-milk sheep cheese from Italy and a distinguished Roquefort or other blue cheese -- with red grapes and walnuts served with thin, toasted slices of nut bread offer a short master class in the art of cheese making.
Desserts from Breanne Varelahave a rustic homespun aesthetic. Red wine poached pears with French toast, mascarpone and almonds makes a luscious sweet.
Chocolate doughnuts are fluffy doughnut holes covered in dark chocolate sauce with deliciously spiced coffee ice cream.
My current favorite is the tender vanilla crepes folded over and served with milk sherbet, softly whipped cream and bright persimmons.
Goin and Styne have done the nearly impossible: created an original, beloved restaurant that at 9 years old is every bit as good, if not better, than when it opened.
Location: 8474 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 655-6277; www.lucques.com.
Ambience: Smart, contemporary California Mediterranean restaurant with a small bar, seats in front of a fireplace and an elegant walled patio. Sophisticated and grown-up, with very personal cooking and a savvy urban vibe. Perfect for entertaining.
Service: Polished, intelligent.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $12 to $19; main courses, $27 to $48; dessert, $5 to $10. Lunch appetizers, $10 to $14; main courses, $16 to 19; desserts, $8 to $9. Sunday supper, $40.
Best dishes: Roasted beets and young carrots with feta, sautéed veal sweetbreads with dates, Taylor Bay scallops with green curry, braised veal cheeks with farro and chestnuts, braised beef short ribs with horseradish cream, chocolate doughnuts, vanilla crepes with persimmons.
Wine list: Interesting and eclectic. Corkage fee, $16.
Best table: The corner booth in the front window.
Details: Dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, until 11 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Sunday supper (set menu) 5 to 10 p.m. Bar menu served 9:30 to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, until 11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 10 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.50.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience; price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.