It's usually the other way around. A high-end chef goes downscale for his or her flagship restaurant's spinoff. Think bistro, cafe or burger spot. But Sang Yoon, chef-owner of the phenomenally successful Father's Office, forges his own path. He's gone from a modest bar with food to an elegant but still casual Asian restaurant, possibly the most anticipated of the season's openings.
Not an easy jump. But though there's much to like about the new Lukshon in Culver City — the spicy chicken pops, the crispy coconut rice cakes, the Malaysian spiced short ribs! — in many ways it's still a work in progress.
In 2000, the former Michael's chef broke out on his own by buying a funky old bar named Father's Office on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. It wasn't an obvious move for such an accomplished chef at the time. And it's not as if Yoon brought in a fancy designer to rework the space. He left it pretty much as it was, upgraded the beer list considerably and sent out his newly minted Office Burger and sweet potato fries served in an adorable miniature shopping cart. Burger fans swooned over Yoon's version with caramelized onions, a tantalizing applewood-smoked bacon compote and blue cheese.
At the height of the frenzy, we even brought one of his burgers into the Times Test Kitchen to dissect its flavors. (We came pretty close.) "Our Office Burger" from August 2002 is still one of Times readers' favorite recipes.
Next, the prescient chef caught up with the Culver City restaurant scene just at the right moment with a second Father's Office in the Helms Bakery complex. Building it out took forever, though, an agony for burger aficionados. For Yoon, everything had to be just right. Father's Office 2.0 opened in April 2008, claiming a sprawling space on Helms Avenue complete with a long bar and a massive outdoor terrace. The new gastropub had a bigger kitchen too, which meant an expanded menu.
Big success. Lines. Every seat filled. Then came word that Yoon wanted to open a noodle parlor or some such, which made entire sense. Now that he was king of the burger, why not take on something Asian? Noodles are cheap, right? Perfect for his base of students, young professionals, freelancers and burger hounds.
But when Lukshon finally opened in late January, just down the street from Father's Office 2.0, the menu included just three noodle dishes, despite the fact that the name is a play on the Yiddish word for noodles, lokshen. (I know this thanks to a helpful reader, who also tells me a tall man is described as a "langer losh," a long noodle strand.)
Somehow along the way, the concept had morphed into a moderately high-priced Southeast Asian restaurant. This was no noodle joint but a sleek, contemporary restaurant designed by Ana Henton of MASS Architecture, with leather booths on one side of the dining room, a six-seat chef's counter and a tall glass communal table on the other with a full view of the goings on in the kitchen. Out front is an outdoor patio with comfortable seating, heaters and a roof overhead.
Yoon has crafted some fun and delicious dishes for Lukshon's compact menu. And some less so. To start, there are Malpeque oysters splashed with a bright sudachi long pepper mignonette. Bliss. Or raw Spanish mackerel, slivered and piled high with thin strands of green papaya in a coconut vinegar dressing lit up with jalapeño and lemongrass. Spicy chicken pops are delightful bites of chicken wing drumettes in a sticky hot kecap manis glaze, wonderful with one of the inventive cocktails.
Shrimp toasts resemble shrimp balls more than the traditional shrimp paste spread on toast. Here, rock shrimp balls are rolled in tiny croutons before frying for extra crunch. And I love the crispy coconut rice cakes, crackling crunchy and browned on the outside and lined up like dominoes, to eat with a dab of shallot chile jam.
A couple of the small plates, though, are inexplicably dull, namely the bland rectangle of roti topped with lamb sausage, chana dal and pickled cauliflower scribbled with yogurt. Duck popia are fat fresh spring rolls overstuffed with soft shredded duck, and with just a few wisps of pickled jicama or cilantro to cut the bland meatiness.
Though this part of the menu reads like street food, Lukshon is not inexpensive. Maybe that's why Yoon doesn't seem to be getting much of a crossover crowd. Walk down Helms Avenue any night and Father's Office is jammed while Lukshon is sometimes not, which is surprising given all the hype that preceded the restaurant's opening.
If you've somehow missed the concept, the server will remind you that everything is served family style. But that depends on how big a "family" you are, so for dishes that are discrete bites, be sure to ask how many items come in each order.
Father's Office famously doesn't provide or allow ketchup on its iconic burger. (The only solution is to strap a ketchup bottle to your ankle.) And so it's not much of a surprise to find that Lukshon is one of the very few (OK, maybe one of two) restaurants in Los Angeles that does not allow corkage. Eduardo Porto Carreiro, Grace's former sommelier, is terrific at what he does, and in keeping with Yoon's tastes, he has put together an eclectic wine list focused on whites. Try the Pigato Punta Crena from Liguria or the luscious Von Hovel Riesling Kabinett from Germany. But when it comes to reds, there are only a handful of choices, all old world, like the whites.
"Get the short ribs!" a friend of one of my guests comes over to the table to say. "They're falling-off-the-bone tender and medium-rare at the same time. Genius." And you definitely should. They're beautiful, marinated in a complex weave of Malay spices and sliced off the bone, one of the best short rib dishes in town. And don't forget the fine skirt steak au poivre, which substitutes Sichuan peppercorns for the usual black variety, giving your lips a gentle tickle. Garlic pork belly is meaty and satisfying, tossed with cabbage and rice cake, though the latter is a little undercooked.
I like the whole steamed fish too, slicked in a black bean ghee and ready to pick off the bone. A big bowl of PEI mussels steamed in coconut milk and fired up with green chiles, Thai basil and lime is irresistible. But on a last visit, the broth is overly rich and reduced. And the suggested steamed white rice just wasn't very good.
Of the three noodle dishes, the best is the chicken dumpling soup, silken chicken dumplings with tails like goldfish floating in a clear broth with pea sprouts and a perfect spheroid egg. Break it open: the yolk and white are virtually the same texture. Chiang Mai yellow curry noodles, though, are a big disappointment, the rice noodles gummy and drowned in the cloying curry sauce. I can't say I really recommend the dandan noodles tossed with kurobuta pork and preserved mustard greens and peanuts either. Though I like the salty crunch of the preserved mustard greens and the way the Sichuan peppercorns make your mouth go a little numb, overall the dish is overdressed — and dull.
The kitchen tends to favor subtlety over sharp punchy flavors, something that Jean-Georges Vongerichten does very well but here is taken to extremes — the effect is just too subdued.
And how to explain why the two things most important to Asians — rice and noodles — fall short of the mark? Even the black rice with lap cheong and a fried egg on top, which I enjoyed on an earlier visit, is too oily.
On a more positive note, dessert is complimentary, a plate of tastes to share, which could be anything: swatches of tropical fruit custard topped with pomegranate ice or a coconut cream or miniature squares of butterscotch brownies.
Though the Lukshon experience is mixed, with some tweaking it could conceivably capture as many fans as Father's Office. Service is engaging and informed. A little more consistency in the kitchen, paying more attention to the rice and noodles, and turning up the volume on the flavors should do it. It's early days yet for Yoon's brave new experiment, emphasis on the experiment.
Rating: one and a half stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 3239 Helms Ave. (between Venice and Washington Boulevards), Culver City; (310) 202-6808; http://www.lukshon.com.
Prices: Raw and small dishes, $11 to $16; big dishes, $17 to $36; noodles, $10 to $12; rice, $3 to $9; sides, $7 to $8; desserts and water, complimentary.
Details: Open 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 6 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday (late-night menu begins at 10:30 p.m.). No corkage option. Street and lot parking.