Lucques – A Los Angeles Gem for 10 Years

How do you feel when you dine at a great restaurant? How do the top restaurants generate that sensation and how do they consistently replicate it? In a recent attempt to describe the enduring allure of Lucques to a friend, I was motivated to mention another one of my favorite restaurants, Union Square Cafe in New York. I distinctly remember the “feel” of dining at Union Square in the late 90s, when I lived in Manhattan, and I have subsequently enjoyed the same experience many, many times at Lucques. The cuisine, wine program, ambience, and service at both establishments are superb, and amazingly the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. This puts them on a different level from other restaurants and it is what generates the special sensation that motivates one to return time and time again. At this level of dining, one should always expect more. Lucques consistently delivers and that it why is has remained a gem in the Los Angeles restaurant scene for over 10 years.

Sommelier Caroline Styne and Chef Suzanne Goin are the two brilliant owners behind Lucques and its sister restaurants, AOC in Los Angeles, and the recently-opened Tavern in Brentwood. I have been fortunate to know them for many years and have always admired their expertise, composure, and charm in the middle of bustling restaurants, with employees, customers, pesky suppliers and the media, vying for their attention. There are a lot of brains, creativity, and grace in the room when these two are around, but I also have never met anyone at this level who has remained as humble.

I recently stopped by Lucques to have dinner at the bar, and enjoyed a glass of Domaine Michel Ray Macon-Vergisson La Roche 2006 and Domaine de Fontsainte Corbieres Gris de Gris 2007. Caroline’s wine list is thoughtful and deep, but thankfully not encylopediac. Her selections will challenge you to enjoy fun, esoteric producers and appellations that both please the palate, and expertly complement the food. The less adventurous will still be comfortable with some relatively recognizable choices. I have had the good fortune of tasting wine with Caroline many times over the years and her sharp palate and expert, unpretentious evaluation are unsurpassed in the industry. She is also making her own wine, Jules Harrison Pinot Noir and J&H Chardonnay. I have enjoyed both–they are delicious, true to the varietals, and reasonably priced.

The cuisine at Lucques has been called Pan-Mediterranean, Mediterranean-influenced Californian, and Franco-Mediterranean. Call it what you like–it is absolutely delicious. I have enjoyed many, many starters and entrees at Lucques over the years, but the starter I enjoyed on this occasion, Fried Squash Blossoms with Manchego, Marcona almonds and green romesco, was quite possibly the finest dish I have ever had there, or anywhere else (The Fontsainte Corbieres Gris de Gris was a great pairing). Other current standouts are Tasmanian Salmon with potato cake, cucumber salad, yogurt and pistachio aillade, and Grilled Lamb Loin Chops with turnip purée, citrus-glazed carrots, tamarind and dates. The Braised Beef Short Ribs with sautéed greens, cippolinis and horseradish cream are a legendary fixture on the menu and will make you think twice about ever exploring another entree, although you must. Incredibly, the majority of the main courses are still under $30, and the portions continue to be generous. I have also enjoyed the $45 three-course prix-fixe Sunday Supper. The popularity of this meal inspired Suzanne Goin’s book “Sunday Suppers at Lucques.”

The Bar Menu offers amazing fare and is available Monday thru Thursday after 9:30pm, and Friday and Saturday after 10:00pm. Among others, check out the Prosciutto and Butter Sandwich ($10), the Omelette with soft herbs and cantal ($14), the Grilled Cheese Sandwich with roasted shallots ($14), Spaghetti Carbonara ($16), and Steak Frites Béarnaise ($19). If you enjoy a cocktail before dinner, try the house creations: the Lucques Gimlet, The Green Hound, and the Marseilles #7. Some creative and tasty seasonal drinks are also currently available: Fragola Balsamico (Miller’s Gin with strawberries, Cointreau and balsamic reduction) and the Black on Black (Leblon Cachaça with blackberry compote, thyme and a black salt rim).

I typically order cheese for dessert and Lucques offers a delicious three-cheese plate with currant and walnut toast. If you enjoy something sweet at the end of your meal, Pastry Chef Breanne Varela has created a sinful collection, including Hazelnut Milk Chocolate Cake with coffee and salted caramel, Meyer Lemon and Ricotta Tart with Pudwill Farm’s blueberries, and Apple & Date Tarte Tatin with creme fraiche and vanilla ice cream. Seasonal sorbets, and chocolates & confections are also served.

One of the most special aspects of Lucques is the service. This hallmark–which has remained consistent over the years, even as they have opened more restaurants–was initially inspired and nurtured by Suzanne and Caroline. They have, however, hired talented associates, namely Director of Operations, Cynthia Mendoza, and General Manager, Matt Duggan, who have maintained the original charm and feel of Lucques. Matt exhibits the same engaging management style I have experienced with the founders, and Cynthia makes you feel like a million bucks and a honored guest in her home, all the while maintaining a keen eye on the floor and the smooth operation of her restaurants.

An equally important component of a great restaurant is obviously the ambience, and it is certainly a substantial part of what makes Lucques so special. The building was originally a carriage house and was expertly redesigned by Barbara Barry. The lighting, colors, brick walls, fireplace, the building’s now famous facade, and the charming patio are perfectly balanced with a warm and comforting sophistication. Having a rough day? Simply walking through the door at Lucques can be a transforming experience.

Have you ever thought about exactly what makes a restaurant special for you? I hope I have effectively conveyed why Lucques generates that amazing feeling for me. 8474 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90069 (323) 655-6277

~ by Thomas on May 17, 2009.

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