Almonds, olives, butter and fleur de sel (an expensive French sea salt)
Few food lovers in LA haven't heard of Lucques, run by Suzanne Goin (recent winner of two James Beard awards--a massive honor in the culinary universe) and Caroline Styne. Lucques (pronounced "Luke") serves what I refer to as "upscale restaurant food." In Los Angeles, that often means Cal-Italian or in this case, Cal-Mediterranean.
Higher-end meals aren't in my usual budget, but I had to see what all the hype was about. The nice thing is that if you want to try Lucques but have limited funds, you can order just an entree and get out the door for around $30 (and be full, too), or you can try the famed Sunday Suppers and get a three-course prix fixe menu for $40. You could also visit at lunchtime, when all the entrees are under $20. I like it when a restaurant of Lucques' caliber makes itself accessible to many people.
We made reservations for a prime dinner slot on a weekend. The reservation process was very simple, and the person we talked to on the phone was friendly--some reservation processes can leave you feeling cold (and perhaps questioning your choice of restaurant). Our seating went smoothly, and they even remembered to give us the quiet table that we had requested in advance. The main dining room seemed pretty noisy, so I was happy to be sitting on the other side, facing the patio.
The outdoor patio looked lovely--it's a real patio with high walls, small trees, and vining plants--not one of those tent setups that you'll find at places like Matsuhisa. I don't really care for eating outside because the chairs are usually uncomfortable and it's often noisy, but for those who like outdoor dining, the patio at Lucques is great. It also gives you a little more space, since all of the tables are separate. Indoors, you'll have to sit about a foot away from your neighbors and pray that they don't drink too much wine.
We started off with a glass of champagne and a viogner. There are a fair number of wines by the glass, but many of them are out of my usual $10-and-under price range so I found myself picking drinks by price rather than by type. There were only two champagnes, for example--the one I ordered was around $10, and the other was around $25. Fortunately, there is a little more variety in the rest of the wine list.
To start, you'll get a basket of high quality bread and a plate of almonds and olives with sides of fancy salt and butter. Normally I don't like nuts, but these moist, flavorful almonds packed an addictive, salty punch. Given that the almonds were already salted, I wasn't sure what the dish of salt was for (but we ate enough nuts to merit a second dish, and in that dish, the almonds were salt-free, so the salt dish made more sense). The butter was incredible and tasted homemade: creamy, flavorful, and with a perfect hint of salt at the end. I had to restrain myself from eating too much of it straight. It also went wonderfully with the sourdough bread.
Hidden under the almonds are green luques olives that, like the almonds, are coated in oil. The olives themselves taste stunningly like olive oil, which means that they're pretty mild as far as olives go. Lucques olives are known for having flavors of almonds, hence Goin's pairing. Best of all, you can eat all you want, because seconds are free!
Seared Niman Ranch beef
For an appetizer, we ordered the seared Niman Ranch beef with soy aioli, green garlic, mizuna, and garlic chips. It's great to see a chef using meat that is raised humanely, sustainably, and without the use of hormones--I'd rather give my money to a restaurant that supports the same ideals I do. This was my first experience with eating practically raw beef. I've always been repulsed by the idea, which doesn't quite make sense since I have no problems eating sushi--of course, I used to be repulsed by that, too. Eating raw meat turned out to be much like eating raw fish. The texture isn't quite the same, but it isn't so different, either--for meat to be eaten this rare, it has to be of exceptional quality. The meat was rich and buttery, but I didn't like the way it was served. Why does an already rich meat need to be served with a rich sauce like aioli? The meat didn't need any sauce to enhance it, and the result was much too heavy. The cut greens were top-notch, but I didn't think their texture was a good match for the meat--when I ate both at the same time, it made my mouth cringe. I didn't notice the green garlic, but the flavor of the garlic chips was a nice complement--their pungency and crisp texture were a perfect contrast to the smooth, creamy meat. I'm glad I had the rare beef experience, but I wouldn't order this dish again.
Ricotta gnocchi with asparagus, english peas, pea shoots and carrot broth
The carrot broth made this dish unique and had me practically licking the plate. Without the broth, (which was thicker and creamier than you'd expect) it would have been just another gnocchi dish, not particularly worthy of being on Lucques' menu. The presentation seemed a little sloppy--not what I would expect from such a highly regarded restaurant. The gnocchi were very light, and having the vegetables mixed in with the pasta kept the dish from being heavy, though it was still very filling. I wasn't sure where the ricotta was--was it in the gnocchi? Of course, ricotta is not the most flavorful of cheeses--it's most easily distinguished by its grainy consistency.
Chorizo stuffed chicken with romesco, rapini, golden raisins and almond aïoli
I'm usually not a fan of chicken, but this chicken was tender, juicy, and flawless. It tasted best when I managed to get a little of each ingredient all in one bite. The aioli made more sense here, since chicken isn't rich on its own.
One problem I have with restaurants like Lucques is that I often don't understand a third of the menu. What is romesco? What is rapini? If only I had Wikipedia by my side at restaurants!
Fresh mint tea
I'd never had fresh mint tea before. I didn't think the freshness would make that much of a difference, but wow! The flavor was so much more sweet and crisp than the flavor of dried mint tea. The misshapen brown sugar cubes served on the side were good enough to eat straight, and made the tea even better. There are other fresh herb flavors as well, like lavender and chamomile. If tea isn't your thing, you can order a port, madeira, coffee, or dessert wine.
Summer berry tart
I was so full that the only dessert I thought I could handle was the summer berry tart. I was incredibly impressed--each and every berry was perfect. The sauce drizzled on the plate thing has gotten kind of old if you ask me, especially because it so often looks sloppy, but it was a good way to visually tie all the stray berries together. The tart itself was also a pleasant surprise. Rather than a pie crust-like shell, the shell was thin, crisp, and sugary. Despite my fullness, I ate every bite. The only flaw was that the dessert had a few almonds on top, which I thought was overkill after the appetizer almonds and the almonds on the chicken.
Chocolate cream and hazelnuts with lady fingers and espresso
The chocolate cream dessert was really three layers of cream of varying thicknesses and it was incredible. It came with a deliciously thick espresso, too. I got to try ladyfingers for the first time--these are the cookies of tiramisu fame. On their own, the have a pleasantly light and spongy texture, but they don't taste like much. I dipped mine in the espresso. Yum. The hazelnuts weren't too noticeable, which is fine with me because I generally don't care for nuts. Most desserts are $10 (and worth it).
I love this bathroom!
I just love it when the bathroom is really a part of the restaurant. A strong citrus-scented candle made the room smell great and the decor was so serene. If you're seated in a noisy area, a few minutes of quiet can be very refreshing. The bathroom was so realxing that if there were a place to sit besides the toilet, I would have wanted to kick back and read a book! There are actual towels to dry your hands with, too. I always wonder if cloth towels are more environmentally friendly than paper towels. On one hand, you're saving trees. On the other hand, all the bleach that surely goes into washing the towels over and over, not to mention the bleach that was used on the cotton when the towels were made, isn't exactly good for the earth. Yes, dining out is full of political issues.
Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Lucques. I will order different dishes on my next visit, or maybe even go late and try the bar menu and cocktails. The service was a little slow and spotty at times, but since I like to take my sweet time over a good meal, it wasn't a significant problem. Admittedly, I was probably a little hard on the food because I expected it to live up to its great reputation. But despite a few shortcomings, I really enjoyed my meal. There is a certain amount of comfort that comes from eating at a restaurant like Lucques, where even before you arrive you can feel confident that you're in for a great evening.
8474 Melrose Ave
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Lunch noon-2:30pm Tue-Sat
Dinner 6pm-10pm Mon-Tue; 6pm-11pm Wed-Sat
Sunday Supper 5-10pm
Bar menu 9:30-10:00pm Mon-Tue
Valet parking, $4.50, or try your luck with street parking
Lucques' website (with menu)