Don’t even think about getting a dinner reservation at Lucques for this weekend, or the next, or the weekend after that: They’re booked up a month in advance, at least at any reasonable hour. "We can offer you 10:30," the hostess will say wistfully. Weekday reservations are possible, although prime-time (7–9 p.m.) seating is still at a premium. This is frustrating — and heartening. Now that the middle class again has some disposable income, maybe more young restaurateurs will be able to open their own establishments to popular acclaim; maybe a new generation of accomplished chefs will come to the fore in Los Angeles.
Michael’s in Santa Monica sent many a young chef on his or her way in the ’80s. This decade, Campanile’s kitchen has launched two chefs named Suzanne. A couple of years ago, Suzanne Tracht began presenting her terrific Pan-Asian food at Jozu, and now, a few blocks to the west on Melrose, Suzanne Goin’s Cal-Med food is drawing crowds at Lucques. (Goin’s impressive résumé also includes stints at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Arpège in Paris, among numerous other restaurants.) Goin’s partner in Lucques is Caroline Styne, the former manager of Jones Hollywood. The result of this partnership is predictable. Kitchen and management in this fledgling restaurant already run like a well-oiled machine.
Lucques exists in what used to be Harold Lloyd’s cozy little brick carriage house. (What is a carriage house, anyway? Did Lloyd really have carriages?) Since that quaint era, the space has housed several restaurants, most recently Mars and The Shed, both clubby and short-lived. Now, designer Barbara Barry has painted the walls a pale olive green (lucques is a kind of green olive), perfected the indirect lighting, and enlarged the seating capacity with a patio whose walls are so high and bare as to be vaguely prisonish — creeping fig or ivy might mitigate their severity. The dining room has gray booths and a fireplace and a snug, dark mahogany bar perfect for a late-night snack. The bar menu is full of good ideas: spaghetti carbonara, steak frites with béarnaise.
While Lucques is easily hip ’n’ trendy enough to have attitude, the staff is not the least bit chilly. Waiters are down-to-earth, knowledgeable and thoughtful, and the hostesses are charming. They’re charming even as they tell you there’s no table for two that isn’t in a cramped banquette, or in a corner by a door to the kitchen.
Fellow customers seem relaxed, adult, well-heeled, hip and interesting-looking. Lucques reminds me of dining in Northern California (San Francisco, Sonoma, Napa), where even in most upscale places, there’s a genial, relaxed attitude. Chez Panisse’s influence is palpable in the cooking: Lucques’ menu is small, the ingredients choice and seasonal, the cooking creative yet user-friendly. Goin’s touch is gentle: The broad, mild flavor of potato-and-green-garlic soup persuades rather than insists; a plate of slippery grilled leeks, skin-thin prosciutto and Dijon mustard is a play of texture and savory intensities — if only the leeks weren’t so chilled.
Goin’s menu is seeded with the new reliable standards now found in many L.A. restaurants — a caesar salad (here made with escarole), a roasted-beet salad with goat cheese, brandade, skate, short ribs, steak — but she’s given them her own stamp. Preserved lemon, flageolet, green lentils, green olives and chickpeas provide new flavors and subtleties. Snapper, for example, is roasted, then smothered with chopped green olives and preserved lemon (an addictively tart, salty condiment). In a more recent menu, chicken gets a similar, Moroccan treatment. A plate of mixed shellfish — mussels, clams and lobster — and chorizo is served with roasted tomato and the Provençal garlic mayonnaise, aioli. A cured pork chop, thick and succulent, is a fresh take on an all-American entrée: the meat darkly glazed and topped with sautéed apple slices, with crusty roast sweet potatoes on the side, as well as a dark, crinkled Tuscan cabbage. The equally delicious, and conceptually opposite of this rich, heavy meal, is grilled sea bass served on a bed of dressed greens with paper-thin slices of Meyer lemon.
Goin’s desserts tend to be exemplary versions of the new standards — pot de crème, chocolate bread pudding, fruit napoleon. In particular, her blood-orange sorbet, with mandarin oranges, tangerines and grapefruit, is virtuous and intoxicating. The serious (and glorious) bittersweetness of her dense chocolate cake is balanced by snowy-white, vanilla ice cream.
The atmosphere at Lucques, the food and the staff all seem wonderful — until the bill arrives. Herein is a surprise. The bill is steep. Steep enough, at any rate, to make everything suddenly seem not quite that wonderful. From the cost perspective, the food seems too muted in flavor, and a little too rustic or unrefined in concept. And the annoyance of being seated in a cramp ed, trafficky spot resurfaces. Thus, for all the ambiance, friendliness and culinary competence, I invariably left Lucques thinking, well, that was nice, but . . .
8474 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; (323) 655-6277. Open Tues.–Sun. for dinner. Entrées $16–$25. Full bar. Limited bar menu available after 11 p.m. Valet parking. AE, VISA, MC. Recommended dishes: leeks with prosciutto; grilled sea bass; short ribs; bittersweet chocolate cake; sorbets.