Photo by Anne Fishbein
672 SOUTH LA BREA AVENUE hasn't been a very auspicious address for several restaurants. Robert Gadsby's eponymous restaurant didn't survive, and a fusion fiasco called One also went under. Now the space is in the hands of veteran restaurateur Philip Chiang and his partner, Kim Nguyen, who clearly hope to finesse any lingering curse through sheer optimism: The stylish, casual café has been christened Lucky Duck.
Chiang was born in Shanghai, raised in Tokyo and trained as a graphic designer in Los Angeles. After that, his mother put him to work running her restaurant -- the Mandarin in Beverly Hills. Chiang's first solo effort was the hip, radically minimal and instantly popular Mandarette, which he sold some years ago. Since then he has served as a consultant for the phenomenally successful P.F. Chang's China Bistro chain. Lucky Duck is a smaller, more intimate and personal establishment, much like his original Mandarette. The décor of the tall, light-filled room is spare and beautifully done: a few excellent Asian artworks, a modest wine-bottle collection, a smartly cozy bar. It may be the most visually pleasurable remodel of the year.
Lucky Duck is another example of a new trend in pan-Asian establishments (of which Mandarette was certainly a pioneer) whose menus routinely offer Thai, Chinese and Japanese dishes. It is perhaps significant that it has replaced a restaurant devoted to fusing various cuisines, often on a single plate. Fusion experiments in general, and One's in particular, can result in peculiar combinations and inedible murkiness. These days, many chefs prefer to offer various distinct plates rather than one jumbled-up stew.
Lucky Duck's menu is predominantly Chinese, but there are also, for example, Japanese chiles, Vietnamese spring rolls and pad Thai. Actually, the menu reads like a pan-Asian greatest-hits list. Wine pairings are suggested with many dishes. For summer rolls, champagne; for steamed rock cod, sauvignon blanc; for duck, syrah . . . There's a good selection of cold sake. Hot sake comes in machine-calibrated individual portions served in round-bottomed serving bottles: You have to tip them upside down to extract the few allotted drops.
Dishes descended directly from the Mandarette menu may be the worst choices. The scallion pancakes are thick and doughy, and come with a sweet bottled plum sauce. Tofu topped with a pesto of chopped cilantro and scallions -- a Mandarette standby -- is here less than fresh, bland, and in one solid block instead of bite-size cubes. And the "lemon lemon chicken" tastes like chicken simmered in Jell-O pudding.
But there are better things to eat. The green-papaya salad is crunchy and quenching and at just the right level of sneaky hot. Yushiang eggplant with soy and chile sauce is big-flavored and alluringly soft. Sichuan string beans are slightly overcooked, but still addictive, alive with spices. I have yet to taste a bad version of miso-marinated sea bass, and Lucky Duck's is as good as any.
Many of the dishes share a spareness and simplicity with the restaurant's design aesthetic, and sometimes less feels like less. I don't mind getting a plain plate of dumplings in a huge dumpling house (where they cost around $3), but here those six lukewarm potstickers (for $7) don't look, or taste, very exciting -- and they have none of that stick-to-the-pot crispness. Sometimes it seems that the flavors have been overly tempered for tender Western palates. "Beef Outta Mongolia," with leeks, is bland. And the "lucky roast duck" is a misnomer -- for the duck and the diners. The kitchen can cook well, but not all the time.
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For dessert, have the hot sautéed bananas with coconut sorbet, or a rich chocolate-pistachio cake -- or walk up the street and treat yourself to dessert at Campanile's bar.
The club crowd comes on weekends, because the place is so attractive. But filling Lucky Duck on weekdays will take more than luck -- it will take better, more consistent cooking.LA
Lucky Duck, 672 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 931-9660. Open daily for dinner. Entrées $9$16. Beer, wine, sake. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.