The top end of Silver Lake, away from the bustle of Sunset, is a family neighborhood, its residents much quieter and older than its extreme-hipster reputation might have you believe. It's a highly walkable part of Los Angeles, aside from one drawback: There's not much worth walking to. The reservoir provides something to walk around, certainly, and there's a smattering of cafés and shops. But with all the artsy affluence here, you'd think it would be ground zero for the type of classy but casual dining that abounds in places such as Venice and downtown. That's not the case.
I’d return to Lucky Duck for Stevens’ desserts alone
There's Barbrix, of course, the vaguely Mediterranean wine bar, which does a better job than any other restaurant within spitting distance of filling the niche of good taste; and Blair's, which is better than you'd expect but also far too expensive for everyday dining. There's the kid-friendly pasta house Speranza, as well as various gastropub and pizza outfits, which are fine in a pinch but hardly worth getting worked up over.
But really, for a neighborhood full of urbane food lovers with income to spare, the dearth of quality, family-friendly, modern American restaurants in Silver Lake is somewhat baffling.
Enter Lucky Duck, which opened in mid-January at the corner of Hyperion Avenue and Griffith Park Boulevard. Small but stylish, Lucky Duck offers exactly the type of ingredient-driven, quality dining this neighborhood begs for. Or almost exactly.
It certainly is a looker — big, bubble-like floating glass bulbs hang over the room, which is backed by a glowing yellow bar with subway-tile walls. The vibe is decidedly trendy, with T-shirted waiters who treat you like old friends, and mostly cozy, comfy seating (there's a communal table, of course). It's already hard to get in many nights of the week.
It might be the upscale, popular neighborhood restaurant from central casting. But as every casting director knows, looking the part isn't everything.
Lucky Duck comes to us from D'Nell Larson, John Himelstein and Manao Davidson, who also own Square One, the breakfast, brunch and lunch spot in East Hollywood. That trio also recently opened the welcome Square One at the Echo Park Boat House, a little café where you can grab a sandwich before you take your paddleboat out for a spin on Echo Park Lake. And Himelstein also owns Gingergrass, the Vietnamese spot across from the Silver Lake Library.
Lucky Duck is more ambitious than any of these other enterprises by quite a bit. The chef is Bryan Stevens, who worked his way up in the kitchen at Gingergrass. Before that, he cooked at the Water Grill downtown. He's serving straightforward, seasonal, new American cooking that nods to Italy but is grounded in California.
It's possible to have a meal here that's surprisingly good, better maybe than you'd expect. Early on, I was bowled over by a big, juicy pork chop, served with a bitter radicchio salad, exactly the kind of astute, straightforward, seasonal cooking you want in a neighborhood restaurant. Sea bream crudo was spiked with salty fried capers, and the fennel on the plate gave the raw fish a lovely hint of vegetal perfume. Stevens makes as an appetizer an omelet with fresh herbs and Parmesan, which is almost stunning in its simplicity and perfection.
A hearty house-made fettuccine, made with farro, bathed in pesto and peppered with flageolet beans, made for a delicious, comforting, late-winter meal a few weeks back. And a “couscous” made with cauliflower, spiked with curry oil, apple, medjool dates and pistachios, is the kind of inventive vegetable dish that turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Given all this, it's too bad that it's also possible to have a fairly disappointing experience at Lucky Duck — a “salted and roasted” half chicken that actually needs salt; an overseasoned burger that tastes more like meatloaf; sinewy halibut tartare that's obviously made from the scraps of the halibut entree on the same menu.
The fish coming out of this kitchen has been both sublime and problematic. An early cod with winter succotash had a gorgeous, ethereal quality. More recently, halibut came overcooked under a heavy romesco, a sauce that would be better suited to something far meatier.
Even when the food is good, there's a glaring issue at Lucky Duck, which is that the whole experience feels like it should be cheaper than it is, by quite a bit. It's a ballsy move to charge $7 for fewer than 10 french fries, no matter that they're cooked in duck fat and stacked Jenga-like on the plate. And $3.50 is a lot for one oyster. The wine list, chosen by Lou Amdur and full of incredibly fun finds, nonetheless skews pricey for a neighborhood joint. Silver Lake is just begging for the type of restaurant Lucky Duck purports to be, but the price point may be a turnoff for many.
Regardless, I'd return to Lucky Duck for Stevens' desserts alone, which are of a breed and quality rarely found outside of our best modern Italian restaurants. Light, crispy and addictive potato doughnuts come over a puckery lemon curd. Vanilla budino, topped with sticky caramel, is the exact right consistency, smooth and generous.
Lucky Duck's success will hinge on how far the residents of upper Silver Lake are willing to drive to get a quality meal. Because, for this price and genre, there are more consistently excellent meals to be had a neighborhood or two away.
Another perplexing dining scene deficiency at this end of Silver Lake? Brunch. Given the owners' expertise in that arena at Square One (as well as Stevens' foreshadowing with that fantastic omelet), it's a safe bet that Lucky Duck will do the eggs-and-pancakes dance with skill. But we'll have to wait and see — right now the restaurant is closed Sundays; brunch is expected to begin in early summer.
If the cooking evens out, though — if all meals here were like the best meals here, with food as cared for as the place's appearance — there would be a very good argument for people all over town to make the trek to Lucky Duck. I know Silver Lake would be incredibly grateful to boot.
LUCKY DUCK | Two stars | 2630 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake | (323) 686-6304 | luckyduckbysquareone.com | Mon.-Thurs., 6-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 6-10:30 p.m. | Entrees, $15-$25 | Beer and wine served | Lot and street parking