It is a warm spring night, with a hint of the Santa Anas in the air, and the least likely place in Los Angeles to experience a pastoral groove is probably the outside seating area at Lukshon, in the alleyway behind the Helms Bakery complex, settled around a table, waiting for the wine dude to return with a freakishly obscure bottle of listan negra, which is a kind of high-acid Canary Islands beaujolais.
Yet it feels both buzzy and peaceful out here by the driveway, the music drony and ambient, the restored old bakery sign exploding into neon fireworks high overhead, the roar of the throngs at Father's Office far away registering as a murmur. The neon laundry sign that once announced the restaurant Beacon flashes brilliant blue and fades.
The listan negra appears. It meshes surprisingly well with the spicy chicken pops, a labor-intensive reinterpretation of the buffalo wing glazed with sweet Indonesian soy sauce and Sichuan peppercorns. The evening feels like L.A.
Lukshon is the new restaurant from Sang Yoon, a chef who became famous for his idiosyncratic cheeseburgers at Father's Office, where his no-ketchup, no-hostess, no-kids policies became perhaps better known than his french fries or tapas plates. (The menu disclaimer "Changes and Modifications Politely Declined," which has since spread to restaurants all over the country, started with Yoon.)
Yoon's reputation in chef circles is robust, considering that up to now he has basically been running burger-centric beer bars. Lukshon is Yoon's most completely realized concept, an edgy, grown-up restaurant serving an Asianized, farm-centered, technique-oriented small-plates menu, very much like Animal, Lazy Ox, A-Frame and Red Medicine, but with even more polish: a new sort of cuisine. While old-school chefs are knocking themselves out trying to duplicate complex Asian standards like Beijing duck and chile crab, Yoon is finding the beauty in redefining sticky Chinese pork ribs, Spanish mackerel sashimi, the Singapore Sling and the takeout-dive favorite shrimp toast, which he turns inside out by dredging delicate cylinders of chopped rock shrimp in tiny croutons, then deep-frying them to a delicate crunch.
If you were to look at many of the new heroes of cooking in America, guys like Yoon, Kogi's Korean taco master Roy Choi and ramen-slinging David Chang of New York's Momofuku, you would see Asian-born guys classically trained in European techniques, working in great American kitchens, who decided to redirect their imagination and project their vision of American cuisine through the lens of street food. Their dishes have a directness of flavor, and their high-low juxtapositions still have the ability to shock, even in a world where pandan leaf and kalamansi lime have become nearly as common as salt and pepper on fashionable American tables. If you ring a change on trout meunière, there are probably six old dudes and seven Frenchmen in Los Angeles who would notice the difference. Alter the taco, or the bowl of ramen, or the cheeseburger, and you've opened up the avant garde to everybody with a Yelp account.
Order Yoon's foie gras ganache and you get smooth, cool cubes of pureed duck liver, dusted with powdered carob and sprinkled with nuggets of what resembles Rice Krispies Treats. You probably could sell them as fancy chocolates in a shop on Abbot Kinney, and I had a very similar preparation, frozen and stuffed into profiteroles, as dessert in the Portland restaurant Le Pigeon.
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I've never had anything quite like the dish of tiny bulbs of squid stuffed with fermented ground pork, but I've stared at recipes for it in Vietnamese cookbooks. The sauce, a kind of pesto made with the pungent Vietnamese herb rau ram and Malaysian candlenuts, is from a fantasyland where Liguria meets Kuala Lumpur. You may know roti canai, a kind of oily, griddle-baked flatbread, from one of the Malaysian restaurants that serve it, but Sang Yoon's version — crisp, small and layered with lamb sausage and a kind of deconstructed chutney — is more like a Malaysian pizza.
So when you order beef tartare at Lukshon, the lozenges of raw, chopped meat come out resembling the Isaan tartare called koi soi, a raw-beef salad seasoned with citrus, ground rice and herbs, although not, I suspect, with the requisite beef bile. That slivered Spanish mackerel with green papaya and coconut vinegar is a riff on a traditional Filipino ceviche, although not one that most Filipinos would recognize.
Authenticity is the least of Yoon's fixations — I suspect he couldn't care less that his thick, coconut-intensive version of the Chiang Mai–style noodle dish khao soi is much closer to a richer Malaysian laksa, or that his garlic pork belly, a stir-fry of braised chunks of fat meat with vegetables and chewy rice cakes, splits the difference between Sichuan twice-cooked pork and Korean tteokbokki. Do his fried cakes of coconut rice, with chile-shallot sambal, or "steak au poivre" rubbed with Sichuan peppercorns appear in any known cuisine? Probably not. But what matters is that they're good.
LUKSHON | 3639 Helms Ave., Culver City | (310) 202-6808, lukshon.com | Dinner Mon.-Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m. | AE, MC, V | Full bar | Lot parking | Small plates $11-$16, large plates $17-$36 | Recommended dishes: beef tartare, baby Monterey squid, skirt steak