Jeff Smith 2 p.m., Dec. 18
New "bar and kitchen" in Bay Park
"Weird place to put a restaurant," my friend said as we tried to nab a parking spot around Luce. There are a few parking spots right next to the building after turning off Morena Boulevard, but the restaurant comes at you fast around a corner and it's easy to breeze right by. I'd mentioned that the Bay Park neighborhood is home to a few good spots when I wrote about Bull's BBQ, and Luce is the newest place to open up there.
"Luce" means "light" and the expensive-looking faux droplights that hang above the tables inside make use of those vintage-style bulbs that burn with orange filaments and luminesce in the off-white spectrum. While these things have trended wildly in restaus of late, I found myself enjoying the orange hued barroom, even though it wasn't ideal for photos.
The tall building gave way to a smallish interior so that the tables and bar seats were all filled to capacity with relative ease on a Friday night. Both the kitchen and service staff ended up being overwhelmed by the influx of customers and my order was forgotten for about half an hour. I had to chase it down and the bartender apologetically rectified the situation as quickly as possible. It was a bad gaffe, but the staff rallied with humility and didn't commit the cardinal error of trying to excuse the mistake. They owned the problem and fixed it as best they could. In fact, the bartender thanked me for being cool about the whole thing rather than assuming the restaurant got a pass because they were busy. It doesn't excuse the fact that the server forgot my food, but certainly puts the error in a much brighter context!
The pork drumsticks ($6) had been trimmed to emulate chicken wings, but I suspect they were bits of short-rib like you would see in a Korean galbi. The tender meat was coated in a sweet glaze and, unlike chicken wings, the ratio of meat:bone was very high. Indeed, the four pieces had nearly as much meat as an order of chicken wings would. The giardiniera that sat alongside the pork looked out of place somehow, but its piquancy was excellent with the succulent meat.
Lamb tacos ($8) were served on flour tortillas with cabbage, a muted salsa, creme fraiche, and a big splash of lime juice. The braised lamb shank hadn't been prepared in with Mexican flavors, despite its tortilla surroundings, and the distinctive flavor of the meat stood on its own (a trend that seemed to permeate Luce's menu).
The roast chicken entree seemed a bit expensive at $17--we are talking chicken here, after all--but the carefully cooked meat justified itself to some extent. The skin had acquired a deep, golden color that makes my mouth water as I type this. Whatever happens in the kitchen at Luce, it's clear the chef knows how meat should be cooked. The mashed potatoes were unimpressive and the carrot/brocollini combo was well-prepared even if a bit pedestrian. More exciting side dishes would have really let the excellent chicken shine.
A more reasonably priced burger ($12) once again let the meat do the talking. The delicate ground beef had been coaxed into a patty by very gentle hands and it gave way with only the slightest provocation. Surrounded by sweet brioche and topped with plenty of excellent cheddar cheese, the burger could have been improved only by being larger in size and if it had been offered to temperature instead of an obligatory medium. The fries were too soft for my liking, but since they served as a vessel for the absurdly garlicky and satisfying aioli on the side it didn't matter quite as much. Off the record, it seems like there's nowhere to get fries without truffle oil anymore....
To drink, of course there is beer. The cocktail menu doesn't boggle the mind, but an "apple pie" Mule with apple bourbon and ginger beer was very good nonetheless. A "violette Paloma" might be the most interesting drink on the menu, however, as the violet and grapefruit combination could prove meritorious. $7-$10 wines by the glass are probably the best bet, as the cuisine seems to demand good quantities of vin ordinaire.
Luce's food and service could both use a little polish, but the basic building blocks of a good restaurant are all there. With seamless service and a little novelty to embolden the technically sound cooking, things will be really on point for this new spot.
1959 Morena Boulevard
Dinner served daily at 5
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