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Count on Lucques to get it right

Time for that important holiday dinner out? As always, Suzanne Goin's got your back. Nine years in, this chef's chef continues to delight.

December 19, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

AFTER the din of the restaurant last night, Lucques is heaven. No raucous birthday parties or pounding heavy-metal soundtrack. No standing around waiting for our table, whacked by passing monolithic handbags. I don't have to fight my way in or worry that the reservation desk has lost our reservation. I don't have to wonder whether the chef is in or not, because either way the food is consistently delightful and original.

I'm forever suggesting Lucques to anybody who loves to eat but also wants to spend time with friends or family over dinner. It's a great restaurant for entertaining and quiet enough to talk. The atmosphere is sophisticated and understated. Designer Barbara Barry's transformation of silent-film star Harold Lloyd's former carriage house into a smart, contemporary restaurant still holds up nine years later. I love the small, 10-seat bar backed with rows of wine bottles; the comfy upholstered booths; the soothing palette of taupe, cream and dark wood; and the square box lampshades that dangle overhead.

As soon as you sit down, thick slices of crusty bread arrive in a coiled reed banneton, the basket French bakers use to proof their dough. Beside it is a shallow tin of fragrant almonds toasted in olive oil and the green, torpedo- shaped Lucques olives that give the restaurant its name, along with good butter and crystals of fluffy fleur de sel.

What a pleasure. Everything about Lucques is just so, well, civilized.

I hadn't been back for more than a year when I stopped in recently -- more than once -- for a few thoroughly enjoyable meals. The cooking from owner-chef Suzanne Goin, author of the cookbook "Sunday Suppers at Lucques," has a strong point of view. It's Mediterranean filtered through a California sensibility, sensuous and direct.

Goin doesn't cook with an eye on fashion. She just cooks. And her food is very personal, very seasonal. She's a chef's chef, one much appreciated by her peers, who go to Lucques for her sophisticated comfort food.

Goin keeps it simple. It's such a relief to slide into one of Lucques' plush, curvy booths and be handed a single-page menu and discover that every dish sounds delicious.

Instead of scouring a long, verbose menu to find even one dish I want to order, here I could happily order anything listed.

At this time of year, you'll find chestnuts and persimmons and winter greens dotted throughout the menu. Flame grapes and walnuts, scallops in the shell, and the short ribs that are Goin's signature, along with the swell grilled club steak for two.

There's something for everyone -- carnivores, vegetarians, adventurous eaters and fraidy-cats who aren't comfortable venturing beyond lamb chops and potatoes. And that's exactly why Lucques is such a good choice for entertaining.

On a rainy night, five of us order practically the entire menu. The restaurant is half empty when we arrive, then bit by bit fills up with an urbane grown-up crowd -- women in suits or interesting dresses, men in buttery black leather jackets and black T-shirts or turtlenecks. You don't see a lot of baseball caps worn backward.

Service is always warm and professional. The wait staff knows practically everything about the food, and if there's a question a server can't answer, someone will go and ask. Without hovering or intruding, servers are there when you need them, watching over your table in the best possible sense.

To start, there's a perfect autumn soup -- pureed white beans garnished with little, wonderful sheep's-milk ricotta gnocchi and roasted chestnuts in a swirl of olive oil. Everybody at the table wants more, the flavors are so beguiling.

Hamachi (yellowtail) crudo is terrific too, thin slices of raw fish with a dab of green harissa, a variation on the North African-inspired hot sauce that's hot and salty and sour at the same time, a brilliant contrast to the crudo.

Bite through the crunch of sauteed veal sweetbreads to find an exquisite creaminess underneath. That's all about texture, but what's equally intriguing is the flavors of slivered dates, sunchokes and fingerlings in a honey vinegar against mild sweetbreads. The combination is sublime.

Beet salad must appear on practically every menu in town, but this one stands out for brilliant red beets mixed with striped Chioggia beets and long skinny gold carrots, the root vegetables' sweetness a natural with the black oil-cured olives and the creamy, salty feta crumbled over the top.

Goin's starters are always so strong that I'm tempted to make two or three of them a meal. And sometimes do.


Bucking the trendy

With so many new restaurants opening this year, older, very good restaurants sometimes get lost in the stampede to check out the latest hot spot. But for an important dinner, let me remind you that the trendy new places are still works in progress: You never know what you're going to get on any given night. One time, everything could go like clockwork. Another night, everything's off.

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