Lukshon is more elegant than Sang Yoon's Father's Office locations. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
It's usually the other way around. A high-end chef goes downscale for his or her flagship restaurant's spinoff. Think bistro, cafe or burger spot. But Sang Yoon, chef-owner of the phenomenally successful Father's Office, forges his own path. He's gone from a modest bar with food to an elegant but still casual Asian restaurant, possibly the most anticipated of the season's openings.
Not an easy jump. But though there's much to like about the new Lukshon in Culver City — the spicy chicken pops, the crispy coconut rice cakes, the Malaysian spiced short ribs! — in many ways it's still a work in progress.
In 2000, the former Michael's chef broke out on his own by buying a funky old bar named Father's Office on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. It wasn't an obvious move for such an accomplished chef at the time. And it's not as if Yoon brought in a fancy designer to rework the space. He left it pretty much as it was, upgraded the beer list considerably and sent out his newly minted Office Burger and sweet potato fries served in an adorable miniature shopping cart. Burger fans swooned over Yoon's version with caramelized onions, a tantalizing applewood-smoked bacon compote and blue cheese.
At the height of the frenzy, we even brought one of his burgers into the Times Test Kitchen to dissect its flavors. (We came pretty close.) "Our Office Burger" from August 2002 is still one of Times readers' favorite recipes.
Next, the prescient chef caught up with the Culver City restaurant scene just at the right moment with a second Father's Office in the Helms Bakery complex. Building it out took forever, though, an agony for burger aficionados. For Yoon, everything had to be just right. Father's Office 2.0 opened in April 2008, claiming a sprawling space on Helms Avenue complete with a long bar and a massive outdoor terrace. The new gastropub had a bigger kitchen too, which meant an expanded menu.
Big success. Lines. Every seat filled. Then came word that Yoon wanted to open a noodle parlor or some such, which made entire sense. Now that he was king of the burger, why not take on something Asian? Noodles are cheap, right? Perfect for his base of students, young professionals, freelancers and burger hounds.
But when Lukshon finally opened in late January, just down the street from Father's Office 2.0, the menu included just three noodle dishes, despite the fact that the name is a play on the Yiddish word for noodles, lokshen. (I know this thanks to a helpful reader, who also tells me a tall man is described as a "langer losh," a long noodle strand.)
Somehow along the way, the concept had morphed into a moderately high-priced Southeast Asian restaurant. This was no noodle joint but a sleek, contemporary restaurant designed by Ana Henton of MASS Architecture, with leather booths on one side of the dining room, a six-seat chef's counter and a tall glass communal table on the other with a full view of the goings on in the kitchen. Out front is an outdoor patio with comfortable seating, heaters and a roof overhead.
Yoon has crafted some fun and delicious dishes for Lukshon's compact menu. And some less so. To start, there are Malpeque oysters splashed with a bright sudachi long pepper mignonette. Bliss. Or raw Spanish mackerel, slivered and piled high with thin strands of green papaya in a coconut vinegar dressing lit up with jalapeño and lemongrass. Spicy chicken pops are delightful bites of chicken wing drumettes in a sticky hot kecap manis glaze, wonderful with one of the inventive cocktails.
Shrimp toasts resemble shrimp balls more than the traditional shrimp paste spread on toast. Here, rock shrimp balls are rolled in tiny croutons before frying for extra crunch. And I love the crispy coconut rice cakes, crackling crunchy and browned on the outside and lined up like dominoes, to eat with a dab of shallot chile jam.
A couple of the small plates, though, are inexplicably dull, namely the bland rectangle of roti topped with lamb sausage, chana dal and pickled cauliflower scribbled with yogurt. Duck popia are fat fresh spring rolls overstuffed with soft shredded duck, and with just a few wisps of pickled jicama or cilantro to cut the bland meatiness.
Though this part of the menu reads like street food, Lukshon is not inexpensive. Maybe that's why Yoon doesn't seem to be getting much of a crossover crowd. Walk down Helms Avenue any night and Father's Office is jammed while Lukshon is sometimes not, which is surprising given all the hype that preceded the restaurant's opening.
If you've somehow missed the concept, the server will remind you that everything is served family style. But that depends on how big a "family" you are, so for dishes that are discrete bites, be sure to ask how many items come in each order.