Successful restaurants, whether they're diners or gastronomic temples, emit a subsonic pulse that electrifies conversations and quickens laughs. It's the vibe of being at the right place at the right time.
Most of the time, that vibe is produced when a quorum of like-minded folks -- noodle-slurpers, theatergoers, little-black-dress-ers -- comes together. That night at Luka's, though, we were surrounded by a completely heterogeneous crowd. Next to us, a gray-haired lawyer type in a skirt suit studied her notes, absentmindedly picking at her fries. Across from her, a sausage-shaped eight-year-old in pink shimmied to the DJ's beats as her mother and a friend split a bottle of wine. Successful-looking thirtysomethings of all shapes and hues leaned against the bar, sipping martinis, while younger groups crowded into booths or eyeballed one another over the pool table.
But there was no mistaking it: Luka's had the vibe. The buzz surrounding the restaurant-slash-lounge has been building for quite a while. It's taken owner Rick Mitchell almost a year to renovate the old Hofbrau, a local boozer landmark since the 1940s, but he pulled it off in early October. Mitchell originally wanted to open an intimate wine bar on Lake Merritt. But when he settled on the 5,000-square-foot space, he switched over to beer -- and the wine bar became a "California brasserie," inspired by the casual, bustling beer-oriented restaurants of Belgium and France.
Finally. For the past decade, I've been waiting for some Bay Area restaurant to pick up on the Belgian brasserie fad that has already staled in London and New York. See, I spent a year in high school as an exchange student in French-speaking Belgium, and all I've wanted was a place to sit down for the holy trinity of Belgian cuisine: mussels, fries, and beer. And Luka's has the essentials down pat.
For those of you who remain sadly ignorant, the Belgians claim to have invented fries. It galls them that Americans call pommes frites French. Fries aren't just a snack there, they're the staff of life -- what you get when you're on your way home from school, a quick lunch if you're working, the only thing you can think of eating when you need to sop up some of the dozen-plus beers you've downed before heading home.
Though Luka's serves its Belgian fries American-style in a stainless-steel martini shaker, not a paper cone, they're the most authentic frites I've eaten in the United States: skinless, thick, and square, with an evenly golden crust and floury, soft centers. Any friterie in Liège will offer more than a dozen sauces, from plain mayonnaise to curry sauce. Luka's gives you three ramekins: a smoked-paprika ketchup, a fiery chipotle mayonnaise, and a lackluster herbed aioli. As I said, Belgian-inspired.
Luka's chef, Jacob Alioto, whose last stint was as a sous-chef at Lalime's, has designed his menu for drinkers and light diners, weighting it toward shellfish, salads, and charcuterie. The items read well on the page, but execution can be uneven. The chef has thought up a lot of creative combinations, but hasn't always invested the time to ensure the details work.
Take, for example, his tuna stuffed with celery-root rémoulade. Sounded interesting, looked interesting: thin sheets of raw ahi rolled around a creamy salad of shredded celery root, the tubes placed atop a small mound of watercress. But the root was crunchier than all get-out -- the raw tuna's sexy texture tasted like mush next to it -- and the flavors of the fish roulade clashed with the ultrasweet balsamic vinaigrette, which was so strong that it obliterated the peppery flavor of the greens. Or perhaps I was just sore over the rillettes I ordered. Basically pork cooked down in its own fat until it disintegrates into lard-coated shreds of meat, rillettes are normally a beautiful thing. The finely puréed pork pâté I received? Not rillettes. In place of a lardy richness, the smooth spread had an oddly bitter, cloying aftertaste.
Most of the savory dishes contained a mixture of graceful and clumsy touches. A salad of baby red leaf lettuce with pecans was dressed much more sparingly than the watercress, but the effect was spoiled by a spiced-pear chutney so vinegary that it made my mouth constrict. Coq au vin was braised in red wine and chocolate and served with a whipped-squash puree that echoed the sweetness of the sauce without turning the meal into a sugar bomb. However, the chicken hadn't been reheated long enough in the sauce to reabsorb it, so it came off dry.
The most successful entrées were the roast pork loin and skate wings. The pork was crusted on the outside and juicy inside, with a mustard and red wine reduction sauce and fluffy spaetzle. Meanwhile, browning the skate in butter enhanced its nutty, mild flesh, and butter also enrichened the mashed potatoes, but not obscenely so. An herbal, citrusy shallot and preserved-lemon sauce brought the dish to life. And desserts such as a duo of apricot-chardonnay and spiced-pear sorbets and a buttery, caramel-drizzled almond-apple galette demonstrated delicacy and sure-footedness.
But even if the more complicated stuff stumbles, you can always fall back on the basics. Make like a Belgian and order moules with your frites. Luka's serves mussels five ways, from classic French moules marinières (white wine, garlic, parsley) to Spanish modern (smoked pimentón, garlic confit, and watercress). I swabbed plump bivalves in a superb bouillabaisse broth perfumed with dusty saffron, its gentle white-wine acidity giving by the coy sweetness of anisette liqueur.
The beer is worth a trip on its own. Other than Lucky 13 in Alameda, I don't think you can find another place in the East Bay with as big a selection of Belgian beers as Luka's. Stronger, richer, and more complicated than the rest of the world's brews, Belgian beers agree with food: Try an Ommegang Witte with your mussels instead of sauvignon blanc, a St. Feuillien Tripel in lieu of merlot with your coq au vin. Connoisseurship in Belgium is so fanatical that each beer must come in its own glass. To serve a beer in another brand's glass is tantamount to spitting at the customer: If you try it, you'd better be able to defend yourself with your fists.
The service is still a little rough around the edges, especially since Luka's mutates from bar to restaurant to club as each night progresses. Sometimes the servers get lost in the crowds, and have to battle their way back to your table. But the hosts, waiters, and busers all make up for their inexperience by being nice. Not I'm-earning-my-20-percent-tip-aren't-I nice, but genuinely nice. Actually, that warmth, far more than the food or the decor, seems to be key to Luka's appeal. Well, that and the beer.
The winning vibe starts at lunch and goes all the way through happy hour until last call at 2:00 a.m. Starting about ten o'clock, the after-work crowd cedes to a late-night one, with the DJ in the lounge firing up the turntables and the dinner menu giving way to bar snacks. Whether it has hooked into the zeitgeist or just hit on the right formula, Luka's almost succeeds at being all things to all people.
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