A new bistro puts hospitality and great food at the top of the menu.
HEAVEN KNOWS, I love a good microseasonal, native root vegetable bar with no table service and no reservations as much as the next Seattle food obsessive. Really. But would it be heresy to suggest—in the shadow of this month’s cover story—that our restaurants have gone a little fetishistic in their single-minded devotion to the almighty ingredient?
You know the restaurants I’m talking about. The chef presents a strictly limited seasonal selection—or chooses your meal outright. Perhaps dinner is served at a set time each evening; perhaps you order at the counter without aid of a waiter. You either had to reserve four months ago or weren’t allowed to reserve at all. And once you’re seated, after nodding awkwardly at the strangers you’ll share a table with, you find that the little generosities of hospitality—comfortable chairs, salt on the table—haven’t been given as much attention as the farmer who grew the tomatoes, the chef who prepared them, and the sublime transcendence of the fruit itself.
Important, yes. And you may enjoy your dinner. But your enjoyment is beside the point, because your job is to worship the food. I was thinking about all this the other night at Luc, where I sat, well, worshipping the food. I swizzled a basil-orange sparkler on a comfortable chair, at a reserved table, nibbling souffle crisps—more on these little miracles later—and perusing a menu (a menu!) of French bistro classics, quizzing my waiter (my waiter!) on what was choicest among them. The frank and funny gent recommended a tart little salad of arugula and apple, which balanced bitter and sweet with dollops of almost meaty caramelized shallot. We paired it with a crackle-crusted margherita pizza, glazed with the brightest tomato sauce I can remember tasting. The night’s pasta mingled fresh noodles with bits of moist duck breast, asparagus, and carrots in a rich and subtle coriander sauce.
I looked around the swanky amber-lit space and could barely make out the elegant Moroccan light fixtures through the masses of people. A beleaguered hostess graciously met the demands of two entrances—one in the bar, one in the back dining room—through which, I learned later, would walk 200 diners that night. That’s a lot of business for a 75-seat establishment—and at that moment all 200 seemed to be there together, laughing and noshing and turning Luc into a sexy cocktail party in full roar.
This, dear reader, is a restaurant.
A restaurant where attention to place and to plate are not mutually exclusive priorities. Because make no mistake: the salmon filet on my special was line-caught; the morels fresh from the sandy soils of Walla Walla and top of their season. For chef and owner Thierry Rautureau, the restaurateur’s restaurateur who has headed Rover’s for 23 years, flawless seasonal foodstuffs aren’t a headline, they’re a matter of course; the essential foundation for a dining experience that encompasses much more than food.
The impish Rautureau, wearing that omnipresent fedora of his, worked the room with relish. No other chef of his stature owns the front of a house as effortlessly as this Frenchman, whose goofy tagline, “Chef in the Hat,” was created, in fact, to relax the starched reputation that tends to attach to a French chef charging $135 for eight courses. Now the casual Luc finishes the job.
The overriding vibe at Luc is that of neighborhood denizens dropping by in their jeans. Of course when that neighborhood includes Madison Park, Washington Park, and Denny-Blaine, those jeans may more closely resemble a mortgage payment. (And “dropping by” remains more of a theoretical construct than a possibility in this popular room.)
Still, Luc is every inch a neighborhood third place. Rautureau chuckles that if a party arrives through the Madison door for a reservation on a table that’s still occupied in back, he’s learned not to panic—the table will be long free by the time the newcomers backslap their way through the bar. Indeed, many of these folks became Luc’s patrons before construction even began, through a creative deal Rautureau dreamed up watching Barack Obama’s grassroots fundraising success. He presold $1,000 gift certificates, redeemable at Luc or Rover’s for $1,300—raising dollars, yes, but also stimulating a less quantifiable kind of investment in the success of the operation.
Consequently, Luc already conveys the seasoned identity of a joint three times its age, anchored by the roots of a very French family tree. An oversize portrait of Rautureau’s parents looks down from the north wall, a stirring mix of youthful libido and ’50s innocence. That’s Luc, Rautureau’s dad, a hardworking bulldozer driver from Brittany whose “beautiful, simple life” inspired both the restaurant and the classic simplicity of its menu.
It’s not hard to imagine Luc père savoring dishes like a juicy, loose-shanked steak-frites, flavorful in a peppercorn sauce alongside beef-flavored fries; or Rautureau’s stunning boeuf Bourguignon, loaded with moist ragged hunks of beef in a sauce fathomless with butter and beef stock and Burgundy. Chicken liver mousse, which little Thierry learned to make from his maternal grandmother, is a textbook version of the velvet spread. The halibut sandwich leafy with arugula and bound with gribiche —a cold French sauce of hard yolks emulsified with oil, then studded with shallots, capers, and herbs—would have pleased the good driver to no end, never mind that the exquisite Columbia City Bakery bread would’ve gone to pieces in his hands. Luc is a place where you can lick your fingers.
Newfangled flourishes are few but meaningful. Harissa electrifies the aioli, elevating a beef burger into an extraordinary beef burger. And those featherweight starters, souffle potato crisps, are not a classic of the French repertoire—yet. A labor-intensive regimen of blanching, cooling, and thrice-frying potatoes yields a crop of puffy fries, air-filled like souffles with moist, almost creamy interiors and impossibly crispy crusts. Best appetizer in the city right now, folks.
Food of this caliber establishes, in case anyone was wondering, that Rautureau is a great chef. But the diner’s experience eating that food—in this fine place, under such fond care, alongside all these folks… that’s what makes Luc a great restaurant.
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