I have dined at Lucca three times in recent weeks.
Which one do you want to hear about first?
The one where the food was bland and uninspiring and our server talked to us like we were on “Sesame Street”?
How about the night where the cooking was pretty much spot-on and delicious, and the service was first-rate?
Or should we get right to the third visit, in which nearly every dish ranged from bad to inedible? If this all seems hard to swallow, you haven’t met my spaghetti carbonara.
When I later recounted my ordeal to a friend, wondering how one place named Lucca could actually appear to be three different restaurants (all with an unfortunate choice in vinyl-like rattan chairs), she told me to look on the bright side: You have a one in three chance of having a fantastic time.
Thus, I would sum up my experiences as follows. Underwhelmed. Delighted. Horrified.
Indeed, the inconsistency is practically a theme, so apparent at this well-established midtown eatery featuring Californian and Mediterranean cuisine that I’m convinced the kitchen suffers from multiple personality disorder. And two of those are named Curly and Moe. Curly can’t cook. And Moe doesn’t taste what he cooks.
How does it compare to my recent visits to Ella Dining Room & Bar? It doesn’t. Ella, which is marginally more expensive, labors over every minuscule detail to deliver quality and consistency. Except for its well-honed service, Lucca sometimes seems to take its eye off the ball.
Let’s start with inedible. That would be the short ribs. We’re not normally inclined to order such a heavy, stick-to-the-ribs dish when it’s still sweltering outside, but it was on the menu, and we played along.
Short ribs done right can be hearty, simple and a bit of magic, featuring a relatively tough cut of meat that becomes tender and infused with the flavors of wine and herbs from a long, slow braise. Here, they were neither tender nor tasty. In fact, the beef was exceedingly chewy and bland, with only hints of the depth of flavor needed to make this dish special.
The friend who ordered the ribs featured prominently in my recent review of Bandera — he and his wife liked Bandera, while I could take it or leave it — and he was quick to note that this dish at Lucca should be a red flag. Someone wasn’t paying attention. Someone wasn’t tending to basic techniques. And someone wasn’t testing and tasting while cooking.
I had no choice but to agree. Here’s a local, casual/upscale restaurant that’s been around for a decade, and it’s struggling with consistency issues to a much greater extent than a chain restaurant, albeit a well-regarded chain.
And my friend was quick to note that if Bandera received 21/2 stars overall, surely Lucca has to be rated lower. He was making a lot of sense. I wanted to argue, but my mouth was full — with the worst spaghetti carbonara I can recall. It was so gummy and gooey, so lost in translation, that it would barely move through my mouth and allow me to swallow. Was this how it was all going to end for me? Overcome by a serving of unfortunate spaghetti?
But I wasn’t finished. This dish was trendy. It came with a big piece of pork belly. Why? I suppose the idea is this: Coat your mouth with gummy pasta, then chase it down with fatty pork. What beverage would I select to pair with it? Quaker State?
At the recent Farm-To-Fork Festival, Danny Johnson, the veteran butcher and co-owner of Taylor’s Market, noted during his butchering demonstration that three years ago he couldn’t give away pork belly. Now, due to the pork belly explosion at local restaurants, it’s a hot seller. When do trends die? When they jump the shark. This little piggy on my plate of inedible spaghetti just jumped the shark.
The chicken saltimbocca was the winner that night — only because it was passable. Wrapped in pancetta, the chicken was a bit dry and bland. We didn’t hate it. We found it boring.
What was going on here? I brought these two Bandera lovers to show them a local restaurant that does things the right way and I end up talking about how Bandera probably has the consistency thing down pat.
The night was a significant contrast to my second visit, where my pappardelle pasta with sausage and mushrooms was skillfully handled and loaded with flavor, with those wide ribbons of pasta cooked perfectly. An excellent dish all the way around.
So was the steak special. Here’s a restaurant in which the owners also own Lucky Dog Ranch in Dixon. In other words, they raise the cattle and supply the beef to their own restaurants (they also own Roxy). That doesn’t mean the steak is going to be any better, but it’s certainly something to believe in. I’ve had so-so steaks at Lucca in the past, but this was very good, a hangar steak with arugula and roasted herb potatoes. A simple, straight-forward dish done well.
Same goes for the pork chop, cooked medium-rare, with string beans and polenta. Nothing fancy here, but the cooking was precise and the pork of obvious quality, with just enough fat to give it flavor and character.
Then how are we to explain our first visit? No need to belabor the point, but it was as if different people with different approaches were handling the cooking. This crew neither seasoned the food with finesse nor tasted it to see if it had any flavor. At this level of dining, that’s not acceptable. And it made me lose a little confidence that I could recommend Lucca as a can’t-miss dining destination.
My subsequent visits only confirmed it. You’ll miss two times out of three.