The Chef in the Hat's New Venture Fails to Knock the Socks Off
The hamburger at Luc is mind-boggling. In order to understand the hamburger, which costs $11.95, it is instructive to sit at the small kitchen counter in the furthest reaches of the restaurant. Here you will see the grill man squeeze-bottle generous squiggles of olive oil onto the insides of both sides of the bun (ciabatta, from Columbia City Bakery), which is then warmed. Then a large amount of Luc's aioli is slathered on—a lot of aioli, glistening peaks and valleys of it, enough to make the biggest mayo fan feel a little queasy. The burger—Washington-raised, 95 percent grass-fed natural beef—is introduced. Quantities—giant spoonloads—of both tomato jam and caramelized onions are loaded on. It is all crowned with fresh arugula, and you smash on the top bun yourself.
Further compression—by serrated knife or just teeth—causes an extrusion of onions, tomato jam, and aioli of epic proportions. This is the kind of burger that people call "indulgent": the oil overload of aioli, the sweetness of both the onions and the jam, the abundant drippage. Luc's website calls its food "heartwarming," but this burger has other designs on your cardiac system. If you wanted to taste the meat, you're out of luck. Your napkin looks like something terrible happened. The arugula never had a chance.
The kitchen-counter seats are not so great otherwise: The chairs are crammed in less than a couple inches from each other, and it's hot. The chefs themselves must be broiling, and the intensity when they get slammed is stressful to anyone with an empathetic bone in their body. And if the owner of Luc, Thierry Rautureau, aka the Chef in the Hat, comes back to quietly yet visibly chew out the sauté cook—four feet from you and several Madison Park matrons—it's kind of horrifying. Eventually he realizes, and he takes the guy around a corner, but still: This is not what an open kitchen is meant to display.
The Chef in the Hat spends most of his time at Luc hatting about the place, stopping at tables and working the crowd. He has helmed Seattle fine-dining standby Rover's, just a few steps away, for 23 years. Luc is his entrance into the higher-volume bistro market, his "French-American" cafe named after his father. (If the reformatting of Mistral into Mistral Kitchen and Lampreia into Bisato are any indication, fine-dining restaurants now require a midrange life ring to stay afloat.) The decor doesn't go too far in any particular direction: dark red and yellow walls, dark wood booths and tables, a narrow bar area, some odd colorized-looking paintings of the Chef in the Hat as a child and his parents in their youth. It gets very loud when it's crowded, which is pretty much all the time already; try for a reservation on a Tuesday, and you might get offered 5:00 or 8:45 p.m. Apparently, the area was dying for something exactly like Luc (though Voilà! Bistrot across the street offers much the same menu and has for years—that guy should really get a hat). In terms of patrons, you'll see a lot more gray hair here than elsewhere. One night recently, what appeared to be three of the Golden Girls shuffled through, all fancy-pantsuited up. Another evening, a little old man in a windowpane-checked shirt slept sitting up at his table amid the din. It wasn't even seven o'clock yet.
If the burger is problematic, the trout amandine ($19.50) is a dish where Luc's tendency toward excess (is that the American part of French-American?) is a pleasure. Approximately two full cups of slivered almonds, all burnished to toasty in approximately the same amount of sizzling butter and oil, are poured in an amazing gush of lavalike goodness over the splayed-out fish. Hints of lemon are incorporated, almost only a scent instead of a taste. The fine, thin flesh of the fish melts in your mouth. And if there's anything better than a freshly toasted nut, it's two full cups of them, toasted in butter. It all sits in a shining pool of grease, which doesn't seem to have any adverse impact. This is the one thing I've had at Luc that I'd go back for.
In the good-if-not-overwhelming category, there was a chilled asparagus soup ($6.50): cleanly grassy-tasting, with a large lobe of crème fraîche and olive oil on top to fulfill the cholesterol requirement. There was a pasta of the day ($6 for a half order): linguine with appropriately crisp asparagus tips and peas in a rich (of course) morel cream sauce—good, though it could've used a little more thyme, a little salt and pepper, some kind of enlivening. A pickled mackerel appetizer ($9.25) was as good as pickled mackerel gets, both silky and tangy, but the potatoes in the potato salad were on the hard side. Luc's skinny, golden french fries ($5.50) are tasty, though not as good as the best twice-fried kind; the soufflé potato crisps are zeppelin emissaries of the deep fryer, fun for the novelty of them but overpriced at $7.50. Desserts—butterscotch crème brûlée ($7.25), rice pudding ($6.25)—were classic in style, well executed. Portions are large. The service, a source of some contention in reviews on the internet, was uniformly gracious, even when very busy. They know the menu, and if you get up, they refold your napkin. Only once did a wineglass go dry, unasked after, for a while in the rush.
Along with the burger, a couple other things failed. A pork chop ($16.75) was grilled to the wrong side of the moist/dry line, and its turnips were underdone. At the same dinner, the fish of the day—Alaskan halibut—was also overcooked, a special tragedy for such a splendid piece of fish, and especially because it cost $27. The Chef in the Hat was chatting with the couple at the next table while I ate this, and I wanted to tell him to get his hat in the kitchen and cook some fish properly. Compounding the halibut-borne sorrow: a single precious spot prawn that was also overdone, a bed of faro that contained intermittent grains of tooth-breaking hardness (possibly gravel), and pea vines so advanced in age that they chewed and chewed and chewed, finally turning into a sort of cud. I pretended to point something out to my dining companion, and with the turn of his head, I—forgive me—expectorated a fibrous green sphere and hid it under a piece of bread. This should not happen.
People are enamored of the Chef in the Hat—they lap up his attention during his tableside visits, and the tony Madison Park crowd is clearly thrilled to have a venture from the master of Rover's at downturn-friendly prices. To succeed, Luc doesn't need to be great. It'd be nice, though.