Thank goodness for the lady with the green hair. It was Saturday night, and my wife and I were sitting down to dine with friends at Lusca, the new restaurant from Octopus Bar's Angus Brown and Nhan Le. The tables around us seemed stereotypically Buckhead with lots of wealthy-ish older couples, almost all the men sporting blue blazers. I was hoping Lusca would provide the neighborhood with a strong jolt of the late-night underground club vibe that defines Octopus Bar. I was beginning to worry that Brown and Le might be forced to water down their adventurous, seafood-centric ways to fit the posh neighborhood. But then the lady with the green hair walked in, and the equally bold plates and drinks started to arrive. No worries here, man.
Lusca takes the essence of Octopus Bar and distills it through Buckhead's fancy filter. The ingredients are still impeccably sourced, and there's still plenty of good booze, but the prices are a touch higher and the compositions more elegant. There's a valet instead of East Atlanta Village's unpredictable street parking. Stark white walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, and magnificent sea creature murals offer an upscale twist on Octopus Bar's dark interior and graffitied walls. Instead of an unmarked entrance, a maître d' in a dapper suit greets you at Lusca's door.
Le and Brown work in tandem, with Le focusing his gaze on Lusca's raw bar. It takes up the left half of the menu and carves out its own space as a literal sushi bar on the left side of the restaurant. Le fuels Atlanta's oyster fancy with a half-dozen varieties, and offers another dozen or so interesting nigiri with uncommon but ever-changing options like giant clam, sea robin, halfbeak, threeline grunt, and rock porgy. Rolls? No chance. Le sticks with simplicity, letting the ingredients do the talking. My first visit, a night when Le was not on watch, revealed some issues, including rice falling apart and fish served far too cold. But a live scallop nigiri and perfect tuna belly on my next visit induced deep happiness.
The menu's right half, Brown's domain, offers a dozen or so small plates plus five entrées. Break free from the sea for a moment to give the house-made charcuterie plate a try. Ours arrived with paper-thin mortadella studded with broad slivers of pistachio, a delicate foie-like pâté en croûte, and a chunky, crumbly head cheese. Crunchy slices of oil-rich, grilled pain au levain, thick smears of grain mustard, and a pile of pickled cauliflower and onions offered the appropriate zing to accompany the rich and flavorful meats.
A whole grilled sardine arrives in your nostrils well before it hits the table, a briny rush that gets even brinier with the salt-on-salt impact of some strong olives. He takes the opposite tack with a delicate live scallop crudo topped with a coconut milk granita that's a little bit Thai, a little bit Italian. It's intriguing, but the ice-cold granita freezes out the scallop's fragile wonder.
The rock crab on toast is gorgeous, its bright shreds of crabmeat piled atop soft green avocado and surrounded with a sprinkling of edible flowers. A squirt of key lime ties the flavors together. This would be a killer dish in any setting, but its elegance, both visual and textural, speaks perfectly to Lusca's lofty ambitions.
Entrées include a fillet (one day halibut, another day monkfish) paired with lentils and salsa verde, and a fabulous whole pan-roasted branzino over a tangle of spicy and garlicky spinach greens. There's currently a pork chop that tempts mainly because it comes with fava beans, morels, and spruce needles, as well as a $60 bone-in dry-aged New York strip for those mad about cow.
Like Octopus Bar, Lusca's dessert menu is brief, three items plus a local cheese option. The goat milk ricotta tartlet with rhubarb and walnuts impresses in its austerity and lack of sweetness. A banana cake with milk chocolate ganache and coffee ice cream swings harder with bold flavors and a sugary rush.
Service still needs some work to pull off the type of atmosphere that Lusca is striving for. At least our waiter on one night was knowledgeable enough to know what he didn't know, and comfortable enough not to fake it. The team behind the bar, led by Omar Ferrer, turns out some balanced and lively cocktails and offers a boldly geeky wine/cider/beer list (props for focusing the initial by-the-glass list on wines from the Loire Valley).
Sure, the crowd may be a bit more staid than that at Octopus Bar, but I'm betting the frenzy will come with time. Maybe all those men in blazers are just waiting to let out their inner EAV. Brown and Le stand ready to enable.
The only thing getting me to ClusterFuckhead is Umi.
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