Restaurant Review: Lusca

Angus Brown and Nhan Le's eclectic seafood oasis settles into Buckhead

I knew Lusca was special when I ate a bite of toast. Its creamy avocado, chunks of sweet rock crab meat, scallions, and key limes on grilled pain au levain border on some sort of appetizer nirvana, the ingredients precisely seasoned and layered just right.

First bites like that crab toast reveal chefs/owners Angus Brown and Nhan Le's restaurant at its most approachable and disarming. Yet, just as you become comfortable, Lusca spins your palate in the other direction. The eclectic, seafood-centric menu leaves you reveling in the bizarre deliciousness of dishes including a salad of shaved sunchokes, Saint Agur blue cheese, silky white anchovies, and pistachios.

An odd mix of people gathers in the stark subway-tile-lined dining room, where menacing hand-painted octopi creep and crawl on the walls: hipster foodies, well-heeled Atlantans, and everyone in between. It was jarring at first. But on my second visit, it clicked. Lusca's clientele represents the melting pot of luxury, funkiness, and creativity that makes the restaurant so special.

Brown describes himself as "a simple chef," but that modesty belies his grand ideas and strong culinary foundation. After the success of his and Le's first collaboration, East Atlanta's late-night haunt Octopus Bar, Brown set out on an extended trip to Asia. He says he thought he would return knowing how to make excellent curries, but says what he learned most was restraint.

My instinct when a restaurant's concept includes "and sushi" is to run, but the dual kitchen concept at Lusca means you get the best of both worlds. I used to live behind Le's Wasabi Sushi Lounge in Castleberry Hill and ate there often. The nigiri at Lusca shows what Le could have done at Wasabi had spider rolls not been the cornerstone of his business. Le's rice is almost perfectly vinegary. The interesting fish he sources, such as threeline grunt and gizzard shad, is just as good as the selection at any of our city's top sushi bars. Oyster offerings are smaller, but equally as nice as the fish. A selection of five rotating varieties is presented simply on a bed of ice in a metal pan. If you come Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., you get half-price oysters.

The restaurant emphasizes exceptional ingredients: Anchovies are sourced from California just 24 hours after they are caught. Brown simply breads and fries them with fennel and sliced lemon, transforming them into a tangle of one-bite snacks from the sea. Brown says many of his best dishes have happened by accident, such as a recent special of roe on toast. He made it once at Octopus Bar and it was a huge hit. He takes the restaurant's homemade pain au levain, smears it with a little honey, and fries it in loads of butter until it is crisp and caramelized. He places the toast atop a smear of crème fraiche and tops it with an enormous helping of crunchy trout roe and dried ground espelette chili pepper. The crunch of the bread and the pop of the trout roe propel this dish well beyond any of its boring bruschetta brethren.

Another dish I haven't been able to resist has been the uni pasta, a lemony and garlicky play on bacon and eggs. Brown also started making it at Octopus Bar. Uni pasta is ubiquitous these days, but if you're like me and have a love affair with this gem of the sea, you'd be happy to see it on every menu in town. The silky strands of uni-and-bacon-coated housemade tagliatelle twirl on the fork. The whole branzino fish is intensely flavorful and textural, with a crisp skin that shatters like potato chips from being basted in butter.

Sometimes, dishes just don't work even though they sound conceptually cool. There was a terrinelike creation made with layers of foie gras and pistachio bread that was so cloying I could take only a couple of bites. Perhaps serving a smaller portion or dialing back the sweetness would make it more successful.

Manager and Beverage Director Tim Willard, who is also an Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Masters, likes to change the focal point of the by-the-glass menu to highlight different regions. It's currently Portugal, but it will soon be South Africa. There is also a "Back Vintage" menu created, according to Willard, to "showcase old wines that are very affordable" because "many diners never taste wines with age due to unfamiliarity or prohibitive pricing."

Lusca does not have a lead mixologist or pastry chef, and you can tell because both menus seem disjointed from the rest of the concept. Brown says they wanted to have a classic cocktail menu and allow the wine lists to shine, but with such an interesting and eclectic food menu it would be wise to invest more time in liquor. The same can be said for the dessert menu, which, according to Brown, is next for an overhaul. Unfortunately, most of the desserts reach too far in concept and fail on execution, such as a weird (or they are just plain boring?) baklava you could find at any gyro place. I was, however, entranced by a horchata ice cream with peaches that tasted just like the leftover milk from a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.

It's easy to get carried away and rack up a large bill at Lusca. The dishes are so alluring, I often feel compelled to try just one more thing. Show some restraint or you'll find yourself shocked at the final tab. Excellence and ingenuity, even in such a casual setting, come at a price.

Although Lusca has been open only about three months and faces the normal issues of any newborn restaurant, it has the potential to become an institution just as its sister restaurant, Octopus Bar, has. If this kind of edgy opulence is where Atlanta is headed as a restaurant town, it's about damn time. Keep South Buckhead weird.

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