Friday, July 3, 2009

Luce Enoteca, Columbus OH

After dining all about High Street and catching a mid-day showing of Public Enemies back in Dublin, my family and I decided to make our way North for dinner – to visit a place I’d never been but had some degree of familiarity with. Having experienced Chef Alex Rodriguez’s amazing cooking during his time at BoMA I must admit I was very disappointed when he left and The Loft closed its doors. Thankfully with his departure the Che didn’t roam far – opting to become chef and Co-owner at Luce in Powell. Despite the fact that the menu lacked Rodriguez’s unforgettable PB&J Foie Gras that is second only to Keller’s masterpiece at the French Laundry in my masticatory memory, a single look at the inspired new-Italian menu definitely indicated Luce warranted a visit.

Arriving around 6:15 without reservations I was immediately impressed by the outdoor seating area and overall appearance of the grounds – very attractive and well maintained. Entering the front doors we were greeted by a friendly young hostess and led to a small table with comfortable chairs in the wine-bar area and given menus and a wine list. Sitting and taking in the scenery for a bit I commented that I don’t think there is a single high-end Italian place in Columbus without a TV in the bar these days, but I was quite pleased by the low noise level (a problem that marred Tucci’s, Trattoria La Tavola, and even Rigsby’s) and overall atmosphere/decorations.

Given appropriate time to browse the menu and with wine offered/declined and water glasses filled we were greeted by our friendly (and impressively knowledgeable) server, Tyler, who explained the tapas plates versus the large plates and also told us of the daily specials. Wanting to experience as much of Luce as possible we each opted for an appetizer and a main plus I ordered a couple items extra to be shared around. Warning us that this was “a lot” of food I told Tyler that it was okay – I love to eat and we had a night of fireworks watching ahead of us anyhow.

Orders placed we were first brought a loaf of house bread cut lengthwise and into strips. A fan of unique bread presentations myself, I couldn’t help but see my mom’s smile when the house made and piping hot Italian Bread with Sundried Tomato compote in extra virgin olive oil was brought and she tasted her first bite – in her words “The Perfect Bread!” Crusty on the outside with a pillow-soft interior the clean and aromatic bread was perfectly complemented by a light olive oil with plenty of punch provided by the tart compote. While it may not have been perfect, I can definitely say it was the best house-bread I’ve taste in Columbus.

Arriving next at the table was one of our plates to be shared – the large artisanal cheese plate with talleggio, uniekass reserve, manchego, and valdeon + grapes + pecans + currant-cherry chutney and apricot jelly. Served attractively on a porcelain plate with fruit bread I will first say that the chutney, jelly, and pecans were superb and the cheeses were all very well ripened and selected - from soft to hard, mild to potent, nutty to sweet, and cow to sheep. That said, and despite the large quantity of food to follow, I found the portions a tad underwhelming for the price of the plate – particularly the portion of the tellagio and uniekass reserve.

Following the cheeses came our second shared plate plus two appetizers. For the shared plate, forest mushroom pizza with rosemary & garlic roasted portobello + crimini + shiitake + mozzarella cheese + tomato sauce + truffle oil – in a word, amazing. Thin and crispy crust with plenty of body to hold up to the plethoric amount of cheese and fresh mushrooms, great accents of rosemary and garlic, sweet tomato sauce with a bit of bite – everything about this pizza just worked and the price for the quality and portion was better than anything on the menu at Marcella’s or Figlio.

For the appetizers, the first was my sister’s tangerine & arugula salad with dates + tangerines + cannellini beans + parmesan cheese + citrus-honey vinaigrette and like the pizza the mélange of flavors was simply flawless. Crispy and fresh arugula contrasting with soft and tangy tangerines, tender and sweet dates mixing with textural and earthy beans, smooth and buttery cheese complemented perfectly by the sweet yet zesty vinaigrette – quite literally challenging and pleasing all parts of the tongue and palate at once – one of the best salads I’ve had anywhere, not just in Columbus.

As my aunt tends to order crab cakes anywhere we go I assumed the second appetizer was a no brainer when I saw the online menu and she (as usual) proved me right when she ordered crab cakes with tangerines + arugula + fennel + tomato salad + lemon-basil aioli. A tad less impressive than the salad and pizza, though certainly not bad, this unique combination that featured many similar components to the salad was a great take on a classic done elsewhere but unfortunately suffered from too much cake and not enough crab. Tasty and fresh and ample in portion the dish was certainly suitable for Ohio, but in the end it simply made me realize just how great the crab cakes in San Francisco really were – it simply isn’t fair to compare.

Having already eaten too much bread and appetizers I realized our waiter was likely correct and knew we’d be taking leftovers home as our main courses began to arrive. The first, ordered by my sister, was the brie & pear flatbread with proscuitto + truffle oil. Featuring a much thinner and crispier crust than the previously noted pizza, the flatbread was light and airy with wonderfully creamy brie mellowing the sharp contrast of fresh/sweet pears and savory/crispy prosciutto. A great dish that, although not as sweet as the similar pizza at Spagio, delivered more nuance.

The second dish, a nightly special ordered by my mother, was entitled Meyer lemon shrimp raviolo with hericot verts, portobello and radicchio saute, roasted corn, white wine sauce and was clearly the show-stopper/spotlight stealer of the night. Handmade pasta that was equal parts sweet lemon and savory shrimp mixed with creamy cheese were gently coated with a mildly acidic and aromatic sauce that peaked the flavors expertly on the tongue. Anchoring the plate were snappy and fresh hericots, a mélange of earthy mushrooms and bitter radicchio, and sweet toasted corn that once again showed the chef’s skill with marrying unlike tastes/textures into an complicated yet refined experience.

Yet again a creature of habit, my aunt surprised no one with her order - the lobster ravioli with asparagus, artichoke, red pepper sauté + boursin reloute. While I'm uncertain as to whether these ravioli were house-made as their ribboned exterior appeared quite similar to the locally made versions sold at the North Market, I am certain they were delicious. Featuring a very mild and almost ricotta-like texture that mingled well with the succulent and buttery lobster each noodle was perfectly al dente and toothsome. Complimenting the dish at its center, the fresh asparagus and poached artichokes were well accented with the salty yet subtle boursin. While I could have done without quite so many peppers (I'm pretty sure a whole pepper was included) it certainly didn't detract from or overwhelm the more mild flavors.

The final savory, my selection for the evening, was oregano spiced chicken breast + sundried tomato-corn polenta cake + broccolini + smoked tomato-basil sauce. Having experienced Chef's hand with chicken at BoMA and loving polenta in almost all forms the dish seemed like a can't miss - and it was. Tender and succulent chicken breast with a coating of crispy oregano-laden cornmeal was presented perched atop a well-cooked polenta cake soaked in tomato basil sauce and topped heavily with tender and perfect broccolini as good as those that I had in California in February. With the many different ingredients and their varying textures my favorite aspect of the dish was actually that no two bites were alike and given the sheer size of the dish I actually had some to take home for the following day. Given the price/quality I can honestly say this is one of the best deals in the city.

Despite being too full to finish dinner, if there is one thing I learned at BoMA it is that there is ALWAYS room for dessert at a Rodriguez-run restaurant - though not a pastry chef at either place, Caryn Decker's options at Luce sounded every bit as enticing as those at BoMA, two desserts that I'd rank in the top 5 of all Cbus options.

Beginning first with my selection, it was a toss up between chocolate or caramel and as usual, chocolate won out - after my trip to NYC I fully admit I've developed quite the taste. Presented attractively on a long plate, flourless chocolate gran marnier cake + chocolate mousse + chocolate ganache + candied oranges + vanilla bean gelato was every bit as good as it sounds - and then some. A cylindrical layer cake with dense layers of alcohol accented cake interspersed with creamy mousse and coated with a thin shell of ganache was finally topped off with a creamy and understated vanilla gelato that was whipped-cream light. Perfect balance with plenty of nuance, the cake was additionally enhanced by the bonus candied oranges that provided a mild degree of acidity without overwhelming the cake.

Next up, my original selection until my sister ordered it and I knew I'd get a chance to try some, was the aptly named s'mores with toasted vanilla meringue + amaretto chocolate mousse + white chocolate caramel. Served in a martini glass and featuring a thick chocolate mousse with strong hints of amaretto pierced by a creamy vanilla meringue and ribboned with laters of smooth caramel and crushed graham crackers the dish was an absolute masterpiece and completely stole the show from my cake in presentation and flavor. Digging from layer to layer, each bite provided a different degree of crunchy vs. smooth, chocolate vs. caramel, and mild vs. bold - without a doubt a candidate for best post-BoMA Columbus restaurant dessert along with Refectory's bread pudding, Rigsby's Crostata and L'Antibe's Poached Pear.

Finally, unable to eat a whole dessert on their own, my mother and aunt opted for the dessert tapas plate with mini s'mores + mini buttermilk panna cotta + mini caramel semifreddo with espresso foam + mini meyer lemon curd with vin santo sabayon - a good choice. Featuring smaller versions of their other great desserts (sans the raspberry and chocolate cakes) this beauty of a platter contained a smaller version of my sister's s'mores as well as a flavorful and creamy panna cotta with raspberries that was largely unmemorable though good. In addition to these options, a smaller version of the caramel semifreddo I'd considered and an incredibly potent meyer lemon curd topped with a heavy-handed wine-cream. While each bite was quite good, aside from the previously mentioned s'mores it was the semifreddo that stood out most with its expected half-melted texture marrying harmoniously with the subtle and refined hints of espresso foam - while only allowed a single bite of this I can definitely say I'd have stuffed myself more full to have some more.

When it was all said and done I will admit that I was not only satisfied but stuffed - clearly overordering we took home 2 full take-home containers (the first time I've taken home leftovers in at least 3 years) but I didn't regret a single choice outside of the cheeses which, ironically, I only complain about due to the small portion. Like our visit to BoMA both the setting and the food were phenomenal and each dish showed great use of contrasts, complementation, and seasoning while maintaining roots in "traditional" cooking. While Powell may seem "out of the way" to some, I will say without a doubt that the food is rivaled only by Rigsby's in the local Italian dining scene and the prices and portions at Luce are certainly more if only Chef Rodriguez could bring back that PB+J and the Chocolate Passion.


caitlin said...

sorry to use this space to ask a question, but I didn't know how else to contact you:

I was wondering if you had ever dined in Seattle? I am heading there for a week, and am looking to make reservations at must-eat places. Thanks!

uhockey said...

Nope - never been to Seattle. I can be reached at