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Of Pop Rocks and Kobe

Luqa executive chef David Gilbert whips up food that sings, hisses and sweetly pops.
Tom Jenkins

Grace Jones' voice spills from the lounge and hovers over the table. These are the hazards of placing a loft lounge over your dining room. The rhythms of one hijack the cadence of the other, stirring up discordant stew. On another occasion it was even more explicit. Thumps from the lounge bored through with such ferocity that the Radiohead tune playing in the dining room was shredded. But this may be the least of the Luqa complex worries.

Luqa is a restaurant over a contemporary art gallery under the Petrus Lounge, which is beneath the Roof Top Gardens—a layer cake of urban culture. Luqa the restaurant is crisply handsome with institutional-like floor-to-ceiling windows, burgundy walls and carpets, and an enclosed glass kitchen framed in metal and so clean it looks like a surgical gallery. Tables are assembled around huge rectangular support posts rising from the floor and breaching the ceiling. Sight lines are obliterated.

The food is not.

I'm recognized here. Luqa's sommelier Phil Natale and I have run into each other at wine conferences and tastings and other pours while he was more bar business than restaurant business. He has a well-calibrated palate and a shrewd sense of proper wine collections.

But Luqa's wine list is a shambles. It is top heavy with pricey bottles and has a thin-to-nonexistent number of wines less than $60. Under the heading "French Reds" there are only a handful of Rhones, most of them well north of $75. Same with the Italians.

This is the same wine program that director of operations Kyle Kepner once boasted would redefine wine service in Dallas by gradually building a bold international list from 500 to 1,500 selections by next fall, pricing the wines just short of usury, marking them up two times instead of the three or four times typical in Dallas. Yet this list is marked by nothing but perplexing austerity.

"It is," Natale admits. They once had twice as many wines, he says, but they've been paring it down. Alternative whites have been whittled down by three quarters, and cabs have been cut by half. Natale doesn't say it, but this smells suspiciously like the pincer of restricted cash flow and mispriced inventory. What's left is a heftily priced klatch in need of clearing, no doubt to free up cash to refresh the more reasonable pours that have sold out.

A dark omen, that, especially since Kepner, who has guided the restaurant through years of construction delays, has bailed to take up a post at Kenichi, the contemporary Asian cuisine ensemble in Victory Park.

But sweep away the Grace Jones and the leadership changes and the wine list and what you get is mostly food that sings—hisses even.

Five slices per order, raw, Kobe short rib strips are served in what looks like the bottom of a bamboo steamer. The rosy strips are neatly arranged on a white plate, the creamy fat capillaries meandering through the visceral red. The strips are covered with chopped chives. There's a white bowl filled with jalapeño ponzu and a dark void beyond that where river stones smolder. Lay the meat strips on the stone and those capillaries hiss and sputter. Cut it and chew it and right off the bat you're struck by how its coarse resiliency surrenders and melts into lusty savor. Skipping the ponzu isn't outlandish. Skipping the river stones isn't either.

Luqa can be a culinary force of such elegant simplicity that the aftermath is stunning. The kitchen skillfully mingles elements to reflect both its New American pedigree and seasonal rhythms. A spring market salad is an effective distillation of this: hearty green and yellow wax beans slumped together with crispy fried shallots and grilled ribbons of hearts of palm. Brisk sherry vinaigrette serves as framing. It's a little green, a little hearth, a little hearty heart, a little sass. Each bite stimulates thinking.

This same dynamic is found in the butternut squash ravioli in unctuous lavender honey sauce. Poke through the stew—settled in a large square bowl with heavily rippled edges—and you tease out a wintry mix of sweet whirling with barely perceptible floral notes. A piece of honeycomb, waxy and sweet, completes the tension. Still, the orchestration isn't pulled off as effectively as the market salad. It has nothing to do with the elements, though the ravioli seemed slightly overcooked. It is a function of volume. There are far too many caramelized apple bits and pearl onions to plow through in order to reach those squash pillows, of which there are far too few.

There are just two Alaskan elk chops. The plate is big and square with coils of pomegranate jus traced across its surface. Off to one edge near the chops is a large cumin quince tart. Not sure how this complements the composition. The palate needs to be cleared after every bite to wash away the dense, dry pastry dust.

The elk is even more of a conundrum. Though ordered medium rare, the meat on one chop is dark gray. It separates into thick, desiccated chunks and has the flavor of chicken liver. Yet the chop lazily settled next to it is red and racy, loose and flowing with juices. It's like a before-and-after pitch for some elk chop remedy.

Luqa steals its name from a small village in Malta, one crucial to the Maltese economy because an airport runway cuts through it. "Luqa was until recently a small village, but one that has now expanded to become a small town,"reads a bit of Maltese tourist propaganda. "[Luqa] stems from the idea that when guests step into this restaurant, they could be beginning an evening in any community across the globe," reads the Luqa Web site.

Not likely. The food is much too distinctive to spring from "any community," though the deliciously simple organic spinach salad with bacon, shaved onion and crushed pistachios in potent lemon vinaigrette most certainly could.

Butterfish with roasted fennel, pears and crushed sunchokes (or Jerusalem artichoke, which is a flower with a tuber rather than a true thistle bud) is dressed with apple curry foam. Foams seem like extraneous prissy frill, but here it works because the butterfish is riddled with delicately sweet flavor. The fat-rich fish slips off into supple flakes. The ghostly aromas are heady: fennel and fruit, curry and pears. The fish almost disappears in the vapor.

Australian rack of lamb is just as finely framed. Juicy chops, unclouded by fat or the wrenching stench of unchecked gaminess, shine in a hearty savor of sautéed fava beans and barley sopping up truffle roasted garlic lamb jus. The side very nearly overtakes the centerpiece.

Dessert also has a prissy foam tone to it; deconstructed crème brûlée, or "sweet potato-star anise crème served with sweet crisps." I fail to see the wisdom in it. A white sculpted bowl is filled with chilled sweet potato custard topped with shreds of fried sweet potato. Sharp shards of anise sugar are shoved into it like bits of shattered glass driven into loose flesh. It simply doesn't merge. There's no temperature contrast, and it's difficult to swallow more than a couple spoons of this stiff, sweet, sweet potato blob.

Still it shows imagination. So does this: Included in the doggie bag containing the lamb with the barley and fava bean jumble (which tasted great even after aging a couple of days) were a few strawberries tossed in for the kid along with a packet of strawberry Pop Rocks. There was a note from chef David Gilbert: "Pour Pop Rocks over strawberries and eat...yummy." No prissy frill in that. Not a trace.

1217 Main St., 214-760-9000. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $$$-$$$$


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