It was cold outside when I first dined at Lucia. The last few leaves clung to the trees and acorns crunched under my boots as I paced back and forth in front of the restaurant's front door. A single menu taped to the window teased the charcuterie, pastas, heritage pork and other meats that waited inside beyond the drawn curtains. Outside, paint peeled from a restaurant sign that was just starting to show its age with the words salumi and pasta framing the restaurant's name.
Lucia opened in December 2010 with the attention of the entire Dallas restaurant scene focused intently on its tiny 36-seat dining room. David Uygur's previous cooking at Lola, a since-closed restaurant in Uptown, earned the chef a positive reputation for refined and inventive cooking that featured excellent pastas. When Lola closed, the fooderazi collectively groaned before wondering, "What's next for Uygur?" Lucia offered the chef his first big opportunity to embrace independent creativity.
Chowhounds flooded the space, and the attraction was instant. Dallas had a love affair with Lucia and The Dallas Morning News awarded the chef five stars two months later in February. Only two other restaurants, Tei-An and The Mansion at Turtle Creek, hold the same coveted rating. Lucia is the only restaurant to receive the honor in the past two years, and it has been booked solid ever since.
408 W. 8th St., 214-948-4998, luciadallas.com. 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. $$$$
Charcuterie plate $15
Cauliflower soup $9
Duck breast $16
There may be a bit of lore surrounding the exclusivity of the restaurant's reservation book. A recording offers that tables are booked more than a month out, with new slots opening up on the first of each month. Perhaps you'd like a 6 p.m. reservation on a Tuesday, the ever-vigilant answering machine almost teases. Could they really be that busy?
It doesn't matter, since the restaurant takes no reservations for the four best seats in the house. The stools lining the small, polished marble bar along the back of the dining room are offered every day the restaurant is open on a first-come, first-served basis. That's why I spent two recent evenings with my nose pressed to the glass of the front window, waiting for the door to unlock.
Where else can you lean over the bar and watch as a cook thinly shaves curled ribbons of charcuterie made from heritage pigs? Perched in front of the front kitchen, the seats offer a full show of the plating and expedition of most of the dishes and a small view into the back kitchen through the keyhole of a pass. You can peer down into plastic containers holding orange sugar, salted caramel, pickled radicchio and other preparations. You can almost feel the knife as it rubs against a honing steel. It's like sitting front row at a really beautiful (and fattening) concert.
Nibble on house-brined olives with a meaty texture like soft almonds while you wait for your paper-lined board bearing charcuterie. These are the only seats that enable you to watch delicate lardo slowly turn into a windowpane as it's draped like a swatch of white satin over hot toasted bread. Thin slices of salumi lie on your tongue like gold leaf, conforming to every nook and cranny before they disappear with a trace of smoke and pork. When charcuterie is this good (and it rarely is), texture is as impressive as flavor.
Pasta flavored with chocolate may seem unconventional, but just because the noodles are the color of a Hershey bar, that doesn't mean they taste like something made by Willy Wonka. As your palate sifts through the wild boar ragu that clings to each noodle, you may not be able to perceive the subtle flavor. If you concentrate, though, you can find it — the bitterness in the back of your nose as you exhale recalls your mother's baking chocolate.
All of the pasta is this good, and just as inventive, like the thin threads of tagliarini laced with uni butter and topped with salty, crunchy breadcrumbs. Pressed and dried uni, like a house-made bottarga, finishes the dish and creates a memory that will last long after the plate is gone.
That's not to say things are perfect here. Brash pickled radicchio left puddles of magenta on an overdressed salad of overwhelmed charcuterie. A polenta dish was exactly the opposite, as smoky pork belly on top of rich and fatty porridge made for heavy eating, which is a small price to pay, really, for cooking this creative.
For example, consider the sliced roasted duck breast finished with salty anchovies with a bit of tang and thin slivers of sweet, dried dates. If these flavors sound a little confusing, they are, at least for a minute, but they actually work quite well together. This is why, so long as you can afford to, you'll keep coming back to Lucia — to quell the insatiable desire to see what Uygur will think up next.
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A constantly evolving menu continues to surprise, delivering the unexpected not on a seasonal, monthly or even weekly basis, but on the chef's every whim. Perfectly seared meats with rosy interiors play foils to green farro, fragrant polenta and other obscure grains. Fish is consistently cooked perfectly, with juicy flesh and a touch of translucence at its core.
And dessert is reason enough on its own to drop in on this bar whenever there's an opening. The subtle, ashy flavors of a salty caramel gelato still haunt me.
A cook at the bar told me the dessert's secret. Caramel cooked too far will burn into bitter, acrid flavors, but sugar taken just shy of this mystical threshold will present smoke and toffee. That's when the cooks temper the pan with a measure of hot cream, capturing perfect flavor just before it escapes. Honeycrisp apples tinged with rosemary finish the dish with the unexpected once again, but no matter what you've ordered you'll still second-guess your decision while you watch the cooks plate a rice pudding fluffed up with zabaglione, or an elaborately decorated hazelnut cake.
If you made a reservation five weeks in advance, you'd have to admire all these dishes from a distance unless you've ordered them, but the four stools at the back of the restaurant will get you so close to these plates you can conjure how they'd taste with just your eyes. Best seats in the house? No doubt. They could be the four best stools in all of Dallas. And the only way to see first hand what Uygur will do next is to sit in one.