What to expect: Under the heading of millstone in the lengthy (albeit imaginary) restaurateur’s dictionary on my desk is reference to The New York Times article from Texas Monthly's Patricia Sharpe* pegging newly opened Lucia as the best new restaurant in Texas right now. Beside the listing is a picture of chef/owner David Uygur and his front-of-the-house counterpart and wife, Jennifer, who appear to be deciding whether or not staring into the camera is a good idea.
After all, early praise carries with it a certain undeniable curse.
But a fact is a fact; there’s nothing to be done now except stand firm and greet the shock waves head-on, which I’m imagining is a challenge for the preternaturally reserved chef. Luckily, the menu, which confidently presents items from baby squid to beef tongue, shoulders the burden of its reputation admirably and more than makes up for the reticence of its creator.
The setup: This joint is small, and reservations are essential. I called ahead and was lucky to snap up a 5:30 cancellation; the next opening was weeks away. The next most important point to note is that the menu changes regularly. Given Uygur’s reputation for consistency, it’s fair to assume that the rotating menu will not disappoint.
The room is cozy (I counted only 36 seats) but is as welcoming as the day is long. Faux-distressed farmhouse tables, mismatched seating, shelves lined with the imagined detritus of a European hillside retreat, and, as my date happily pointed out, no salt, pepper, or sugar crowding the table.
Our service, however, was deeply disappointing. Apart from the delightful greeting we received from Jennifer at the front door and her periodic tableside check-ins, the concept of hospitality was absent. Once we were seated (one of only four occupied tables), we waited to be greeted, offered a drink, anything. Nothing. Other tables were seated around us, yet we were continually passed over. Finally, after more than 10 minutes, a server arrived, stood behind my date, and abruptly asked us if we knew what we wanted to eat. No introduction, no welcome, no offer of wine. His demeanor didn’t improve. In fact, my date had to lean out of the way every time the waiter visited the neighboring table to avoid being bumped by his hips, elbows, and rear end.
On the menu: Because we are inexplicably wild for round meat (moment of silence for Anna Jacobson’s lionhead meatballs), and since everyone else has gone hoarse from singing the praises of Uygur’s salumi misti, we chose to start instead with the lesser-lauded (but no less deserving) crispy lamb meatballs nested in zesty tomato sauce ($11), pairing them with the baby artichoke salad with farro, arugula, and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano ($10). The lemony tang of the lightly dressed salad satisfied with its balance of smoothness and bright flavors, while the lamb meatballs’ crunchy exterior gave way to a detonation of flavor that, when married with the chunky tomato accompaniment, smacked of alchemy. I found myself cutting my allotment of meatballs into smaller and smaller pieces to make the experience of eating them last as long as possible.
For our primi piati, we went with small orders of the potato gnocchi with caramelized cabbage, Taleggio cheese, and speck ($13/$19). The fact that Uygur offers his primi piati in small portions indicates a sensitivity to the fact that while we all want to enjoy four courses, not all of us can consume so much in one sitting. Along with the gnocchi, we chose a small portion of spaghetti with braised baby squid ($13/$19). The squid itself was tender and salty and cut into such a small dice that even the squid-averse would have a hard time declining.
The secondi piati proved the most challenging course to choose from. While we seriously considered the duck breast with porcini and foie gras peverada ($25) and the fluke with Brussels sprout leaves, sunchoke passato, and hazelnut brown butter ($24), it was the slow-cooked lamb shoulder with olives, tomatoes, and polenta ($23) and the slow-cooked Full Quiver pork with garlic and kale sausage, lentils, and root vegetables ($26) that won out. The polenta was perfect and the lamb shoulder fell-off-the-bone, but the sauce overpowered the delicate flavors of the lamb. (I had an entirely different opinion with my leftovers—most of which came from the interior unsauced portion—the next day.) The kale sausage and Full Quiver pork (a term that refers to a farm and not a state of being) emerged as the table favorites. The sausage, as all good sausage does, triggered a Pavlovian reaction with every bite thanks to an inspired spice blend and unexpected inclusion of potentially bitter kale. The pork, too, did what all good pork does: it forked; it separated; it glistened with juice and fat.
While I appreciate a sweet at the end of a meal, the zabaglione with pears, apples, prunes, and hazelnuts ($7) made me smile but did not inspire further comment. The fruit tasted like high-end pie filling; the dish was redeemed slightly by the creamy zabaglione topping.
Drinks: Wine is available by the glass and bottle. Prices are moderate and not prohibitive.
Who was there: Having a 5:30 reservation allows you to get a good look as patrons filter in. The crowd was elevated Oak Cliff with a side of socialite (a couple of whom didn’t seem to understand the concept of primi piati and were upset that their half-portions of spaghetti with squid were not enough for a single entrée). Otherwise, the room filled with couples who finally got a sitter, and double-married dates.
Where to sit: It would be lovely to sit in the front window and enjoy both seeing and being seen, however, the room itself is so pleasant and the music (see "Nice Detail" below) so perfectly set the scene that any seat, especially the corner booth, would suffice.
Price: Very reasonable considering the quality and recent accolades. Antipasti range from $8 to $21, primi piati from $12 to $19, secondi piati from $23 to $26, and dolci from $7 to $11. For two adults, without alcohol, expect to spend about $110 before tip.
Nice detail: I have seldom felt more inspired by a restaurateur’s musical choices than I did by Uygur’s selection of 1920s French jazz by Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. The simple happy rhythms transformed this little storefront on Eighth Street into a boho bistro worthy of the Fifth Arrondissement.
The takeaway: I was scarcely done with my dinner before I began plotting my return. And while the conversation on the way to the car (the best way to gauge what made the deepest impression) kept veering back to our server’s dismissiveness and ham-fisted table skills, the flavor of the meatballs, the delightful Jennifer, and the submissive perfection of the pork eventually won out.