Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, until it just … does.
At first glance, it may seem like things don’t quite jibe at Lusca, the new Brookwood Hills restaurant. There’s a lot going on here. But this one’s worth a second look.
Take the two giant octopus murals artfully weaving their way up the walls. They conjure images of the restaurant’s sea monster namesake, but also of Lusca’s sister restaurant Octopus Bar. And this is by no stretch a carbon copy of East Atlanta’s late-night love.
Yet, those cephalopods have become quite the symbolic mascot for this restaurant, each arm representing just one of the many moving parts it’s trying to synchronize.
Lusca doesn’t have the edge of Octopus Bar, but it isn’t the place for a traditional three-course meal. The fare reflects the varied cooking experience of co-owners Angus Brown and Nhan Le (French and Italian for Brown; Japanese and Vietnamese for Le). It comes together as a melange of Mediterranean-inspired seafood, boutique oysters, nigiri, charcuterie and an assortment of “turf” dishes.
The ever-changing menu, eschewing dish descriptions in favor of a component list, is designed for tasting and sharing, mixing and mingling. It screams, “trust me.” And trust it I do. Lusca dares you to keep an open mind, consider your food and to dive into uncommon combinations or ingredients. The beauty here is that it does all of these things sans hubris. No shock value intended.
The restaurant attracts its clientele both from the surrounding area and from East Atlanta’s Octopus Bar fans. Brown said they wanted Lusca to be a place where locals could comfortably “sit next to someone with a tattoo on their face.” The restaurant’s decor helps bridge the two worlds, the cool minimalist feel balanced by warm wood touches.
The sushi bar up the platform to the left, also framed by a painted, swirling octopus, may seem somewhat unexpected or out of place but plays to Le’s strengths of sourcing a fresh and interesting selection of fish from Japan. Order a mixture of two-bite pieces such as the high-dollar otoro (bluefin tuna belly, $10) and the salty pop of ikura (salmon roe, $4) or fun treats like the uni (sea urchin, $6) and kohada (gizzard shad, $5). While you’re at the raw bar, choose from a handful of oysters like the Beausoleil ($3) or Shigoku ($3.50).
Once you’re ready to start the sharing and snacking, you’ll notice the menu progresses from light to heavy dishes. Topping these selections is a dish with a refreshingly playful balance of flavors. Overlapping circles of thinly shaved kohlrabi ($8) settle in with sleek strips of white anchovy, creamy blots of Saint Agur blue cheese and whole pistachios. Let the tasting begin.
Lusca also attempts to incorporate charcuterie into its multi-tentacled identity with the expertise of partner number three (of four), Jonathan Sellitto. His charcuterie board ($18) comes with forcemeats laced with little treasures like sour cherries or white wine gelee. The day’s selection may include the deeply rich slice of pork and rye pate or sheets of prosciutto that breathe a gentle sharpness.
The rest of the menu leans heavily in favor of showcasing the fruits of the sea with simple preparations and crafty pairings. The Monterey squid ($12), perfectly delicate and kissed with garlic, is expertly paired with crispy torn potatoes soaked with piquant calabrian chile-spiced oils. Slippery smooth uni ($24) bounces its metallic fragrance off the buttery goodness of an eggy tagliatelle with nips of bacon and breadcrumbs for texture.
But the real gift from the sea here is the whole roasted fish ($28). Ours was the branzino, filleted tableside. I daresay I’ve yet to have a more expertly prepared fish with such crispy, seasoned skin. I almost wanted to lick each tiny errant bone. It found harmony with a brothy bowl of textured field peas ($8) peppered with dill.
After these dishes, it was with reluctance that I pursued my duty to explore the entire menu and strayed from the wonders of the waves. That’s where I found a more traditional entree-portioned pork chop ($26), seared and saucy, atop a layering of collards interspersed with the bloomlike rounds of hen of the woods mushrooms.
Though small, the quail ($14) offers up just as much hearty, soul-satisfying yum as the pork. The bitty bird balances on a hefty mound of heirloom white-eyed peas swathed in a meaty broth flavored with maitakes. You’ll want to ignore that sharing advice on this one.
If you did save room for dessert after dancing your way down the varied menu, definitely go for the baklava ($8). This flaky, honeyed-pecan pastry boasts the season’s bounty with slivers of Pearson peaches and peach ice cream.
It’s the service here that seems to be the most ungainly and unpredictable of all of Lusca’s arms. Engage the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff in conversations about ingredients and preparations. They can chat about wine and might be able to surprise you with a chenin blanc to cleanse your palate after the unctuous Winnimere cheese ($9).
Yet, they also tend to disappear for long stretches, leaving guests to occupy tables for up to 50 percent longer than necessary. An espresso made with coffee by Octane arrives a good 10 minutes into the post-dessert coma. Thankfully the seven other arms compensate for the immaturity of this one.
At first glance, I wasn’t sure that Lusca could tame the beast. With so many moving parts, I wondered if it would work. But, quirks and all, it just … does.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.