How are restaurant reviews like Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches?
Some have stars upon thars.
Many critics choose to assign star ratings because it is provides a useful shorthand for readers, a goal for chefs to aspire to, and a kind of cachet. Even when critics have been completely off with their ratings (not that I’ve ever been guilty of that), the stars carry meaning.
Yet, others eschew stars because they want the writing to speak for itself or, as is increasingly the case, because they write reviews after one visit early in a restaurant’s life to keep up with the plethora of online opinions. They want to bust out an opinion along with everyone else, but don’t want to commit yet to a rating.
Here at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we go both ways. Of our two freelance critics, Wyatt Williams generally writes starred reviews based upon at least two visits, while Elizabeth Lenhard writes nonstarred impressions based on a single visit. I mostly write starred reviews, but I have to admit to occasionally hedging my bets.
I made the decision to revisit and rereview Lusca with an admitted agenda: I wanted to raise its rating to three stars (excellent) from the two stars (very good) it received in the last dining guide. Two-star restaurants are plentiful in this fine eating town. Three-star places belong to an exclusive club that represents the best Atlanta has to offer.
In designing the look and menu for this Brookwood Hills restaurant, owners Angus Brown and Nhan Le could have chosen any number of ways to mimic popular destinations and give diners a more familiar concept. Instead, they threw away all the cookie cutters and decided to make the cookies they wanted.
Le, who is of Vietnamese heritage, has a great love for Japanese cuisine and its pure seafood ethos. He prepares sushi, creative fish crudo and seafood cocktails. Brown dips in and out of different world cuisines, but his apparent love is Italy, for its pasta, risotto and braised meat ragù over polenta.
Their dining room features two mural representations of the Lusca (a monstrous octopus), a raw bar, a drinks bar and a vast expanse of high-gloss wood floors. You could roller skate through this room.
What else? The booze list appeals to drinks geeks of every stripe, from sour-beer fanatics to craft-spirit mavens. I love the wine list for its attention to ephemera, from orange and oxidized wines to sakes. There are some fine sherries by the glass, which make for as satisfying a first sip with your salty appetizers as anything.
I suspect the sherries are there for guests to find out just how well they pair with Lusca’s phenomenal charcuterie platter. Jonathan Sellitto, a longtime friend of Brown’s, oversees the production. He has a sure palate for the sweetness and spice in a cure that can make soppresatta or coppa such easy bites to love, but also the organ meat funk and fat that can make a liver mousse or pâté de campagne weirdly craveable. If you get bored with perfectly acceptable charcuterie, this platter will unbore you.
A meal at Lusca is all sharp turns. You are eating a foot-long slab of toasted pain au levain smeared with avocado and blanketed in lime-and-scallion-dressed rock crab. And then comes stewed lamb neck with olives, peppers and (yes) tarragon over a puddle of runny polenta.
What are you drinking? A lot. Lusca is a restaurant for people who like to see if a Duchesse de Bourgogne Flemish Sour Ale goes better with the food than a nicely chilled glass of Gamay Beaujolais. In fact, both are great.
Maybe you’re spooning up fresh English peas set over a goopy swoosh of goat’s milk ricotta. There are also pistachios on the plate, as crisp and green as the peas. And you’re drinking a bone-dry Spanish cider.
Or maybe you’ve been here often enough to go right to the whole branzino — the best whole fish in Atlanta. Brown cooks it in a cast iron skillet with chili and garlic, which seem to have magically impregnated the crisp skin and insinuated their flavor into the flesh. You will pick the bones clean, maybe with a bottle of white Vin de Savoie.
There are so many wines here that have personality, don’t cost a fortune, and know how to play second fiddle to thoughtful food.
Maybe, though, the meal doesn’t go that well, as was the case on my first visit for this article. Maybe those big octopi motivate you to order from the raw bar. You eat perfectly nice bits of chopped clam, sea bream or maybe even a live scallop diced, tossed with a bit of this and that, and placed back in its pretty shell. It all needs salt, acid, brightness, focus.
The white asparagus risotto that you recall as being so on point last time now tastes damp and soft. A dish of scallops with king trumpet mushrooms is just fine, but no different from that at any restaurant that buys good scallops. These dishes get lost as soon as a more exciting option hits the table.
Le’s small nightly selection of nigiri might scratch the sushi spot. Though you may find, as I do, that the rice tastes too compacted and underseasoned, and the presence of sushi in this restaurant feels weird.
The veering of this menu is a trippy delight one time, but discordant the next. “Wait. Was that dinner?” you might ask yourself.
Here’s one other issue: Lusca has a big, open dining room. When busy, it turns loud. When not busy, it loses energy. The physical layout of this restaurant can’t win.
So, here’s where I stand: My first visit featured some standout dishes, but it underscored some issues. On my second visit, I felt the love. Lusca can provide pleasure unlike any other restaurant in Atlanta.
Before I could feel comfortable with that third star, I might have to make a third visit, and maybe even a fourth.
Or I skip (cop out?) on the whole methodology and simply tell you to go because, flaws and all, I’m starting to love this place.
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