It's Quiet... Too Quiet
We were six: wife, husband, maid of honour and fiancé, the pair who read our blessing. When it was over we smoked shisha and threw back Sloegasms and listened to Frank Ocean, the thrumming baseline of 'Nikes' propelling us past midnight and carrying some of us home via Uber and Tube and two of us upstairs to bed. A perfect evening.
Sometimes the best thing a restaurant can do is get the hell out of the way – just remove all obstruction to the fun that a party brings with it. I mean it almost entirely as a compliment when I say Luca did this perfectly, that night: there was wine when we wanted more, and food when we were hungry. The place itself is classic, classical, inviting, unobtrusive in every facet: an obscure side-entrance that flanks curtained windows; rich, autumnal, beautiful décor in a borderline magnificent dining room cloistered away from the front door and bar down a narrow corridor; this twinned with an absence of shouty concepts on the page – a menu that feels adult, tasteful, curated.
And service – proper, grown-up, honest-to-goodness service. As the London scene has changed, as the word “casual” has ballooned in importance and become a positive rather than a pejorative – once you might have decried someone’s lackadaisical, casual attitude to life; now you plan a casual evening of Netflix and chilling, reaching for your iPhone to hire a casual labourer to bring you low-effort, high-impact fusion flavours from your local fast-casual place – we’ve lost this much, I fear: we’ve forgotten how to be treated like adults. I don’t want the horrible fawning servility you get in the sort of places Tripadvisor reviewers hold up as paragons; from time to time, though, I do want someone who can pick their moment, maintain eye contact, take an order, trade a bon mot or two, then disappear with a minimum of fuss. The sheer competence of the staff at Luca is, again, the sort of detail that doesn’t shake you by your lapels – this is not a tattooed meatsmoker slinging you a pickleback and some scratchings on the house as you compliment them on their sick collection of rare bourbons – but it is quietly winning.
If I said that the food, too, is quietly winning, would Isaac McHale be happy? There is exquisite olive oil, and good sourdough bread; the only other thing that we eat that is an exclamation point is a bowl of parmesan fries, which are outrageous (I burn the roof of my mouth trying to inhale a second handful before anyone else can get to them). The rest is fine, just fine. I might hand out some free passes for not clearing the delicious hurdle to various salads; I’m less inclined to do the same for a rump of Hereford beef stuffed with pancetta, and it’s actually a perverse anti-achievement to make an oxtail cannelloni into anything less than a gummy, unctuous delight. Puddings are also a little meh, in need of a lick of booze or a slightly more generous hand with butter or sugar or whatever it is that the French hide in their culottes. They all read beautifully – pear frangipane tart, hazelnut ice cream with salted caramel sauce, baked chocolate mousse with prune kernel ice cream is a mantra someone mumbles to themselves to get them through the final stages of a gruelling diet – but they land with rather less impact. Not a whimper by any means – just not a bang, either.
Luca is clearly a labour of love: it is too aesthetically coherent, too tonally perfect, to be a happy accident. But unlike every other element of the experience – otherwise completely confident, completely masterful – the food feels overworked, like everything went through a couple of iterations too many in the test kitchen, had one element too many stripped away. It might be that my palate has been so bludgeoned by dim sum and larb and ma la that I am incapable of appreciating the sheer finesse of McHale’s cooking: as AA Gill prophesied, maybe I have lost, forever, the ability to savour a meaningfully bland, eloquently blank blanquette de veau on its own merits (and I’m not just saying that as a strawman to knock down in the next sentence: it really does trouble me). It might be that McHale has imposed constraints on himself – that he knows he could put a parmesan foam or a fried sweetbread on top of that beef and bring grown men to tears, but believes there is something more valuable, or interesting, or personally fulfilling about pairing it with kale juice instead (indeed, the trashy pleasure of those parmesan fries certainly shows he can get down and dirty when he wants to). There is no denying the technical skill, the accomplishment: the fresh pastas are impeccably made, every plate a joy to behold. But to me most of what we eat still feels overly mannered, weirdly hushed.
I’m tired – so tired – of being assaulted by restaurants, of having cocktails and concepts and combinations thrown in my face until it’s all I can do to find space to breathe. Luca is a welcome respite in so many regards – practically an oasis. Its every fitting and fixture tells the story of the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into its genesis, and I wish it all the best. Nevertheless, I worry that – after the inevitable initial buzz – this will be somewhere that people forget, almost certainly unintentionally: in its current incarnation, it is so unfussily, unassumingly capable that it offers precious little to fire your synapses, to occasion a journey across town. If it were me, I’d dial the flavours up a notch, give the people something to shout about – modesty be damned. Food this self-effacing risks effacing the restaurant altogether. Feeling timeless isn’t the same as being there forever.