Lofty Aspirations

Lucas Park Grille might be downtown's hottest new spot -- but not because of the food

I found myself doing a lot of looking under things at Lucas Park Grille, the restaurant/bar/lounge/market that, within a mere three months and a massive, 10,500-square-foot space, has already bogarted the role of flagship swank-spot along downtown's Washington Avenue.

At dinner one night I found myself looking under the tablecloth (standard white linen) for a peek at the tabletop beneath it, and I nearly gasped: brand new, gleaming and gorgeous. It was heartbreaking to find such a handsome piece of mahogany veiled from view, but at least the rest of the scene -- and yes, this place is a scene -- made for some swell visual stimuli. Lucas Park Grille's monochromatic décor -- all ambers, leather tones and russets -- feels simultaneously sumptuous and sleek. Some interior designer must've had a field day whipping this baby together, seamlessly incorporating a panoply of disparate dining-out elements under one lofty ceiling: the freestanding rectangular bar that anchors the main room; the casual, bar-high four-tops in the lodgelike lounge area up front (stocked with board games and coffee-table books); the gourmet takeout deli off to the side, its cases of meats, cheeses and salads serving as a natural border to the open-air kitchen; the more finely appointed tables in the back room, including a quartet of banquettes that stand in that room's center. The whole shebang, the first restaurant venture of downtown loft specialists McGowan Brothers Development, resembles the multilevel, seductively dim-lit splendor of Eleven Eleven Mississippi, except Lucas Park Grille ekes over the top with not one but three fireplaces.

But what I found under that tablecloth -- gobs of money spent on fine furniture, only to cover it up -- troubled me, too. (Likewise, an entire wall of the place has been upholstered in leather, though it's hard to notice or appreciate it with lighting so faint.) The McGowan brothers envisioned an all-purpose establishment offering three meals a day and late-night libations to all comers -- neighborhood residents, trendy bar-hoppers, fine diners and lunch-meeting businessfolk alike. Given their area of expertise, I can see why they'd outdo themselves with dazzling décor, and no doubt the look of the place alone will be enough to lure in the boozehounds for a few months. But the owners haven't made the same kind of investment in the kitchen. Kevin Willmann's résumé includes stints at Great Restaurants Group's Blue Water Grill, Remy's and Big Sky Café, but Lucas Park Grille is the 27-year-old's first executive-chef job. If patrons are expected to stay for dinner and pay high-end prices, the fare has to live up to the table it's served upon.

When my entrée of tenderloin medallions stuffed with Maytag blue cheese arrived, I found myself looking for them underneath a tangled heap of fried wispiness dubbed "leek hay." The medallions were huge and prepared a delightful medium as ordered, which only made the silly haystack atop them all the more buzzkilling. Cuts of meat that run more than $20 should come with something a little more sophisticated than green-bean-casserole topping. Anything green, now that I mention it, would have been nice. This plate had nothing green on it.

Pointless and unbalanced flavor pairings plague a number of Willmann's dishes. I can't recall slices of carpaccio quite as soft as they were in a beautifully presented appetizer here, yet I wound up turning in my plate early, as beef that fragile proved no match for the harsh, sour "tamarind caper oil and lemon powder" that accompanied it. Caramelized, fennel-braised salmon and pan-seared wild striped bass rested upon luscious beds of salty-good toasted orzo and rich, creamy risotto, respectively, but both pieces of fish were mushy.

A small plate of flash-fried calamari was hardly flash-fried (the breadcrumb coating was icky-soft and crumbled apart at first touch). Even worse, the squid were tossed with rings of pepperoncini, which appeared to outnumber the calamari rings three to one. Maybe it seemed that way because pepperoncini's so overwhelming, but that's just the point: How can the subtler taste of calamari keep up? I was eager to sample the lobster martini and was heartened as could be when I saw how much plush claw meat it contained. But the lobster had been soaked in a questionable mixture of clarified butter and too-literal dry vermouth, trumping all traces of crustacean. Likewise, when you wrap smoked shrimp in bacon and wet them in an all-consuming molasses barbecue sauce, you're left with great shrimp texture -- but no shrimp taste. And when you encrust a lovely yellowfin tuna steak with peppercorns, sear it just right, but then pour on a tangy barbecue sauce, you obliterate the tuna. (Besides, who's in the mood for barbecue when they choose to order fish?) Seafood doesn't stand a fighting chance at Lucas Park Grille.

I went looking for the meaning of life -- or at least a few Périgord truffles -- under the prime, 21-day-dry-aged strip steak, as I would do whenever finding myself face to face with a hunk of meat carrying a $50 price tag. I loved the tasty side of horseradish- and parsnip-tempered mashed potatoes (a rare example of fine flavor calibration). I didn't like that the steak came slathered in a house steak sauce. If a steak's worth $50, why cover it up? No one at our table could detect a $42 difference between this dish and a just-as-tasty $8 appetizer of grilled marinated steak -- our favorite starter -- similarly enrobed and plated with house-smoked mushrooms.

Then there was the "airline chicken." Our server told us it was so named because it's a wing cut (ha, ha) -- but this chicken was unfortunately true to form: thin, dry, tough, flavorless and may as well have come covered with a peel-back sheet of foil and served with a bag of peanuts. The accompanying sweet potatoes were nice, the spears of white asparagus self-effacing.

When desserts came around, I went looking so frantically for the sarsaparilla soda in my sarsaparilla float -- trapped under a floating avalanche of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream -- that I was tempted to tap on the wineglass it came in and promise the soda I'd send for help. It wasn't that the ice cream and whipped cream were unappreciated; it was, quite simply, that the float didn't come with a straw to get to the soda. Armed with only a tablespoon, all I could do was slurp the soda bit by bit, until I grew too frustrated and called off the search party. Other desserts included a "gooey centered chocolate cake" (yummy but predictable lavalike chocolate soufflé), a pumpkin cheesecake whose middle, for better or worse, was more like mousse, and a fantastic chocolate bread pudding (the bread pudding taste hit first, the chocolate second, as it should be).

A list of sugary libations mimicked other desserts -- pineapple upside-down-cake martini, Snickers bar martini, tiramisu martini. The whole sweet-tini trend has grown merciless: Why not just call them diabetinis? And since when do we all abide by the drinking habits of a 22-year-old junior PR associate? Doing a great favor, though, Lucas Park Grille also offers a large list of classic, proper martinis, suavely concocted. The ten-page wine list proves interesting only in spots: a refined 2002 Wolf Blass Australian dry riesling for $25, the much-ballyhooed 2000 Elderton Barossa Command shiraz for $135 and, at the other end of the price spectrum, a 2003 Moscato d'Asti from Saracco for a bargain-basement $17. As a whole, it's bogged down by California overkill: a ridiculous 21 chardonnays and 27 cabernets.

The adjoining deli and market -- a bountiful boutique of fresh fruits and vegetables, Bud Light six-packs, Hostess cakes, wines, half-gallons of milk, containers of yogurt -- is meant to cater to Lucas Park's loft-dwelling neighbors, as is its breakfast service. But breakfast, I discovered one morning, means helping yourself to goods from the market or purchasing from the deli counter the sole made-to-order breakfast item: scrambled eggs and bacon on a croissant. I actually didn't mind the slim pickings so much as I minded being made to feel like I was intruding. The hostess who shunted me over to the counter treated me more like a distraction than a customer, and the other staffers were apparently too busy preparing for lunch to clue me in as to where to sit, buzzing about as if I were as invisible as that gorgeous mahogany table nobody ever gets to see.