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Kumamoto oysters from Washington, and Beausoleil oysters from New Brunswick topped with sea urchin

Tentacle Plans

by Wendell Brock | Photography by Greg Dupree | The Atlantan magazine | July 7, 2014

Google will tell you that a “lusca” is a mythical sea monster from the Caribbean, a colossal octopus that can change color and grow longer than any such species on record. Atlanta foodies will tell you that Lusca is the name of an exciting new restaurant sprung from the tentacles of Octopus Bar, the stealthy little pop-up that chefs Angus Brown and Nhan Le turned into a mecca for serious late-night diners—including some of the city’s hottest chefs.

But this gleaming white-tiled room in the south Buckhead storefront—that was previously Bluefin—is a long way from So Ba, the East Atlanta Village pho parlor where Le and Brown first wowed their midnight fan club. Where there was once scruffiness and smoke and a sleepy nocturnal vibe, there is now electricity and energy and a superpolished fine-dining experience.

From the front of the house to the kitchen—which now claims a “butcher, baker, chef and raw bar”—the elegant tone and attention to detail signify that Brown and Le have upped their game considerably. In a city that claims to have risen like a phoenix from the ashes, here the octopus ascends again. And that’s not just a silly metaphor: Looming above the cocktail and raw bars, tentacles billowing across the ceiling, are a pair of octopi murals, painted by Will Mitchell of Squared Away Signs. The sleek contemporary design—lots of natural light, bold wood-grained tables and tufted red-leather bar stools that are pock-marked like coral—was done in-house, with partner Jeff Jurgena helming construction.

Le, a native of Vietnam, curates the oysters and impeccably fresh seafood, while charcuterie is the domain of Jonathan Sellitto, who sharpened his skills in Italy and Barbara Lynch’s The Butcher Shop in Boston. Pastries and bread (which get a star turn at Sunday brunch) are the handiwork of Brooke Lenderman (Cakes & Ale, Empire State South). And then there’s the heady luxury of Brown’s cooking—at once rustic and refined, exotic and comforting, pure and elemental.

I love the salty essence that imbues nearly every bite here: fresh-baked country bread with sweet butter; platters of pristine bivalves; thoughtfully chosen, uberfresh nigiri; delicate hand-rolled pasta. Brown, who recently spent time touring Southeast Asia, understands the nature of that mysterious fifth taste that the Japanese call umami. He applies it with brio to everything from asparagus (massaged with garlic aioli and bottarga) to trout roe (perked up with espelette peppers and softened with raw honey and creme fraiche).

From Le’s station, we started with an icy plate of sweet Kumamoto oysters from Washington; a few Beausoleils and French Kisses from New Brunswick and buttery lovelies from Duxbury Island Creek, Mass.—all fresh, all good. It should be noted that the only sushi offered here is nigiri (sorry, sushi roll-lovers), and Le selects his catch with an eye for the unexpected. The live scallop, red sea bream, bluefin otoro and amberjack belly we sampled were about as good as it gets—unctuous, buttery and terrific with nothing more than rice—though the soy, wasabi and ginger is there for the taking.

As a counterpoint to the salinity, we moved on to Sellitto’s beautiful charcuterie board: smoky prosciutto; pork belly with cherry mostarda; pickled red onion and cauliflower; superbly whipped sweet-savory chicken liver pate—all of which we schmeared or plunked down on bites of crusty herb-and-oil-rubbed bread. Divine.

It just happened that wild salmon are running. And Brown has the good sense to roast his Copper River sockeye so that the skin is crisp and the interior medium rare—then he seasons it with just salt, pepper and lemon. Perfect. Monterey squid was plated with crispy torn potatoes, garlic and some intense bites of Calabrian chile; once again, it was all about texture—springy squid, crackling spud skins, charry little spice bombs. So we soothed our palates with bites of fresh green salad: English peas, gem lettuce and mint, tossed with creamy buttermilk dressing. Finally, we feasted on a dish that yet again shows off Brown’s keen way of transforming something plain into something rich and divine: ribbons of pappardelle tossed with pancetta, breadcrumbs and dabs of bright orange sea urchin. Amazing.

And how delightful that the team’s love of fresh local produce spills into the dessert program. Lenderman’s sweets are rich, homespun and not terribly complicated. A custardy semifreddo was coddled in lemon curd, crowned with fresh strawberries and strewn with meringue crumbles. A pecan pie—with layers like phyllo pastry—was paired with fresh peaches and peach ice cream, the nuts and fruit both plucked directly from Pearson Farm in middle Georgia.

It appears Brown and Le have opened one of the year’s most anticipated restaurants with little or no fanfare, taking the time to school their staff and to find the tempo of their new neighborhood. With Octopus Bar, they created a minor wave in the culinary world. With Lusca, they have launched a tsunami.

LUSCA
1829 Peachtree Road NE, 678.705.1486

When to Go
 Mon.-Thu.: 5:30-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat.: 5:30-11:30pm. Sun.: 11:30am-3:30pm

Prices Oysters, $3-MP a piece; nigiri, $4-$10; plates, $4-$60

What to Drink General Manager Tim Willard is also a sommelier. There are four tiers to the wine program: table wine, always available by the half-bottle and bottle only; regionally specific by-the-glass offerings that change quarterly; a 50-bottle list with selections that complement the food; and a back selection of 20 bottles that are at least 10 years old or older. “There’s also a nice but small selection of draft and bottled beers and ciders,” he reminds us.

What to Wear Ladies: Think sultry summer dresses. Guys: dark jeans or dressy trousers, good-looking designer shirts and loafers