No matter what you think about Lucier—the eye-popping new restaurant that opened in late May on the west bank of the Willamette at RiverPlace—you've got to admit it's bold.
It started with a bold idea: Just as the economy was tanking, Chris and Tyanne Dussin (he's the president of the restaurant management group that owns the Old Spaghetti Factory, among other properties) decided to create the most upscale restaurant Portland has ever seen. In decor, service and food—dinner for two runs about $250 with wine and tip, and ordering a few tidbits from the caviar cart or 1,800-label wine list can drive that total way higher–they're apparently aiming to create the kind of dining experience you'd find in New York, Las Vegas, or even Paris. The Dussins have publicly acknowledged spending about $4 million just to renovate the space, and restaurant industry observers are entertaining themselves by guessing what it costs to keep the doors open every month.
The restaurant's dazzling design alone could make it a Portland icon. Lucier's two-story wall of windows looks at the river, cars rushing practically overhead on the Marquam Bridge, and, out in the distance, Mount Hood. But you may hardly notice the mountain, what with the pinwheels of bronze tubes forming chandeliers on the soaring ceiling, a huge, golden metal dome evoking Mount Hood's craggy summit and mirrored pillars reflecting Chihuly-esque glass sculptures arrayed in aquariumlike cases. Lest we forget the river, water runs through the room in gold-tiled channels, crossed by luminous glass bridges. Whether you like the style or not (we've termed it "Vegas Modernist"), the place has got pizazz that makes every other restaurant in Portland look like somebody's frumpy first wife.
With only about 100 seats in the dining room, Lucier (pronounced LOO-see-ay) luxuriates in space that most restaurants can't afford. Tables napped with thick linen cloths are ample, leather-covered banquettes cushy, armchairs huge. Comfort is key, down to the handy little hooks that keep your designer handbag from reposing on the floor.
From the time you drive up to the restaurant, Lucier's service is cordially professional. The knowledgeable waiters, at their best, take care of diners with little of the stilted fussiness that too often accompanies an expensive meal.
Lucier's kitchen is headed by executive chef Pascal Chureau, who is also chef and co-proprietor of Fenouil in the Pearl District (also owned by the Dussins). Chureau opened Lucier with a boldly ambitious menu in a style reminiscent of Michelin three-star restaurants in France or American gastronomic destinations like Thomas Keller's French Laundry in the Napa Valley, or Chicago's Charlie Trotter. The menu includes about 20 starters and main courses, which can be ordered separately, but the ticket here is to let the kitchen create a three-, four- or five-course menu (at $65, $75 or $85), which can include any dish that strikes your fancy, served in any order. A special menu built around one or two featured ingredients is also offered. Dining in late June, I was able to taste more than 25 different dishes, including desserts, some more than once.
The elaborate dishes generally look beautiful, and some taste terrific: A one-bite amuse bouche of sweet Crenshaw melon and velvety smoked salmon—a perfect combo—came perched on a little porcelain pedestal, like a classical Greek statue. A carpaccio of striped bass ($14), raw and sliced paper-thin, was draped with slices of buttery foie gras for a gentle contrast of textures, the flavors set off by the tang of yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit). A crab bisque ($13) was richly flavored, with a silky slice of seared scallop floating on top. Some dishes are inconsistent. For example, "The Egg" ($15) is a version of a French classic, a soft-scrambled duck egg spooned back into the shell for a charming presentation, topped with spoonfuls of crème fraîche and caviar. I tried it three times: Once it was oversalted, once it was watery, and all three times it was overcooked.
Here's Chureau's take on halibut ($35): cooked sous-vide (in a vacuum pack), served on a square of pork belly, with melted vanilla-flavored leeks and a langoustine emulsion (call it a sort of crayfish sauce). The fish itself was tender, the pork belly cooked to the quivering, melting stage that can make eating pig fat such a pleasant experience. But the curl of langoustine on top was dry and cold, the vanilla-flavored leeks strangely sweet, and the promised taste of anise never materialized. In fact, many of the elements of these complicated preparations are easier to identify on the menu than the palate.
One group of Portland diners that'll be tsk-tsking at Lucier: locavores, who are sure to wonder about Chureau's heavy use of air-freight ingredients, from East Coast seafood to Japanese Wagyu beef (offered at $25 an ounce) and calendar-defying dishes. In June, for example, Lucier featured a special menu based on heirloom tomatoes and, later in the month, one spotlighting black mission figs (both menus were $100)—both barely in season in California then, let alone Oregon. As for me, I like a restaurant menu to serve as a kind of global positioning system, telling me where I'm at and what month I'm in. Lucier fails that test.
In his official biography on Lucier's website—and in an interview with WW—Chureau stated that during the period from 1986 to 1990 he worked at several restaurants in Paris that had three Michelin stars, a ranking held by a tiny handful of restaurants. Yet the restaurants he names as his employers were not then and have never since been awarded three stars (see note, below). Perhaps he's truly forgotten the ratings of the establishments where he's worked. But if he's trying to establish his bona fides for attempting this kind of food, what he's got on his résumé isn't as important as what's on the plate.
Lucier's menu comes across as a disjointed array of ingredients and techniques. It seems to have been written by feeding a swarm of trendy food buzzwords in several languages into some kind of random computer recipe generator: ravioli, harissa, picholine olives, micro greens, ice cream, jus, emulsion, cacao nibs, cromesquis, reduction, kumquats, gastrique, yuzu, lemongrass, griottes, guanciale, cappuccino, white anchovy, heirloom and infused oil each make an appearance. The diner is left wondering what the chef is trying to say, and why.
The kitchen is making heroic efforts, with some success. But the food does not approach the consistent level of perfection and—more important—the coherent and original creative style that is essential in the stratosphere of the restaurant world that Lucier apparently aspires to.
If Lucier's got a breakthrough talent, it's pastry chef Kristen D. Murray, whose adventurous desserts (all $10-$12) provide the "oh my God" moments that Chureau's food lacks. The way her rhubarb vacherin combined crisp meringue, silky custard, sweet cream and a dollop of tart rhubarb would have been tasty enough, but an eye-opening mini-scoop of icy, vividly green celery-leaf sorbet on top added an herbal punch that elevated the whole dish to an individual statement. Murray's mind-bending chocolate tart was served on a slick of salted butter, with candied kumquats and a lineup of colored salts to try with the chocolate. Another fine finish to a meal is a selection of cheeses from a cart presided over by William Cory, who brims with enthusiasm for his artisan and farmstead offerings. As for wine, sommeliers Jim Biddle, Ron Wolf and Savanna Ray are coming up with terrific by-the-glass pairings for the complex food.
The Dussins have said that they hope Lucier will become a destination for visitors as well as a favorite of Portlanders. It's a bold goal, and they spent the money for a spectacular build-out and first-class service. But why, then, didn't they go to another city and grab a chef with national or international credentials, someone who would have had the town and the region buzzing even before he or she arrived, a talent who has already shown the public and the press the kind of personal vision that turns a restaurant into a destination? That would have been the boldest move of all.
Lucier, 1910 SW River Drive, 222-7300, lucier-portland.com. Dinner 5:30-10 pm nightly. Lounge open 5-11 pm nightly. Reservations recommended. $$$$ Very Expensive.
NOTE: Chef Pascal Chureau says he worked at three restaurants in Paris: La Maison du Danemark (1985-86), Le Grenadin (1986-1988) and Cafe St. Honoré (1988-90). All three, he adds, boasted three-star ratings from Michelin's Red Guide. According to the New York Times, however, the only three-star restaurants in Paris at that time were Jamin, Lucas-Carton, Taillevent and Tour d'Argent, with L'Ambroisie added in 1990.