Thierry Rautureau opened the tony, revered Rover’s in Madison Valley, where haute French cuisine is plated precisely onto custom Villeroy & Boch china and enjoyed during lavish, nine-course degustations. Those scenes in movies where the déclassé struggle to figure out which fork is used to pluck escargot from its shell could have been filmed at Rover’s in those early days.
Lately, Rautureau has been loosening things up. Several years ago, he opened Rover’s for lunch on Fridays, allowing those of us who can’t foot the usual $400 price tag for two meals at dinnertime a chance to taste his legendary cooking—the divine scrambled egg served in its own shell and dotted with glistening sturgeon caviar ($24), for example—at a friendlier (but still dear) price. Rover’s even served Sunday brunch for a time last year.
Now, following a trend among local chefs like Scott Carsberg (of Bisato and the late Lampreia), William Belickis (of Mistral Kitchen and the late Mistral) and Jerry Traunfeld (of Poppy, late of The Herbfarm), who’ve gone from hushed, high-end swish to a more populist and fun approach, the Chef in the Hat—Rautureau almost always wears a fedora—opened Luc in April. Just steps from Rover’s door, Luc (named for Rautureau’s father) is miles away from the atmosphere at Rover’s. Here, diners clamor for seats (expect a considerable wait if you don’t have a reservation) or they elbow up to the first-come-first-served bar to sample Rautureau’s culinary prowess—he bops back and forth to oversee both kitchens—at a more affordable price.
Rautureau seems to be creating a have-his-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario: He’s keeping Rover’s open for the high rollers while hoping those with thinner wallets might like Luc. In these tough economic times, it makes sense. But is it born of inspiration or desperation?
Perhaps both. Rautureau offered potential diners $1,300 worth of trade at Rover’s or Luc for a $1,000 up-front investment in Luc (according to Luc’s web page, the offer still stands, though the return on investment is now $200 instead of $300). For Rover’s regulars, it was a no-brainer; for Rautureau, it was a clever way to trade on his stellar reputation—who’d bet against him?—and retain creative and financial control.
Is Luc as good as one would expect? This is Rautureau’s curse: He has trained us to think of him as Mr. Fancy French. And so, when a sauce arrives loose and watery, drowning an otherwise perfectly cooked ling cod special ($26), or there’s a too lemony finish on the trout amandine ($19.50) that diminishes the nutty goodness of the brown butter, as it did on my first visit, I wonder if I’d have felt as disappointed had I been at Just Some French Restaurant.
These are not huge gripes, but from a chef of Rautureau’s caliber I expect tighter execution—and that’s what I got on subsequent visits. I loved the chewy onglet, or hanger steak, served with a peppercorn demi and great fries ($18). And the burger ($11.95) is a marvel: miraculously juicy, slathered in aioli and tomato jam, and topped with slippery, caramelized onions. The soufflé potato crisps ($7.50) should be a requirement at every table: These twice-fried slices are like puffy, hot potato chips, but about 50 times better tasting. You’ll just have to trust me.
Luc’s décor is a bit of a hodgepodge, but pleasant. I love the emphasis on bar seating: 15 spots available at two bars. The lighting is warm and honey-toned, though the fixtures look like leftovers from three remodels: embroidered linen shades here, twirly-whirly wrought-iron sconces there, and five massive white glass pendants hanging along one stretch of the bar. The noise level is boisterous, but you won’t have to yell.
And the service? It’s as smooth and smart as you’d expect in a restaurant with Rautureau at the helm. Since the place fills to capacity within 15 minutes of opening on most nights, having a pro managing the tables and bar seating is key. This is a staff that knows how everything on the menu is prepared—and how it tastes. (And they’ll tell you what they really think, which is a rare treat.) Sommelier Scot Smith, who oversees Rover’s wine list as well, has chosen very good bottles from the Willamette, Loire and Columbia valleys in the $20–$75 dollar range. Naturally, there’s a reserve list for those accustomed to drinking the big-ticket stuff at Rover’s.
Most of us, by a wide margin, are not. And so Luc couldn’t have come at a better time, for us and for the Chef in the Hat. Open, easygoing and with broad appeal, Luc is just the sort of place I imagine Rautureau hanging out in after working the line at Rover’s. That is, if he can get a seat.