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Using the Force

Rustic rather than refined, a star chef's new restaurant has caught on quickly

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The waiters may tell you during their tableside greeting that Lüke is "a John Besh restaurant." If they don't, there's not much else at his new Central Business District brasserie to give it away. Besh has accumulated local restaurants in the last few years almost as quickly as he has stacked up food world accolades and high-profile television appearances. But what helped build his name at his flagship Restaurant August -- the meticulous, puzzle-like arrangements of flavors and textures on the plate, the dining room opulence as suitable for a board of directors meeting as a romantic date -- are nowhere to be found at his latest venture. Lüke is not an exquisite restaurant, but it is a sensual one.

Besh and the restaurant's executive chef, Jared Tees, have created a bustling downtown eatery blending plenty of upscale touches -- like the many housemade or pedigreed ingredients -- with affectations that reach for the appeal of quaint old-world places, like the dish towel napkins, self-serve water and wine carafes and copies of daily newspapers draped over brass rails for handy mealtime reading material.

Lüke is billed as Alsatian, referring to the European border region that has changed hands between France and Germany frequently during the past few centuries. The menu has dishes that would be at home in a French bistro, starting off with an extensive and well-crafted charcuterie selection, and those you would hope to find at a Bavarian inn, like the breaded veal with the smooth, stubby spŠetzle.

Overarching it all, though, is excellent local seafood. The Gulf shrimp used here are magnificent examples, so thick they could practically be sliced into steaks, and what they call the redfish court bouillon is a celebration of the local aquatic cornucopia. Lüke is like a French brasserie that visited Germany for the sausage but moved to Louisiana for the seafood.

Since opening this spring, Lüke has become wildly popular with the lunchtime cufflink crowd. If the nearest section of the Wall Street Journal doesn't offer any market insights, tuning in to client-privileged conversations between all the bankers, attorneys and accountants at the closely placed tables might turn up something good. More than eavesdropping though, people here tend to openly stare at the dishes being brought to adjacent tables. The "oohs and ahhs" often begin before anyone has tasted their food, which might arrive on a cutting board or in cast iron pot or copper saucepan as though direct from the stovetop.

Some presentations are literally over the top. The restaurant has a raw bar with seafood from local and distant waters, and if you order the biggest of the "le plateau de fruits de mer" combinations, the multi-tiered structure that arrives is something like an oil derrick centerpiece for your table. You have to stand up to inspect the top level. More modest is the rare local appearance of an iced plate of cherrystones, the small New England clams served here raw or lightly steamed with some outstanding cocktail sauce.

The rest of the food at Lüke is consistently heavy, and the kitchen is particularly freewheeling when it comes to pork fat. The pied de cochon croustillant appetizer, for instance, is a glorified rendition of pig's feet. The meat has been removed from the bone and crusted with panko crumbs, but when it gets right down to it, each bite unleashes the mouth-coating sensation that only barely-reformed pork fat is able to achieve. It's enough to send you running into the green leaves of a crisp Bibb lettuce salad, which is about the lightest succor you'll find.

An onion tart is advertised as an appetizer but is the size of a small pizza, made on a cracker-thin crust and covered edge to edge with enough Emmentaler cheese to fill your own fondue pot. There are onions under there somewhere, but the tart is dominated by what the menu claims is bacon. What I would have sworn were cracklin's -- big honking knobs that were so fatty some pieces had no actual meat on them.

The shrimp and grits proved greasy but still offered beautifully bronzed shrimp and excellent bits of andouille, from the LaPlace sausage maker Jacob's, adding smoky, penetrating flavor throughout. Shrimp farci were like the ultimate crab-stuffed fried shrimp, though the dense, buttery sauce lacked any trace of the promised blood orange flavor.

The three-course daily specials are very good bargains -- $15 at lunch and $21 at dinner -- and also often the most enticing choice. They follow a reliable weekly schedule, like Friday's court bouillon, with hardly any roux but well-seasoned redfish fillets, a pair of huge shrimp, crabmeat mixed in with a scoop of fluffy rice and a few oysters so tender they might have still been raw when the waiter began walking the cast iron tureen across the dining room. Back on the regular menu, the choucrote is another one-dish wonder filled with sauerkraut and piled with fatty pork belly and some fantastic German sausage.

Desserts are fairly traditional, with a textbook version of créme brulee and a nicely crusty bread pudding as rich as cake. A housemade ice cream one night was blended with Irish whiskey, which could count as an appetizer for stiff after-dinner drinks.

The restaurant serves its own beer, produced in Covington by the German brewmaster Henryk Orlik at HeinerBrau. Many of the wines are available not only by the glass but also by the quarter- and half-carafe, and these are served in the sort of short glasses you'd expect to get with your Dixie at the Brothers Three bar.

Sometimes a drink or dessert can take an inexplicably long time to arrive, but overall Lüke's management has cleared up the normal new-restaurant staff issues very quickly. The people here are personable, positive and comfortable with customers and each other.

At Lke, Chef Jared Tees combines elements of French, - German and Louisiana cooking. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • At Lke, Chef Jared Tees combines elements of French, German and Louisiana cooking.

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