Sunday, February 14, 2010
Valentine's Dinner at LUCIANO
If I'm not mistaken, Luciano has recently been named "Most Romantic Restaurant" in the Tennessee Valley area, and is currently in 1st place in the running for "Best Restaurant in Northeast Alabama" on al.com. After dining there for Valentine's Day, I can definitely see why. The ambiance is exactly what one would hope from a classic, fine-dining Italian eatery. Luciano is very warm and inviting, with soft lighting, cabernet colored tablecloths, Tuscan style artwork and paintings, and large rustic columns from floor to ceiling throughout the restaurant- separating the different rooms. There is a very unique sunken "Garden" room towards the back of the restaurant that boasts a large sky mural on the ceiling, making you feel as though you are eating at a street cafe in Italy on a warm summer day. With a marble-topped hostess station and a long skinny hallway leading to the dining room which forces you to get close to your honey, you know you're in for a real treat.
Our server was a lovely young girl named Jay, who seemed to have a calm about her which was impressive for such a hectic night. She seemed confident and totally at ease, perhaps she's worked at Luciano for a while. She was charming and friendly, but in no way overbearing. I noticed her as she went from table to table, and she seemed to adapt her service to the clientelle- being a little more laid back with the younger couples and a bit more refined with the older customers. She gave us our menus and asked for our drink orders, myself ordering my trademark Michelobe Ultra and Taylor ordering a Stella Artois. As a good server should with any customer looking younger than 30, she asked for our ID's. Being well on our way to 24 and 26 years old, we are never offended by being carded. :)
I'm a huge sucker for anything "crab" or "risotto" or with the word "cake" in it, so I didn't even read beyond the first appetizer option.
Crab and Wild Mushroom Risotto Cake with Roasted Roma Tomato, Garlic, Herb Oil, Pesto & Parmigiano $12
My man couldn't resist the Frito Misto, and we became excited to share the two items.
Fritto Misto: Flash Fried Calamari, Scallops & Shrimp with Spinach $14
For my entree, I chose to break my own rule of never getting a steak at a nice restaurant (I'll explain someday) and opted for the:
Espresso & Cocoa Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Roasted Tomato, Demi-Glace Grilled Eggplant with Rosemary and Yukon Gold Whipped Potatoes $29
Taylor acted as though he heard angels sing when Jay recited the special entree for the night:
Grilled Red Grouper with a Cabbage, Pancetta, Corn, and Potato Hash topped with Eggplant Tapenade $30
We both chose the Luciano house salad to accompany our entrees, which is very simple consisting of fresh mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, shaved red onion, feta cheese crumbles, sliced kalamata olives, and a classic red wine vinaigrette.
The salads came promptly after we finished ordering...I thought it a tad strange because I figured our appetizers would come first, but we were not displeased in the slightest. The salads were bright and yummy, just what we were wanting to start our meal.
Surprisingly soon after Jay collected our empty salad plates, our appetizers arrived. My crab and risotto cakes were beautiful- two petite cakes topped with a tomato chutney resting on a bed of pale yellow cheese cream and surrounded by a drizzle of green pesto oil. The crab and risotto cakes were not quite as hot or as crunchy as I had hoped, but they were delicious none the less. That appetizer really combined a lot of my favorite flavors with the sweet and tangy roasted tomato, the salty cheese sauce, and the vibrant pesto. Not to mention the rich and succulent crab and risotto. It is rare that I don't feel the need to add salt to my dish, but this one hit all the right notes in flavor and seasoning. I would definitely order it again, and I imagine that on any other night, the cakes would have been appropriately hot and crispy. I'll cut anyone some slack on Valentine's weekend!
Taylor's Frito Misto left nothing to be desired as well. Every component was delighfully crisp and perfectly seasoned. The shrimp were plump and cooked to perfection, the calamari almost had the texture of tiny onion rings, and the scallops were sweet and tender, as they should be. The dish came with two dipping sauces- a Tuscan pomodoro sauce and a Chile Citrus Garlic Aioli...both of which I would eat with a spoon on their own. I'll be attemting to recreate the Aioli very soon, I'll let you know how it goes!
At this point, Jay came to our table to regretfully announce that the special had been sold out, and asked if Taylor wanted to substitute something in its place. She left him with a menu, but returned a few moments later, explaining that the kitchen was going to special cut a piece of fish for him, and she made a joke referencing how his face lit up when she read us the specials. Well done, Luciano. Well done.
The entrees arrived shortly after. My Tenderloin didn't look like anything out of the ordinary...A beautifully seared and crusted steak sitting atop a bed of mashed potatoes with a plank of grilled eggplant and a spear of Broccolini neslted in between. No garnish to speak of, and I didn't notice any roasted tomato anywhere. Taylor's, however, was magazine worthy. His fish was presented in a large rimless bowl with a beautiful swirling design of deep purple Balsamic reduction coating the bottom. A generous helping of the tantalizing "hash" sat in the bottom of the bowl, sporting several bright colors. The bright yellow corn, reddish brown pancetta, green cabbage, and cream colored potatoes. The freshly cut Grouper perched at an angle on top and appeared to be perfectly tender and flaky. And lastly, a generous smear of the chunky eggplant tapenade rested on the delicate fish.
I have to say, I didn't pick up on much of the Espresso or Cocoa crusting on the Tenderloin, but it was cooked BEAUTIFULLY. It had a perfect char on the outside, sealing in the juices, and was a brilliant pinkish red inside. I rarely ever order red meat in a restaurant because 1) I like it RARE, and have RARELY received my steak cooked the way I ordered it...and 2) I dispise animal fat, especially beef, and I often find myself picking around and spitting out more fat than there is edible meat. But Luciano managed to serve me a gorgeous filet that was the perfect medium rare without a smidgen of fat on it. Delightful. The potatoes were a bit dry but seasoned nicely. The eggplant was decent, but almost completely unnecessary on the plate. And the broccolini was the perfect al dente...man I love broccoli and all of its relatives. Again, everything was seasoned well and I didn't even reach for the salt shaker. If you know me, this would be an enormous shocker. :)
Taylor's fish: WOW. It actually managed to taste as good if not better than it looked. The grouper was exquisitely cooked. It held together nicely, but was perfectly tender and flaked apart with appropriate effort. The tapenade was mild but flavorful- it did not overpower the fish in the slightest. The hash really stole the show (in a good way). The combination of the sweet yellow corn, the tender diced potatoes, the crispy and salty pancetta lardons, and the braised earthy cabbage was masterful. I immediately detected nutmeg, which gives a dish that extra little something special, and makes you think, "Hmm..what is that flavor?" It also shows that the chef really knows his stuff! All of this combined with the little bit of the sweet and tangy Balsamic vinegar reduction was really spectacular. It was a very well-rounded dish with several different flavors all working together and almost every bite tasted a wee bit different from the last.
Sadly, we had no room left for dessert. We tried to contain ourselves and save room in our bellies, but the food was just too good to resist. Our total bill came to $108.88...not terrible for 4 beers, 2 appetizers, and 2 generous entrees. Overall, Luciano rose to the occassion and definitely earned its accolades. We will be dining there again! Probably not for Valentine's Day though, I'll be returning to my ritual next year, you can count on it. :)
The Chef Next Door