In figuring out which restaurant to make the final destination of my Claremont collegiate career, I had to think deeply about the ways in which the dining scene of the world has evolved since I transferred from middle-of-nowhere Ohio to southern California after my freshman year. As improved as Cleveland’s dining scene is (and it really is quite impressive today compared to four years ago), there is no comparison to the dizzying array of options of every cuisine of the world at all price levels within an hour of your Claremont dorm (pending traffic, of course). So although my major may technically be French, I quickly became a full-time student of dining in L.A. I was a passionate diner growing up in the Bay Area, but in L.A. I became fervent in my pursuit of an exceptional meal.
Since my arrival in Claremont, it seems as if the haute-comfort food recession trend of spruced-up burgers and glorified macaroni and cheese has made every other restaurant opening in town a gastropub, so much so that I just wrote a thesis in French on the de-formalization of the upscale restaurant experience. The trend started in 2000 when Sang Yoon took over the kitchen of the Santa Monica pub Father’s Office and turned a regular hamburger into gastronomic bliss (now copied brilliantly in Claremont by The Back Abbey).
This past February, however, Yoon finally opened his first concept restaurant, the Southeast Asian-influenced Lukshon, within the Helms Bakery complex of the revitalized Culver City. Yoon earned his culinary stripes at haute cuisine temples of Europe and refined them for three years at local-organic pioneer Michael’s in Santa Monica before going on to refine the art of a hamburger.
Lukshon has no hamburger on the menu. This is no gastropub. The shiny, spotless open kitchen resembles a Keck Institute lab more than a place to cook food, which prepares diners for the fact that Yoon spent years strenuously attending to each detail of all his creations on Lukshon's short, powerful menu. The restaurant's sleek setting fits the contemporary food: the front features an open fire pit for outdoor sitting, then through the door awaits a trendy communal table leading to the open kitchen, with the wine cellar lined bar on one side, and horseshoe-shaped, plush booths on the other. There’s lots of shiny stainless steel here, a modern art museum mood for modern street food.
Yoon nods to several cultures of Southeast Asia, but certainly uses his regional expertise and artistic license to push this cuisine to daring new heights with rewarding results. The small plates are the wheelhouse of Yoon, where bold flavors bring alive bold ideas. Spicy chicken pops—chicken wings on a Michelin level—are finger-licking good. Smoky, nuanced Chiang Mai pork sausage is fascinating alone, but elevated when stuffed inside tender grilled baby Monterey squid and topped with a minty rau ram sauce. The shrimp toast consists of an addictive row of tiny crouton-dusted rock shrimp cubes, and I could eat the roti canai—a plate-sized flatbread topped with tender lamb sausage nibs—all day. Noodles are a strong point, especially the Szechuan-inspired dandan noodles. Here the combination of cool mustard greens, fatty pork slices, sweet peanut sauce, and peppercorns hits all the right notes. Only a few dishes need to hit the drawing board again, including the x.o. rice with a homemade x.o. sauce (a spicy Chinese seafood sauce); this dish proved to be nothing more than regular fried rice and yu choy sum (Chinese Broccoli) in a bland shaoxing wine broth, with some ham and strong garlic thrown in for good measure.
Be sure to order a cocktail, whether it’s the tamarind-heavy Lukshon Sour or the sensational (and offensive lineman-strong) Fujian Cure, made with black tea and scotch. The fruity, refreshing Singapore Sling is perfect for the hammock, though the hot-and-sour gimlet, flaming with dragon chile, is the better choice for a distinct experience. There’s a tidy list of beers (not even close to the impressive list over at close-by Father’s Office) and a white-heavy list of wines. There are no reds by the glass, a small faux pas.
Desserts are complimentary, miniscule shot glasses of tastes which sound far more exciting than they really are. The palm sugar-butterscotch blondies are blissful, but a coconut panna cotta topped with chocolate-chile gelato was nondescript. As nice a gesture as a complementary taste of something sweet may be, sometimes you want some major dessert, and these servings will barely appease your craving.
Although the service was undoubtedly friendly and helpful, it still needs some fine-tuning in terms of pacing. Yes, it’s an incredible challenge to plan how long diners will take with small plates, but we had too many dishes cooling on our table for far too long. Too many times we had to ask for spoons or knives as well, considering the quality of the restaurant.
Yet despite these few struggles, Lukshon—and its chef—can't help but shine. A few years ago, Sang Yoon honed the art of the gastropub. Now he’s showing that he’s a complete chef, at the forefront of L.A.’s dining scene in 2011, changing our ideas of chicken wings and noodles. Thanks to Yoon and all the innovative chefs in L.A., the past three years have been a golden age for the city's restaurant scene. If Lukshon is any example, the next few years will be just delicious. I can’t think of a better subject to “major” in.