Venturing back into Poway for a visit to the charming dining spot, Luc’s Bistro, brings about a reverie of memory of the years I spent in the quiet parts of San Diego. My childhood evolved right alongside the growth of the former sleepy towns of Mira Mesa and Poway, with each year to date bringing something new and exciting along the main boulevards. In these neighboring towns, strip malls were my way of life, and when the next big chain maneuvered into the communities, I doubt I’d be the only one to say it would also finagle its way into my heart (wherein Panera will always have a special place). But it wasn’t until I up and left my beloved Mira Mesa neighborhood for college that I began to realize San Diego was much, much bigger than the little congregations of 1990s Spanish style homes with which I was all too familiar. I’ve now lived all over this city, and I must say, as much as some things change, a lot of things stay the same. The lawns are still trimmed; the bougainvillea hedges are just as cheery. And the culinary scene is just as ordinary. With little sparking the interest of anyone looking to eat somewhere that doesn’t have over six hundred locations, quality dining is an endangered species in such parts. But, if I’ve learned anything from suburbia, it’s the tendency to hunt out little treasures unseen. In regards to your hometown, it’s inevitable that you’ll search for those components that make it special, the secret spots you can’t help but want to covet for yourself. Trust me, I’ve mastered it. Being back in my childhood town, I’m thankfully still discovering those small surprises. Most recently, I was lucky enough to come across the modest gem that is Luc’s Bistro in Poway.
Opening its doors three years ago, the restaurant has become a favorite for locals and commuters alike, all looking to get their piece of traditional Southern food in southern California. Nestled in one of the area’s many bustling shopping centers right off Poway Road, Luc’s stands out from its nearby tenants. Simply walking towards the restaurant from the convenient lot, I can see the vicinity is full of families shuffling in and out, making for a lively setting already.
Unique to more than just east Poway, Luc’s serves up classic Americana with the hominess of the South and elegant hints of Parisian flair. Manager Vanessa Donato greets my guest and me kindly as we pop in one evening to sample some of this matchless cuisine. I’m immediately bathed in the warm lighting and flickering candles, with the soft sway of jazz piano humming around us. In conjunction with our smiling hostess, the welcoming ambience is set in an instant. We’re brought to our candlelit table dressed in white linen, set right underneath the daily specials chalkboard, lovingly changed to denote signature dishes (such as the popular Linguini and Fish and Chips) offered up that day. A quick glance at the board’s various options, and I begin to feel like Luc’s Bistro has a lot more in store for my palate than I originally anticipated.
After discovering Vanessa has been with the restaurant since day one, we decide to let her handle our spread for the evening. She cheerfully starts us off right with a refreshing Cadillac Margarita she skillfully whips up behind the small bar, which is backset in the spacious dining room. A singular sip is filled with bite and backed with citrusy sweetness. She brings a nice pour of Grand Marnier (which is what ups it to “Cadillac” status) on the side to let me decide how crazy I want to get with my crisp beverage. I decide to go for it, and I am quite glad I did. My guest and I continue to sip as Vanessa whisks away to get our first few starters.
The restaurant is noticeably cozy. Seating up to sixty guests, among their nicely spaced out tables, I have a hard time imagining ever being uncomfortable here. Just gazing out at the other customers dining with us, I can tell their meals ended some time ago, but they’ve stayed to linger and relax; and Luc’s welcomes them. Vanessa handles the floor with great efficiency and a smile that never rests. She continually checks in with the customers who are clearly satiated and happily catching up with one another over their cleared dessert plates. Before I know it, I’m halfway through my refreshing drink, and Vanessa arrives with our first appetizer, Fried Zucchini with Lemon Garlic Aioli. With eyes wide as it makes its way in front of us, I can literally inhale the warm steam rising up from the bite-sized pieces of fresh zucchini—the dish can’t be more than a few minutes old from the time of its mere prep-work. Lightly breaded and fried to a deep golden hue, the entire small plate works with succulent texture: soft insides and a crispy shell, accompanied by a light and cool lemon aioli with a healthy dose of aromatic garlic. It’s a top pick for starters at Luc’s, and I can’t do anything but agree.
We’ve cleared the plate clean by the time owner, Sergio Ferrier, comes over to check in on us. After listening to our quick rave about the zucchini, Sergio informs us that the menu is a seasonal one, always changing to provide what’s fresh for the time of year (I was more than happy zucchini made that list). He also tells us of all the specials Luc’s features on a weekly basis, such as half-off bottles of wine on Thursdays and kids-eat-free Wednesdays. Translation: fun for the entire family. With their solid selection of beer and wine and a number of accommodating deals, Sergio says the restaurant gets busy with families and friends all coming in to socialize and truly share a meal, not simply dine out. But when Vanessa joins us, bearing the next appetizer, I question how much sharing I actually want to do.
Shrimp and Creamy Grits between us, my guest and I immediately arm ourselves with forks and dive into a pillow of hot and buttery grits topped with perfectly plump, pink shrimp. The entire plate is seasoned in a robust flavoring of garlic, parsley, and lemon juice. These grits are jazzed up to the point where they could stand alone as a savory dish; but I am beyond thankful to have them paired with lightly seared shrimpall decked in the same delectable essence. From there, we move right into the Warm Goat Cheese Salad, which Vanessa has slyly brought over to our table. It’s a generous portion of spring greens bejeweled by tart, dried cranberries, Granny Smith apple slivers, and walnuts; a warm crostini carrying two goat cheese medallions rests next to the mound of fresh greens dressed in peppered honey. Altogether, the tastes play in symphony with one another, offering a nice change in pace in comparison to the previous, richer small plate.
But Vanessa has another surprise up her sleeve with the last of the starters. A hearty serving of large, wonderfully stuffed Homemade Mushroom Ravioli with Basil Sauce finds its way to our table…and quickly into my mouth. The filling of finely minced button, cremini, and portabella mushrooms offers up rich, smoky flavor and pairs with the light yet creamy basil sauce noticeably well. Topped with paper-thin shavings of parmesan, this handcrafted small plate is savory, decadent, and easily shared (if you’re of the sharing breed).
With every unfolding aspect of our dinner at Luc’s so far, I’m beginning to sense that I should expect the unexpected. Vanessa mentions that there aren’t many places in the area quite like this one. Raised in Mira Mesa herself, Vanessa agrees how rare it is to find a place with such a unique cuisine in a neighborhood like Poway. But Luc’s has garnered great appreciation by simple word of mouth publicity; she explains when the restaurant first opened, friends and neighbors of those dining inside would stop right in to check out the place for themselves. By simply looking around at the smiling diners, I can completely understand why Luc’s has become a local favorite.
The bistro has managed to bring the love and tenderness of Southern cuisine to a place typically void of such true, home cooking. Nothing really speaks of the South like ribs, and the staff at Luc’s makes sure we don’t dare leave without sampling its take on the classic. The Braised Short Ribs come out to us, still smoldering, in a smooth, deep burgundy sauce, cozied up to a heap of steamed vegetables atop hand-mashed potatoes. It proves to be a remarkably elegant rendition of some typical down-home Southern cooking. No knife needed here, seeing as the soft meat literally falls right onto your fork with little coercion. I scoop up an all-encompassing bite and am instantly warmed from the inside out. You can practically taste the time put into the entrees such as this one - I can hardly remember the last time I had a chance to eat slow cooking when dining out. The second entrée is nothing short of such tender, loving care as well. Vanessa presents us with the Fish and Seafood Trio, a colorful and exciting plate showcasing the chic European flair Luc’s peppers into many of its dishes. Three different types of sea fare, all prepared precisely and in harmony with one another: shrimp, salmon, and sole rest upon a bed of steaming rice, confettied with pepper flakes and parsley. Segments of the seared salmon and sole are devilishly tender as the shrimp offer up a burst of enjoyable texture. I can taste the multiple facets of natural flavor and seasoning, with the coy essence of leek broth chiming in at the very end of each taste. This is simple food done up with authenticity and consideration.
Thankfully, we’re graced with a small pause in our Southern feast. I literally need to sit back and rest from all the monstrous devouring that’s occurred. We watch Vanessa bustle about the restaurant, happily chatting with customers as she carries armfuls of hotplates effortlessly. From the service down to the smiling regulars, Luc’s and company truly work to make you feel at home, relentlessly welcoming and kindhearted. And they make sure our meal finishes on the sweetest of notes; for our first dessert, we’re presented with the Chef’s special for spring, Strawberry Crumble, a deconstructed strawberry shortcake, if you will. Freshly chopped strawberries in a sweet syrup tossed with fragrant mint rest beneath a dose of homemade streusel; all served a la mode. The mint and strawberries make quite the dashing pair in this bright dessert, a fitting finish to any meal. But just before we lay our spoons to rest, Vanessa bestows us with one last surprise, Chocolate Mousse with Whipped Cream. Served in a petite cup, this sweet is deceptively satisfying, packing a chocolate punch in its rich, yet silky texture. Just five minutes ago, I was too full of home cooking to muster another bite. But I was gravely mistaken. Decadence hath no boundary - at least in my book.
Groups of friends and family steadily stream in during the time it’s taken me to fully clear both desserts. I can’t help but to think that a shared meal here at Luc’s isn’t too far off from one shared at my childhood dinner table.With unquestionable hospitality, Luc’s proves to be a treasured keepsake of this suburban town. Unique and charming in every right, few places can claim the homemade feel that Luc’s Bistro can. And as much as the suburban brat in me wants to, I can’t keep this place a secret (it’s far too popular anyways).On our way out, Vanessa excitedly tells us to “come back tomorrow!” and that pretty much seals the deal. I’ll be back, without a mere twinkle of doubt.