The “chicken pops” are beautiful little things—a Southeast Asian play on buffalo wings. Two bowls arrive at the table. One is heaped with the drumettes, darkly caramelized and glistening, each tiny piece artfully frenched. The other is starkly empty, ready to be filled with cleanly scrubbed bones. I fill the empty bowl faster than I had anticipated. One after the other in rapid succession, I’ve sucked the limbs free of every edible morsel, unable to slow down until they’re all gone. I’m now looking at a miniature mass grave, smacking my lips, and I realize my pucker is numb, perhaps slightly swollen. My tongue is tingling.
My waiter walks by and notices that I’m curiously fondling my face, and he laughs. “Happens every time,” he says. The culprit is the Sichuan peppercorn. Lots of it. And salt. Lots of that, too. Just minutes ago, the salt and pepper were almost undetectable, masked by a cloak of dark, sweet soy sauce. It’s a brilliant layering of flavors that doesn’t fully register until I’ve devoured the entire bowl.
Lukshon is chef Sang Yoon’s long-awaited follow-up to Father’s Office. Yoon is an admitted control freak whose notorious “no substitutions, no exceptions” rule at Father’s Office has inspired countless chefs across the country to follow his lead and stop letting customers have it their way. At Father’s Office, the kitchen serves everything one way: the chef’s way or the highway. It’s a similar story here, which is fine, because I haven’t found much that I’d want to alter.
In the late ’90s, Yoon was the head chef at the then-important Michael’s, on the tail end of that restaurant’s prime. But he had grown weary of fine dining and yearned for something simpler, so he quit the landmark restaurant and launched his soon-to-be-cult-favorite burger bar. Now, nearly a decade later, he has cautiously reentered the world of fine dining. On his terms.
A far cry from the cacophony of the first-come, first-served free-for-all at Father’s Office, Lukshon is calm, sophisticated and surprisingly glam. Reservations are accepted online or by phone, and I’ve never had to wait even one second for my reserved tables. Despite the restaurant’s casual layout, there’s always a warm, sincere greeting at the door. It’s all very grown up and civilized. Yoon can be seen every night at the front of the open kitchen, scrupulously expediting plates, chatting with the five or six guests seated at the handful of front-row stools along the kitchen counter. A tall, communal table in the center of the room welcomes walk-ins. The quaint dining room seats maybe 30 or so, with additional tables and a fireplace on the covered patio.
Yoon draws inspiration mostly from Southeast Asia, presenting artful takes on the humble everyday staples of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. He strays as far north as China and ventures south to India, always with a knack for making the familiar seem exotic and vice versa. And while the flavors are more or less authentic, Yoon’s techniques and presentations are firmly grounded in fine dining. I didn’t expect to see foie gras on the menu here, but there it is: perfect cubes of liver “ganache” dusted with cinnamon and carab and topped with some sort of homemade Rice Krispies. Shrimp toasts sound normal enough, but these are smaller—like dice—and spicier than usual. Barbecued Kurobuta pork ribs look like ordinary baby backs, but these are slathered in an unfamiliar sauce that’s black and sticky and tastes mildly of charred chicory. Duck popiah sounds adventurous, but it’s really just a summer roll with the soul of a Peking duck pancake. Tame, but delicious.
I order an appetizer of raw mackerel, thinking it was going to be my favorite of the night. I love mackerel. And when it arrives, the fish looks gorgeous beneath a wispy pile of green papaya salad. I take a bite, and I feel my cheeks tighten, my stomach contract. I don’t love vinegar or fishiness enough to fully enjoy this dish. I hear the people at the next table swooning over it, and I wonder if they’re tasting the same thing I am. Fortunately, the mackerel is the only thing that I’ve genuinely disliked. I have to send my dandan noodles back one evening because they taste burned and thus acrid, but on a repeat visit they are cooked perfectly—with even more of a kick from Sichuan peppercorns than the chicken pops.
I really like the steamed mussels: big, overweight fatties bulging out of their shells, bathed in a tub of green chile curry. I wish the curry were more aggressive, had more kick. But this is Culver City, not Thai Town. There’s a whole steamed fish drenched in fragrant ghee (clarified butter) that is sublime. Its meat slides right off the skeleton with a gentle nudge of my chopsticks. It reminds me of the fish sold by the fishermen’s wives on Jimbaran Beach in Bali. And then there are the short ribs rendang. This is definitely a contender for dish o
f the year—and a brilliant use of sous vide (slow poaching in an air-tight seal). The meat is so miraculously tender, I’d be forgiven for thinking I was eating rare Kobe steak. The rendang here (normally a stew or curry) is merely a drizzle, an accent. With each bite of the short ribs, I instinctively reach for my glass of wine, and then I’m disappointed. I really, really want to be drinking a glass of red wine with this meat.
But anyone who deigns to drink wine by the glass is forced to drink only whites—ranging from slightly sweet to extremely so. A single rose is offered, but Yoon does not allow red to be served by the glass. Period. The my-way-or-the-highway chef apparently believes that his food tastes best only with sweet white wine. And that’s unfortunate. Barbecue ribs? Dark soy chicken drumettes? Short rib rendang? All of these dishes scream to be paired with a nicely restrained syrah or grenache or even a spicy zinfandel. But this is Yoon’s house. So if you’re gauche enough to want red wine with dinner, you’ll be required to drink it by the bottle, never by the glass. It’s not expensive, but that’s not the point. I just don’t get it. The chef doesn’t care if I numb my throat and kill my palate with a glass of 12-year-old Japanese whiskey or a sickly sweet Singapore Sling, but he won’t let me drink red wine by the glass? He’ll sell me a glass of lager made in Pasadena or even a peated, single-malt whiskey from India, but not red wine? And then if I decide to indulge in a full bottle on a Tuesday night when I’m dining with only one other person, I’ll have to settle for something light and fruity? Really?
3239 Helms Ave.
Culver City, CA
Rating: Three stars
Sony Studios honchos, dot-com entrepreneurs, aspiring poets and the occasional day trader
What to wear
Skinny suits, short skirts, wrinkled shirts, big glasses, tweed hats
In typical Yoon fashion, Lukshon doesn’t sell dessert, but rather gives each table a free sampler (palm sugar boba, coconut tapioca, banana cake). No choices, no individual servings. Deal with it.
Where to park
There’s no valet, and the free lot often fills up by 7pm. There are usually more street spaces available on Venice Boulevard than on Washington.
What it costs
Small plates, $11-$16; large plates, $17-$37; sides, rice and noodles, $3-$12
Photos by Carin Krasner for Angeleno: Chiang Mai noodles; chef/owner Sang Yoon; whole roasted fish; Lukshon’s dining room.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, above average
3 = very good, well above norm
4 = excellent, among the area’s best
5 = world-class, extraordinary in every detail.
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.