Consider the oyster. From the outside, its appearance is rough and common, scarcely attractive enough to merit a second glance. But for those diligent souls who care to pry, the oyster's tender flesh yields a taste as exotic and enticing as the ocean itself. Much the same can be said of Lure Bistro, housed in a neat if otherwise unremarkable brick building on a side street in downtown Willoughby. From the outside, the restaurant seems sedate, even ordinary. But for those who dare to step inside, a dazzling little universe is waiting.
Restaurateurs Nick and Giovanna Kustala opened the bistro in October as a sort of free-spirited doppelgänger to Lure, their more formal dining room at One Bratenahl Place. While the original restaurant is anything but stodgy, one can't help feeling that the new bistro has provided the energetic young couple with an opportunity to pull out all the stops. From the almost cartoonish ambiance, with its bright Crayola palette punctuated by pulsating music, a ceiling full of suspended glass baubles, and paintings of voluptuous mermaids, to the open kitchen, from which flows a riptide of explosive flavors, Lure is restlessly hip.
The restaurant's large menu, developed by Nick Kustala and his executive chef, Michael Annandono, backstrokes tirelessly between Asian and Continental dainties, with offerings that range from sushi to cassoulet and from wasabi-seared tuna to roasted-garlic risotto. Flavor quotients are high, portions are large, and ingredients -- especially the fish and seafood -- are impeccably fresh. And while some pairings may seem a bit unorthodox (say, al dente housemade sage ravioli in a butternut-squash Alfredo, underpinning half a stuffed Maine lobster), even those seemingly strange combinations come off without a hitch. On the other hand, Kustala and his people know when to leave well enough alone: A half-dozen chilled seafood selections -- most notably huge scampi, poached in buttery lobster consommé, and lusty East Coast Canadian oysters on the half-shell -- were simple studies in relatively unadorned splendor.
As is befitting a bistro, individual menu items are moderately priced, and it may be within the realm of possibility for a judicious diner to get in and out for less than $20. But don't be fooled into thinking Lure is a cheap date: With so many enticing alternatives to choose from, enthusiastic eaters -- those who succumb, say, to sushi, a salad, an entrée, and dessert -- are more likely to find themselves racking up a tab approaching $80 to $100 per couple.
Guests can peruse their options at the long, narrow bar surrounded by windows, three burbling aquariums, and a lineup of hanging glass panels in all the shades of the sea; in the cramped-but-friendly main dining room, with its small, white-linen-topped tables and lacy wicker chairs; or in a small upstairs loft, with a bird's-eye view of the open kitchen. The loft is also the perch for a DJ on Friday and Saturday nights, and on the occasional weekday evening. On a relatively quiet Thursday when we sat upstairs, we found the eclectic blend of recorded music a bit too loud for easy conversion; on a busy Saturday night in the main dining room, we could hardly hear the music at all.
Regardless of where one chooses to sit, though, cobalt blue water goblets, silvery napkin rings, substantial flatware, and a bouquet of Fiesta Ware provide the basic table settings. The stylish layout is augmented by whimsical presentation -- which, for example, finds a startlingly precise bouillabaisse brought to the table in an old-fashioned spouted batter bowl, a noodle-and-vegetable stir-fry appearing in its own individual wok, and scarcely seared tuna filets decked out with a pair of pearly chopsticks. Even the less exotic preparations, like a fork-tender filet mignon accompanied by roasted potatoes, asparagus, and a mouthwatering beef reduction, are precisely arranged on oversized white platters and artfully framed by the dishes' wide rims.
The bistro's sizable wine list poses a good match for the muscular food, with lots of out-of-the-ordinary selections ranging from $21 to $140 per bottle. Many of the offerings are from small West Coast wineries, with a few products from French, Italian, Spanish, and New Zealand vineyards rounding out the list; prices generally seemed to be at or slightly below the standard 100 percent markup from retail. As an alternative, a generous dry martini ($5.50) and a sweetly citric gin and tonic ($4) proved to be excellent and relatively inexpensive accompaniments to Kustala's freewheeling flavors.
It may be our imagination, but service seemed more brisk, smiles more quick, and the atmosphere more supercharged on the nights when Nick was in the kitchen and Giovanna was running the dining room. Still, across the course of three visits, we haven't had a bad meal. It is a fact, however, that some of the kitchen's works have surpassed others. The aforementioned poached-and-chilled scampi, for instance, served on ice with a jigger of high-test red-chile cocktail sauce, were sublimely sweet and firm. And those huge oysters! Drizzled with a bit of an accompanying ginger-vodka-and-red-chile-spiked Worcestershire sauce, they had us bouncing on the blue velvet banquette. Other first-course standouts include an incomparable carpaccio -- an entire platter tiled with sheer slices of rosy raw sirloin and topped with a crunchy toss of sliced fennel, grape tomatoes, capers, mâche, and shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano -- and a satiny seafood bisque blessed with asparagus, white truffle oil, and the fattest, sweetest little scallop it has been my pleasure to devour. (It would have been even better if it had made it to the table piping hot, rather than little more than lukewarm.)
Among the main-course marvels, rich mascarpone-laced risotto, topped with plump mussels and chive-infused olive oil, was dreamy, and two very rare wasabi-seared tuna filets, settled on a portion of perfect sticky rice and crisply sautéed fennel, red pepper, onion, bok choy, and carrot, were out of this world. As for our batter bowl of bouillabaisse -- a rich saffron-potato-and-garlic broth swimming with lush chunks of grouper, tuna, and salmon, and succulent scallops and mussels, then piqued with sliced fennel, chive oil, roasted tomato, and kalamata olives -- it was simply outstanding.
Cast-iron roasted filet mignon was a magnificent piece of meat, all soft and juicy, but if we are going to nitpick, we admit we were surprised that the accompanying dollop of buttery béarnaise sauce was already separating by the time it reached the table. We also couldn't help but notice that the kitchen managed to incorporate fennel and/or asparagus into many of the dishes; while both items are pleasantly distinctive, their overuse ("Look, Bitsy! Fennel again!") can become tiresome. And our final quibble was with the undistinguished seafood stuffing inside the aforementioned Maine half-lobster: While the actual lobster meat was beyond reproach, and the stuffing was light and moist, its flavor was notably flat.
It takes a good deal more than that, of course, to discourage us from sticking around for dessert. There is a good housemade crème caramel and a frothy cappuccino mousse topped with a pouf of whipped cream and sided with delicate almond biscotti. But for readers with a sweet tooth, I have just two words: gingerbread pudding. Light and custardy, with the sweetly sharp bite of candied ginger set against a richly understated crème Anglaise, and finished off with a darling little gingerbread man, this is the kitchen's perfect goodnight kiss.
It is certainly a large enough portion to share. But like most of the other dishes at Lure Bistro, it's so good that I'll bet you won't want to.
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