Oh sure, the first impression is that Lure is as formal as its setting. There are the white linens, the candles, the ornate Oriental screens, and the tall, mirrored pillars. But look around, and the sparkling personalities of its young owners, Nick and Giovanna Kustala, start to emerge. Observe the silver lamé cloths peeking out from beneath those staid white linens. Watch the light from the setting sun sparkle off the elongated, blown-glass teardrops that Nick Kustala had made-to-order in Mexico City while on his honeymoon. And by all means, pay your respects to Octavia, the shocking-pink octopus with the goofy grin that gazes down on diners from an alcove on the rear wall. "This ain't your daddy's seafood restaurant" is what I thought I heard her whisper.
Even the seasonal menu, most recently a concise collection of 10 appetizers and a dozen entrées, supplemented by a couple of nightly specials, demonstrates a sly sense of humor. Dishes like the chucklesome Bubba Gump Roll appetizer (a homey-sounding but extraordinarily delicious take on sushi) and the TV Dinner (an entrée of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and "a sweet fruit surprise," served up in the standard, compartmentalized TV dinner tray) play around with our often strict notions of sophistication and style.
Presentation, too, is a delight. No boring sets of Villeroy and Bosch here. Instead, the colorfully mismatched dinnerware includes Asian-influenced pieces settled beside cobalt blue or peach Fiestaware, spare aluminum platters sidled up against exuberant hand-painted servers, and those aforementioned TV dinner trays sharing space with sleek, flat plates of polished marble.
But if the accoutrements suggest a slightly irreverent and playful attitude, what goes on in the kitchen is apparently done in deadly earnest. Nick Kustala, along with his kitchen colleagues Brian Doyle and Tim O'Hare (Kustala eschews titles), obviously doesn't fool around when it comes to producing innovative, perfectly prepared, robustly flavored dishes.
Take that aw-shucks-sounding Bubba Gump Roll, which turned out to be a massive futomaki-style sushi roll of rice, sweet asparagus, barely cooked shrimp, and tamago-like scrambled egg, dipped in a light tempura batter and deep fried. The texture, with its rarefied contrast of sticky rice against the ephemeral crispness of the tempura and nori, was incredible. And the flavor, bolstered by six little dishes of enhancements -- wasabi, sweet soy, syrup-like balsamic reduction, sweet-and-sour chili sauce, green wasabi-flavored tobiko caviar, and the freshest, most pungent pickled ginger available -- was out of this world.
Other excellent first-course choices were the lobster bisque -- a silken soup highlighted with sherry and crème frâiche, which our server poured from a brightly colored pitcher right over the little mound of lobster meat and frizzled leeks awaiting in the bowl -- and a vibrant cream of asparagus soup, also served tableside, that was filled with luscious bits of heady smoked salmon.
First-course possibilities also included four à la carte salads, ranging from an exotic-sounding little number with saffron potatoes and lobster to a simple toss of greens, cucumber, cherry tomato, and carrot. We gave a nod to the Super Salad -- a very generous serving of mixed greens accented with two slabs of tongue-tingling aged blue Brie, a scattering of juicy blackberries, slices of firm but ripe pear, and bits of toasted walnut, dressed in a fruity port vinaigrette that suited it perfectly -- and it left us happy as clams. (Those were on the menu, too, by the way.)
Meals were accompanied by a white-linen-lined wire basket filled with lengths of warm baguette (from Orlando Baking Company, of course, since Nick is a scion of that local bakery dynasty) and two dynamite savory butters: a racy sun-dried tomato and an attention-grabbing chive-and-honey blend. Lure also offers a small but satisfying collection of red and white wines by the glass, mostly in the $6 to $7 range, and a larger selection of sophisticated and expensive choices by the bottle, with only a handful clocking in at less than $30.
We were lucky to happen upon Lure during the height of the season for Copper River King Salmon, a wild Alaskan fish that can only be harvested from mid-May through mid-June, as they fight their way up one of the fiercest rivers on the continent. Fat and muscular, with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and a sweet, outstandingly mild flavor, Copper River salmon is a veritable gourmet dream. And what Kustala and Co. do to it -- poach it in lobster consommé, that is, then bed it down on lobster-studded mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and drizzle it with a heady cabernet-reduction demi-glace -- is a dream come true.
While the salmon is an occasional treat, potato-crusted halibut has become something of a signature item for Johnson and Wales graduate Kustala as he has journeyed from the kitchens of the Eastern seaboard to Willoughby's Gavi's, Fairlawn's now-closed Fougasse Café, and back to the eastern suburbs. In its present incarnation, the dish includes a thick, milky white filet of delicate fish, topped with paper-thin slices of crisp fried potatoes, settled on two sublime crab-and-veggie fritters, and garnished with red pepper coulis, balsamic reduction syrup, spinach oil, crème frâiche, and a flounce of melt-in-your-mouth fried spinach. Equally luscious but more daring was the sashimi-like Ahi Chop: thick slices of meaty rare tuna -- with a buttery texture much like prime beef filet -- marinated in sweet soy and pungent ginger, coated with sesame seeds, and served with "phat" rice noodles and two heads of ginger-braised bok choy. The exotic aroma alone was enough to set us drooling.
Then there was that TV Dinner, tuned into one of the plumpest, most succulent seared chicken breasts around and served with golden mashed potatoes, a savory herb-scented gravy, a pile of well-seasoned haricots verts, and a big dollop of warm and buttery caramelized apple slices, all just bursting with flavor. After savoring this meal, we'll never be able to pass the frozen food section again without a chuckle.
And for dessert, there were crêpes: enormous mountains of rich ice cream wrapped in an almost translucent pancake, slathered with any one of an assortment of toppings, and blanketed with dense whipped cream. The well-endowed beauties arrived with a sharp knife and a serving spoon, so they could be shared; each one could easily satisfy three or four diners. On one night, we did our best to conquer the Bananas Foster Crêpe, topped with sliced and sautéed banana in a buttery cinnamon-rum sauce that our server set aflame for us, tableside. On our second trip, we set upon the Berry Berry version, with tiny wild blueberries, tart red raspberries, and sliced strawberries in a thick, fruity sauce with just a hint of Chambord.
As for service, it was nearly perfect. When he was not busy pouring soup or flambéing our desserts, Philippe Bryndzia, our dashing young waiter with an irresistible French accent, kept occupied by crumbing our table, refilling our glasses, and attending to our every little wish. (Kustala says the former French mechanic is wildly popular among his guests.) Likewise, dark-haired Giovanna Kustala, who doubles as hostess and sommelier, contributed a sleek Continental presence to the dining room as she moved from table to table, answering questions and ensuring her guests' satisfaction. Altogether, it made for a welcoming atmosphere that combined sophistication with almost family-like warmth.
However, like the meticulously made Amish quilts that incorporated a slight, intentional flaw, in the belief that nothing created by human hand should ever be entirely perfect, Lure also has one niggling fault: an admittedly inconsequential detail that seems oddly out of place. And that is the orange-handled, standard-issue pots that are brought to the table for coffee refills. In a place where every other detail is polished and clever, we were amazed to see these diner-style monstrosities being trotted through the dining room. Surely they could be replaced with some type of stylish carafe? But then again, maybe the Amish were right, and nothing should be absolutely perfect. As things now stand, Lure comes dangerously close already.