It’s a play we don’t see very much around here.
An independent restaurateur sells an eponymous restaurant, concept and all, for a nice chunk of money and can actually retire. It’s a dream scenario, and one that almost never plays out. After all, part of the appeal of owning a small, indie restaurant is putting one’s personalized stamp on it. Few people truly want to run someone else’s dream. And even if they did, would it work? Can Lucia’s still be Lucia’s, without, you know, Lucia?
For starters, Lucia's was never an ordinary restaurant. When it opened 31 years ago it didn’t take long for the place to become important. Lucia’s opened and operated at a time when only a handful of important restaurants existed in the Twin Cities. If you were a young cook who wanted to learn in a real kitchen, Lucia's would have been a dependable route.
The notion of farm-to-table was not an idea taken for granted, and a weekly changing menu that revolved around the seasons was a groundbreaking philosophy.
(In some ways, I’d argue that it still is. Because even though many places bang the farm-to-table drum, it's impossible to know with how much actual force they bang it. Do only the micro greens come from a local aquaponics farm? Or is every single ingredient culled from sustainable, organic farms?)
Using this system, Lucia's ever-rotating five-entree menu is a study in prudence. Which means its lack of flash, its muted understatement, will be lost on some. But if you "get it" you may well become a lifelong devotee.
When Lucia Watson exited two years ago to retire, selling the restaurant to the entities behind Stella's Fish Cafe & Prestige Oyster Bar of all places, everyone wondered: Will it be the same?
The kitchen was initially left in the charge of chef Ryan Lund, but he left about a year and a half into her absence. Then came Matt Ellison, who only lasted a brief stint. What was going on at Lucia’s? Clearly, it wasn't “the same.”
Chef Alan Bergo is now leading the kitchen and it looks like he may have found a real wheelhouse for himself. Previously, he led the strange, ill-fated Salt Cellar, a modern steakhouse that never hit its stride on Cathedral Hill. You couldn't help but feel sorry for the young chef: The place felt like a pack of wild horses when he was handed the reins. It would have taken a miracle to wrangle the concept and the kitchen.
Lucia’s, on the other hand, seems like just the right home for a guy who not only runs kitchens, but steadfastly keeps a blog, The Forager Chef, to document his study (and near worship) of beets, bergamot, boar ribs, and whatever else he can get his hands on in the dead of January.
What better place for him than a restaurant built on similar meditations?
My first bites under Bergo’s auspices were astonishing. Again, not for their flash, but for their self-effacing commitment to technique, seasoning, and seasonality. Around this time of year, everyone has a cauliflower and root vegetable soup, and many of them can be dull and gray as dishwater.
But here, those sedate ingredients become a fine treat, a luscious, silken pool tinged with the complexity of earth and winter.
Bergo makes an ordinary raft of hash browns altogether new again by searing them in Mangalica pork fat, essentially the highest-quality pig on god’s earth, rendering the lowly potato a dreamy haystack of crackling gold.
The bison stew, with a swipe of horseradish at the rim of the bowl, bestows great honor to the slow-cooked, time-tested elixir. Spaetzle, light, crisp, and fun to eat as a Cheeto, are showered atop the surface for textual interest, and this old cold-weather dish is new again. Even a baked ziti, which could have been a bore, was brought to life with striations of lightest-ever tomato sauce and a lid of butteriest bread crumb.
Any one of these dishes could have gone the way of the “meh.” Instead they came together to form one of the most spot-on meals we've had in some time, and all of it with zero “reinvention,” “elevation,” or quotation marks around a single menu item.
The room at Lucia’s is as subdued as the food, showing its age in all the best ways, feeling at once vintage but timeless. Service is efficient and unobtrusive, never slipping into the clumsy or the obsequious. Jut professional, and yes, quiet.
With much of the restaurant world feeling almost disposable in its changeability -- Street food is in! Ramen is in! No, ramen is out! -- it’s nice to find a place that remains familiar and steadfast in its mission.
1432 W. 31st St., Minneapolis
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Ryan Lund was employed at Lucia's for six months after Lucia Watson's departure. Lund was actually employed at Lucia's for about a year and a half after the fact. The text has been updated to reflect that.