I've eaten my way through a seasonal change at Luce. In doing so, I've concluded that menus may alter as our planet indulges in its on-again, off-again courtship of the sun, but some things pretty much stay the same. Like the very fine cooking of Alex Rodriguez.
The Columbus A-Rod has brought us great grub from his kitchens at The Rossi, BoMA and the Palette Cafe inside the Columbus Museum of Art. Now he's bringing it from his first self-owned (since May) place out in Powell.
Time and again, Rodriguez has exhibited a fondness for combining contrasting and complementing elements with fruit-kissed sauces, along with an expertise handling pork and seafood, and delivering bold flavors onto plates with an eye toward color and verticality. Here, he continues this winning streak, making Luce - which is Italian for light - yet another drive-worthy destination dining spot.
When you pull up, you'll see a pseudo-Tuscan villa with some convincingly lush landscaping and a nifty patio. The place is freestanding and good sized.
Inside, there's two biggish rooms with beamed ceilings, ochre paint, Italianate archways, local artworks, shiny fabric-covered furniture, a welcoming hearth and Chihuly-esque lighting fixtures. It's somewhere between upscale and casual and even aims for hipness through waiters clad in jeans and service-station-like work shirts.
The first dish I ordered in this relaxed setting ate far more spectacularly than its simple menu description: a Prosciutto Shrimp Skewer appetizer ($12). Three big and sweet shrimp were thickly wrapped in very good ham and impaled along tall wooden sticks protruding from an inverted lemon half. Precariously resting in the resultant loose "basket" was a terrific mesclun salad with a mildly sweet champagne vinaigrette. Also included were a bowl of horseradishy, peppery, deeply roasted tomato sauce and another winning salad of jicama tangled with mandarin oranges. Wow!
Caponata replaces mesclun on Luce's just-released autumnal menu version of that marvelous shrimp dish, but it's a different sea critter that features in another starter: Crab Cakes ($12.50). Two soft pan-seared patties were well-crabbed and not bad, but a roasted salad of portobellos, peppers and radicchio stole that show.
Other beautiful beginnings were: an intense tomato bisque monogrammed with a creamy script "L"; a beet salad ($7) wherein the earthy root veggies were "napoleon"-ized with goat cheese insertions; and an off-menu mini pumpkin with an edible rind filled with pumpkin risotto, prosciutto and a truffle-oil flourish - it also had jack-o'-lantern-like fig sauce scribbles on its unbitter exterior (that app was all treat and no trick.)
Fall squashes and cool-weather veggies feature prominently on Luce's new seasonal menu, as in an outright wonderful entree I tried: Pork Tenderloin ($22). This knockout featured a long plank of crispy yet creamy sweet potato-mascarpone-polenta "cake" supporting two hunks of extraordinary medium-rare pork given a deep steakhouse sear. Above was a tuft of fried leeks; below were caramelized Brussels sprouts and a sweet cranberry demi-glace.
3499 Market St., Powell
Sea Scallops ($23) also scored really high. Their pretty skillet crust matched their buttery caramel-colored sauce, which received texture and fruitiness from pomegranate seeds. Piled up in the middle was a mound of dense garlic mashers laced with deeply roasted roma tomatoes and fennel.
The sweet, plump shrimp reappeared in Shrimp Linguini ($16). That plate of perfectly cooked pasta had a creamy wine-garlic sauce that, partly due to its spinach and roasted peppers, didn't come off as overly rich.
For dessert, I continued with the fall fashion show and ordered the excellent pumpkin brulee. Refreshingly, it was more pumpkiny than pumpkin-spiced and was presented with a drastically contrasting crepe draped with a potently jammy berry compote.
With the exception of one thing I tried (a soggy-crusted pizza), everything I ate at Luce had me seasonally happy. In fact - and this is a real achievement - I'm almost anticipating the advent of winter, if only to eat some of Luce's next wave of dishes.