Show Me The Light
Please, someone, help out with a comment and explain the apparently universal appeal of dining at Luce. We have been to Luce several times for dinner and numerous times for snacks at the bar and we have yet to discover anything to rave about. However, every time we visit, Luce is bustling with diners and every time we talk to someone about the Middletown restaurant scene, Luce is always mentioned as a favorite. This is beginning to baffle us.
The mood is warm, cozy and inviting with two gas-fired fireplaces. The exposed brick wall and carpets, the attractive wooden bar, the big picture window on Main Street leftover from the car dealership that used to trade there, the pressed tin ceiling, the floor-to-ceiling wine rack which greets you at the door –– all these things are attractive and comforting. The lighting is tastefully subdued, erasing wrinkles and “character” lines from the faces of the predominantly mature clientele.
On the night we visited the bar and dining area were populated by a high proportion of women – one table of eight singing happy birthday, another group on what may have been an office outing and an additional gathering of a single male surrounded by six females. Women might feel comfortable in such a setting, and men might like the odds at the bar.
Whatever the reason folks love to go to Luce, we are convinced that it is not for the food. The items that we have had are at best pedestrian, ponderous and ill-conceived. A portobello and eggplant tart with smoked mozzarella and tomato confit was difficult to cut on account of the very firm mushroom and doing so destroyed the desired tart-like composition. The mozzarella was too abundant and obscured rather than enhancing the texture. Crispy calamari is the upscale equivalent of nibbling on beef jerky at any bar. We passed on the oysters as an appetizer because, well, bluepoint oysters are probably the least oyster-ish of all those in the sea and the only reason to order them would be an overwhelming need to slurp – which sometimes happens. The “exotic porcini mushroom ravioli in a black truffle cream sauce” was so thick and heavy-handed, loaded with cream and cheese sauce, that it obliterated what may have been good ravioli filled with subtle porcini. Two bites were enough to know that this dish wasn’t about flavor; it was about making sure the diner went away stuffed with cream and butter. The special pasta dish of the day, a chicken and spinach creation over pappardelle was amazingly similar since it too was swimming in a viscous cheesy sea of cream sauce. Two more bites there. At this point visions of the Pillsbury Dough Boy from Ghostbusters danced in our heads. Wishing we had opted for a green salad, we consoled ourselves with dull bread and an interesting Sicilian red wine and had the considerable leftovers wrapped to go. Dessert was simply out of the question.
On another occasion we tried the sautéed tenderloin which seemed a safe choice but turned out to be an inferior cut of meat gussied up with garlicky potatoes and a thin sauce. It took two at the table to finish the unattractive platter of meat. The seafood in a tomato-cream sauce one of our tablemates chose went uneaten. The Caesar salad was downright excellent by comparison.
The wine list is modest in scope and overpriced – the mark-ups are two or three times cost (sometimes more on the less expensive bottles). Seeing that floor-to-ceiling wine rack by the door also must throw a red flag to some wine connoisseurs being asked to spend over $200 on a bottle of Gaja – is that rack really where the wine has been stored all these years? And the wine-by-the-glass program is not only overpriced but who would risk sampling from the two dozen bottles that were simply re-corked or, maybe worse, had their air and some flavor components pumped out and sit sadly oxidizing behind the bar.
There are innumerable attractions at Luce but to date we have had no evidence that the food is among them. In every instance the good ingredients and creative elements of the dishes were effectively destroyed by a failure in execution. We expect success when most entrees are priced over $20. Go to Luce if you are looking for a warm, comfortable place. Have a snack from the bar menu and one of their good draft beers. It is nice to sit in a comfortable chair, in relatively quiet surroundings, and catch the game on TV. A little like staying home, come to think of it.
The facts: The two pasta dishes were $18.95 and $19.95. Appetizer $8.00. The wine was $35. Total: 81.90
Our service was polite and professional.