Dashed expectations

There is nothing more disappointing than dashed expectations. You are seduced by the flash and looks of a place, and then it all falls flat. It’s worse than if you had headed out to eat mediocre food in the first place.

It’s not hard to have high expectations when you walk into Lucca, the stylish new eatery on J Street across from Hamburger Mary’s. The mood is set before you even get in the door of the restaurant, formerly an auto showroom. The owners have planted an attractive mixture of flowers and hostas in the strip between the sidewalk and the street, and a stylish sign adorned with a large, stylized fork hangs over the entrance.

Inside, the walls have been stripped to brick, and enormous arched windows admit a flood of light and allow for people watching. Two enormous paintings in a “blue dog” vein dominate the room, although one is of a blue goose, and the other is of a red bull. The bar is separated from the dining area, which features a mix of attractive, striped-fabric banquettes and rattan chairs surrounding wood tables of luxurious bulk.

Lucca, despite its Italian name, does not have a particularly Italian menu, although it does feature a half-dozen pastas and risottos. The menu is short but packed with interesting options. It is also surprisingly affordable, with only one entree priced at higher than $15: a 14-ounce steak at $21.95.

Things started off well enough on a recent visit. We were seated and received water, bread and sweet butter promptly. The creamed butter was room temperature, a nice touch given the difficulty of spreading ice-cold butter on anything.

We opted to try a few appetizers, both of which were delicious and appeared with commendable promptness. A huge plate of paper-thin zucchini chips ($3.95) was demolished in record time. They were a little greasy, but that was forgivable in light of their perfectly crunchy texture and airy flavor. A plate of flatbread sprinkled with myzithra cheese ($5.95) was also a big hit. The tangy pieces of pita-like bread were accompanied by two small tubs of delicate puréed red lentils and an intense garlic-and-green-olive pesto, as well as a selection of house-cured olives.

If the meal had ended right there, this would be a far different review. The first presentiment of doom came after the appetizers, when the waiter returned to tell me my entrée, a duck cassoulet, no longer was available. This unwelcome information came well more than a half hour after we had ordered and pointed to a severe lack of communication between the kitchen and wait staff at best. I changed my order and then spent the next 15 minutes calculating exactly how much longer it would take to complete the meal (a little more than an hour). Rattled, the waiter made off with our son’s empty soda glass and didn’t reappear with it until our food arrived. We were discouraged further when the people next to us complained that their food was cold and returned it.

Our entrees, when they eventually arrived, weren’t ice cold but were just this side of lukewarm. My son’s Lucca Burger ($8.95) arrived without the requested cheese (which, by the way, will set you back an extra dollar). The burger, a half-pound sphere of grass-fed beef, was quite good and came with fries wrapped in a paper napkin and served in a water glass.

My default dinner, chicken saltimbocca ($11.95), was decent without being extraordinary. Lucca rolls its pounded-thin filet around a filling of fontina cheese and sage and wraps it in pancetta. The chicken itself was tender, although I was only able to detect one small nugget of cheese at the very tip of my rolled chicken. The mashed potatoes that accompanied the saltimbocca were ordinary, with the questionable addition of big pieces of potato skin. A vegetable on the plate would have provided some visual interest and a contrasting taste.

The biggest disappointment of the night was a dish billed as spicy-sausage-and-wild-mushroom pappardelle ($9.95). The pappardelle was appropriately al dente, although it was cut into such long strands it was difficult to eat. But the sausage was far from spicy and tasted mostly of fennel. And though I did detect a few wild mushrooms, the bulk of the funghi in the dish was cultivated. This kind of bait-and-switch is one of my pet peeves and always makes me think the restaurant owners believe diners are not sophisticated enough to know better.

Perhaps the unevenness of the food is due to its affordable pricing. But I suspect diners gladly would pay a few dollars more per entree to be assured of the quality promised by the surroundings.