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Lucio's Hidden in Plain Sight

Perfectly cooked bronzino is fileted tableside.
Troy Fields

Take a trip through this hidden gem in our slideshow of Lucio's kitchen, dining room and fabulous patio.

Just when you think you know a neighborhood and just when you think you've uncovered every stone there is to pluck up and examine, Houston surprises you. It's one of the endlessly thrilling things about living in this city, one that's so full of treasures and so spoiled for choice that you can't possibly ever know all of its secrets and wonders. At least, that's how I felt the first time I walked into Lucio's BYOB a few weeks ago.

I left surprised at how I'd managed to overlook the restaurant all this time — despite its welcoming sign encouraging customers to bring their own wine, despite its location next to now-closed Gravitas and despite my having lived only a few blocks away for the last few years. Such is the power of a perfectly cooked bronzino, stuffed with oranges and shining with a summery-sweet hibiscus glaze that hummed with the musky, floral flavors of jamaica tea. It was fileted tableside with understated but expert precision by a smiling waiter in full uniform who had, an hour before, happily uncorked the bottle of 2009 Barbera del Monferrato my colleague had brought with us to dinner — a bottle that had landed us at Lucio's in the first place.

No one wants to waste an exciting bottle of wine on a BYOB place with lousy, cheap food. And most people don't want to pay an exorbitantly high corkage fee, either. Finding a happy medium between the two can be difficult, but that's where Lucio's comes in. Scanning the BYOB listings for a good dinner option, I was surprised to see the little Montrose restaurant pop up with consistently high reviews from sites like B4-U-Eat and Urbanspoon. Lucio's has been open since 2007 but has received little attention in the press, and I rarely if ever hear it mentioned among friends or peers.

Imagine my surprise when my colleague and I walked away enamored of not only the food — including a pillowy, deeply vegetal, terrifically tangy spinach dip with hot puffs of fried pita that will make you rethink the gloppy stuff you buy at Costco by the tub — but the charming service and the elegant patio that beckoned me back for another visit, a visit that came only a few short days later, since I simply couldn't wait to get back.

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I walked into my managing editor's office the next day and plonked a bottle of cabernet down on her desk. "I have to take you to Lucio's," I beamed at her. She did not resist, and the very next night we were seated on the chic patio — only seven months old — with fans and misters keeping the humid weather at bay and each table set upon its own stone block amid a field of well-manicured gray rocks, the whole scene striking against the wooden walls and copper-colored sculpture of thick steel squares that blocks the view onto Taft.

Like the new patio, Lucio's also has a relatively new wine list. Until recently, it was fully BYOB, but now it has a well-edited one-page selection with five wines by the glass. But the main attraction here — aside from the food — still seems to be the fact that wine geeks have found a quiet, off-the-beaten-path place to come and enjoy their spoils alongside truly well-made food.

The fact that Lucio's is so off the beaten path is what drew chef Brett Maesch to the restaurant shortly after owner John Sjoberg opened it six years ago.

"The place is small, it's quaint, it's only known by word of mouth," Maesch said on the phone one afternoon, soft-spoken and determinedly unassuming. "'The hidden treasure,' 'diamond in the rough,'" he laughed. "We've heard so many different expressions. But I wouldn't consider us a diamond in the rough by any means, especially if you've seen the patio that John's created here."

Like that elegant patio, Lucio's food also speaks to an understated confidence, whether in a perfectly roasted chicken with salty, crispy skin over a plush bed of pureed yams or a simple dinner of roasted vegetables — whole carrots with their tops still on lined up alongside "risotto" made from soft, pearlescent grains of barley and a formation of bright green asparagus positioned among other root vegetables on a broad plate. It may be only a plate of vegetables, but it's beautiful.

The same can be said for its heirloom tomato salad, a refined assortment of harvest gold, hunter green and blood-red tomatoes alternating with fat slices of fresh mozzarella cheese under a curiously light yet smoky tomato dressing. A house-cured tuna sashimi appetizer dazzles with a seared crust of pink peppercorns and lavender. Soups range from a roasted cauliflower with the warm depth of browned butter to a roasted red pepper cut with a sharp and colorful handful of curry powder. It's all quite simple stuff, but that's the allure.

"The food speaks for itself," said Maesch, who's been cooking for 17 years and often incorporates his classical French background into the food, while keeping the plating unstuffy and the flavors clean. He doesn't seem concerned with overt national trends like locavorism, nor with crowning his dishes in unnecessary extravagance like fried eggs or pork bellies. Instead, he likes to showcase his simple Midwestern background in dishes like Lucio's popular smoked duck breast with roasted beets and an apple-hickory consommé that sings with the hum of cider vinegar.

"I'm from the orchard area of Indiana," he explained, "so the apple cider is something I wanted to incorporate. I like basic forms, natural forms." Although, he adds, the duck may be gone soon — the summer menu is arriving, bringing with it lighter flavors and more of an emphasis on fish such as grouper or smaller fowl such as quail.

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Now that I've found Lucio's, there's no doubt I'll become a regular. It seems to occur quite naturally here. Even Maesch noted that the bulk of the business comes from patrons who've made the place into their second living room, many of whom are — again — serious wine geeks. On one evening alone, I spotted wine gurus Dale Robertson and Guy Stout crowded into a boisterous table, while a room full of wine reps filled out the second part of the intimate dining room.

Dinners, in fact, are usually very busy affairs. I almost didn't get a table on that return visit with my editor, since nearly all of the spots were booked up for the night. The open kitchen shines with a fulgent warmth when you walk in, its open flames and sparks of movement as dishes are expedited supplanting any need for a fireplace to make the dining room cozy. And diners crowd around the kitchen like moths to an open flame when they aren't lingering on the back patio. It's the kind of place in which you feel instantly at home, so it's easy to see why the tables get booked up every night.

Lunch is a much easier time to explore Maesch's food. It's far quieter on weekdays, and the gracious service will get you in and out in time to drive back downtown after your lunch break. There's an $18 three-course lunch I find irresistible, offering a choice of soup or salad, an entrée of either "drunken" chicken or a risotto topped (depending on the day) with pancetta, peas, asparagus or maybe all three, and a dessert choice of decadently thick chocolate mousse or a crème brûlée that's topped with sorbet.

It's this last item that is the only thing I haven't enjoyed here, but just barely. It's not that there's anything wrong with the little brûléed dessert, but that it doesn't live up to the expectations set by Maesch's other dishes. It's not quite burned enough on the top to give it any real depth and wants for more sugar overall, and the sorbet it's served with is an odd textural contrast that simply doesn't work.

But if this is the most offensive thing I can think of to say about Lucio's after three otherwise exquisite meals, the restaurant is clearly doing something right. Its regulars think so, too. In fact, I dare you to get a seat there tonight.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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