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Simple and comforting Italian fare
#01- 16/18 Tanjong Pagar Road
Tel: 6221 3988
Open from Mon to Sat: 12pm to 12am. Closed on Sun
THE name is Luka. It's sitting on the first floor. We think we've seen the chef before, just don't ask us where it was. It's not our business anyway. We're sitting at our corner table, trying not to talk too loud. Maybe it's because we're hungry, so we're almost spoiling for a fight. But by the time that pretzel lands on our table with a smear of bottarga cream - we're not arguing any more.
Apologies to Suzanne Vega, but if this restaurant Luka were a pop song, we'd be humming it for a while. It's all about easy eating, uncomplicated Italian flavours that are comforting and unpretentious.
Considering that it's helmed by Japanese chef Takashi Okuno, the food is understated yet satisfying, without dragging you into a carbo-induced stupor. Lots of Japanese ingredients feature on the menu - negitoro, sashimi from Tsukiji and wagyu imported directly from Japan - but the common denominator is freshness and an element of joy in the cooking.
The aforementioned pretzel (S$10) is an indication of good things to come. We're taken by its fresh-out-of-the-oven warmth and plumpness, almost swelling with pride under its sesame-studded exterior. The dough pulls away in stretchy, chewy clumps that you dip into a thick spread that tastes like hummus married to taramasalata. It's actually a whipped, slightly grainy-textured cream that gets its brininess from dried fish and a sprinkling of grated mullet roe. A little pool of olive oil sits within the circle of cream, just to break the imaginary monotony.
The pretzel also comes in handy to tone down the saltiness of the Salsiccia (S$14) or home-made sausages - three skinny links of fresh minced pork, garlic and herbs, paired with whipped mustard and sharp pickled carrots. The bounce and juiciness convince us that these are happy sausages which were treated well in the stuffing process.
The smoked eggs wrapped in thin layers of seared wagyu and topped with fresh uni (S$10) is a little more complicated with its many layers of taste and texture - the smoky egg, runny yolk, rather stringy wagyu and briny uni - it's a little over-thought but still an interesting enough mouthful.
There's nothing to contemplate about the pizza - in our case chewy, yielding Neapolitan dough cooked in a roaring wood-burning oven to achieve its prized crust proudly dotted with burn spots. Our prosciutto-burrata pizza (S$23) is covered with balls of creamy cheese, sweet cherry tomatoes, a shower of arugula and a welcome drizzle of syrupy balsamico. Move aside, thin-crust fans - neapolitan is our way to eat pizza.
Next comes the question - is uni pasta a Japanese creation or an Italian original? Yes, you do find it in Italy but we've come to associate uni with Japanese cuisine and by that token are convinced that Japanese chefs do it best. Chef Okuno's version (S$26) is not to be sniffed at. The noodles are thoroughly sauteed in olive oil and garlic, cream and uni until they glisten in a golden-hued sauce that is mild and surprisingly under-seasoned, enjoyable for its al dente texture and tiny lobes of whole uni for decoration and extra umami.
Our surprise dish of the evening is Trippa (S$16) - a tripe stew which we order more as a test of the chef's repertoire than hunger. Honeycomb tripe isn't a crowd-pleaser and fiddly to handle, but here it's a rib-sticking stew that smells remarkably like baked beans from childhood, with soft white beans and tomato sauce coddling the generous amount of offal. Dessert is straight out of a classic Italian cookbook. No deconstructed parfaits with lots of zabaglione and cake crumbs - this tiramisu is oozy, slightly boozy layers of soaked sponge fingers and mascarpone cream with a good dusting of nostril-tickling cocoa powder on top.
The only limitation of Luka is that most of the food leans towards casual sharing platters - salads, cold cuts, hot and cold appetisers, pasta and pizza. There is a selection of grilled wagyu but nothing particularly inventive. Not that it's a major deal-breaker. Sure, it's stuff you've seen before, but when it's done with so much care, you don't ask why.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.