A delicious reason for a drive to Keene
Hey Keene, where have you been all our lives?
Because of our jobs and our roots, most of our travels in the Granite State are to the east of Interstate 93. Western New Hampshire, especially the southwest corner, is pretty much virgin territory for us. But after our visit to Keene's hopping downtown — and in particular, our visit to Luca's Mediterranean Cafe — on a recent Saturday night, we can't wait to go back.
First impressions: 17/20
OG: Luca's is located right on Keene's picturesque Central Square. Several sidewalk tables expand the seating on pleasant summer evenings, but we decided to sit inside, where the restaurant is divided into two dining rooms, both with picture windows overlooking the square. It's a compact space, with 20 or so tables in total. The decor is southern European, with a little bit of Italy, a little bit of France. It's warm and inviting, from the front door all the way into the restrooms.
We've visited several Mediterranean-themed restaurants in the past few months. Most featured cuisines of the eastern Med and Middle East. Like its decor , Luca's menu is more influenced by the western Mediterranean, no doubt a reflection of owner Gianluca Paris' Italian heritage.
The menu is short but imaginative. There are a number of seafood appetizers and entrees, as well as chicken, lamb and beef offerings. If you're eating lighter, there are a half dozen salads, and if you're looking for pasta, Luca's has you covered with a section in which ravioli is a featured player. One note: The menu that's on Luca's website is somewhat out of date. Pricing and general themes are accurate, but some of the specific dishes have changed.
Our Gourmet: It had been a while since I last had escargot, and Luca's version ($11) sounded intriguing. The escargot — eight in all — were served on a delicious, firm croissant, with a judiciously applied garlic herb butter sauce that emphasized the garlic and herbs. These babies were definitely not swimming in butter, and that made for a harmonious blend of flavors. 8/10
The Dining Companion: I love beets, and when I saw roasted gold and red beets ($8) on the menu, I stopped looking right there. The plate came with five large, thick slices of roasted beets — two gold and three red. Each had a slight shaving of Parmesan cheese on top and a few pistachios, with a small herbed salad gracing the top. The beets were perfectly cooked and the pistachios were just the right complement. I could have had this for my entree! 10/10
OG: I wanted to choose an entree that fit the Mediterranean theme, and none seemed to do so better than the bocourti ($20). Two seared filets of the flavorful, firm white fish were served atop white beans with a delicious tomato-pepper sofrito sauce, accompanied by two small roasted onions and al dente green beans. It was a terrific combination that had me imagining we were dining at a sidewalk cafe somewhere along the Riviera. 9/10
TDC: I opted for one of the evening's specials — the Chilean sea bass au poivre ($25). A thick filet with a generous black pepper topping was served on top of a sun-dried tomato and Kalamata olive tapenade and couscous with lightly sauteed green beans. The combination of flavors was fantastic. Each layer was bright and flavorful on its own, and the combination popped in your mouth. I would have preferred a crispier pepper coating on top, but the meal was perfectly cooked. 9/10
OG: I had a light entree, so I didn't feel guilty at all about ordering a slice of a delicious mocha chocolate gelato pie ($6) for dessert. It was rich, cool and creamy, with a crushed chocolate cookie crust, and it was a great ending for a terrific dinner. 9/10
TDC: Tiramisu. With an appetizer and main course so good, the tiramisu had to follow suit. Here I was a bit disappointed. It was not the "traditional" tiramisu I was used to. It was good, not great.
The lady fingers were sugared and formed the bottom, right and left outside walls, cradling the rich mascarpone filling. I found the granulated sugar very distracting, and the dessert not as rich and smooth as I would have liked. 7/10
We were very impressed with Luca's. Our server, Ryan, was helpful and friendly, and Luca himself was a welcoming presence as he made the rounds of the tables, visiting with regulars and newcomers alike. If Luca's is any indication of the quality of the dining experiences to be found in Keene, we envy the folks who call southwest New Hampshire home.