At LUVI, chef Hao Gong’s new jewel box of a restaurant on Tchoupitoulas Street, patrons enter a dining room decked out in bold turquoise and colorful prints. The bright decor is matched by the color and pretty presentations on the plates in a mix of Japanese and Chinese influences.
Gong was the longtime chef at Sake Cafe, and his experience with Japanese cuisine and fish are evident at LUVI. But Gong was raised in Shanghai and cut his teeth cooking Chinese dishes. His menu reads like a creative, sometimes dreamlike, mashup of the two cuisines.
Most dishes featuring raw seafood combine just a few key ingredients, emphasizing their strongest flavors without overpowering one another. Stoplight features thin strips of yellowtail topped with a jalapeno slice, a cilantro leaf and crimson habanero tobiko. In each bite, a tiny punch of heat is subdued by the buttery fish.
With many dishes, color and dimension vie with flavor for the spotlight. “Salmon Salsa” features slices of raw salmon and mango arranged in a beautiful pink and marigold mosaic, interspersed with wisps of creme fraiche and razor-thin radish slices and topped with glistening bulbs of ikura, or red caviar.
Gong also pays attention to texture. Puffed rice and fried garlic complement ceviche, and a dish combining raw and seared tuna in a small mound is topped with garlicky crostini.
When Gong gets playful, there are some off-the-wall combinations. The Monkey Snack features raw salmon and banana slices in a creative pairing in which the sweetness of the fruit is countered by the salty crunch of sesame seeds and the salmon’s richness.
Dishes from the kitchen are categorized as small and large plates, but none of the portions are excessive. Ordering several to share is a good way to dine here.
Of the small plates, a muddy mix of shiitake and wood ear mushrooms is served with golden-fried tofu. The earthy, woodsy medley doesn’t have many dimensions of flavor and seems to work best as a side ordered with other dishes.
The multidimensional Mala Halla is strong enough to stand alone, with layered slices of soft, gelatinous beef shank, red onions, peanuts and cilantro. It’s seasoned, but the menu advertises ghost chili oil in the dish and I didn’t detect any spicy heat. Likewise on two occasions, Dan Dan noodles billed as “spicy” on the menu had no heat from the ghost chili oil listed as an ingredient.
Dishes with a personal touch are some of the most successful items. Mama’s dumplings, filled with a mixture of ground pork, ginger and cabbage, are a delicious homespun reference to the ones Gong’s mother prepared for him as a child in Shanghai. They’re served in a bowl of salty soy broth dotted with scallions.
Diners can find seats at the L-shaped bar where Gong holds court. There also are tables along the front and side of LUVI, but most accommodate four or fewer diners. Groups of five or more can make reservations, but all other seating is first come, first served and there isn’t much space available for diners waiting for a table.
“Feed Me” options ($45 or $60) can include raw and cooked dishes and offer a nice way to sample a variety of dishes chosen by the chef. Whether diners give Gong the reins or choose dishes themselves, sampling a mix of creative raw and cooked dishes can deliver a surprising and delightful meal.
5236 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 605-3340; www.luvirestaurant.com
lunch and dinner Tue.-Sat.
Stoplight, Mama’s dumplings
small space isn’t conducive to large parties
Chinese and Japanese flavors delight diners at petite Uptown restaurant