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LUCCA

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If the weather ever permits again, there's ample seating on Lucca's outdoor patio where lively South Craig Street must provide great accompanying spectacle. The atmosphere inside -- while referencing the outdoors with its dusky blue twilight walls and indoor-arbor iron trellises strung with artificial vines and yellow fairy lights -- is more sophisticated. The lighting is muted, vocal standards are quietly piped in (a baby grand piano hints of occasional in-house entertainment) and discretely draped windows make the busy streets of Oakland seem quite remote.

After lighting our table candle, our server brought some wonderful crusty bread from the Mediterra Bakehouse served with a small plate of grated Parmesan cheese, rich golden olive oil and balsamic vinegar. This is not the place to get filled up on bread, however delicious, I cautioned my bread-eating companion: The fine print on the menu notes there will be a $3 charge for an extra basket of bread. In any case, the food is worth leaving room for.

I began with a salad. All four salads offered that night sounded good -- the house salad with locally grown field greens; a Caesar salad with prosciutto and Kalamata olives; or an arugula salad with caramelized onions, roasted bell peppers and Gorgonzola cheese. The fourth, which I ordered, was a delight: sweet baby lettuce drizzled with raspberry vinaigrette atop thinly sliced discs of Golden Delicious apples and sprinkled with goat cheese and slivers of candied almonds. So many sweet flavors with just a hint of tartness from the dressing; buttery lettuce and soft morsels of cheese were offset by the crisp apples and crunchy nuts.

My companion seems determined to try carpaccio in all its forms, and hence could not resist the lamb carpaccio offered here, however enticing that enormous bowl of steamed mussels looked passing by our table. I noticed idly, as our starters arrived together, that each had been beautifully arranged to achieve impressive height. The leaves of lettuce in my salad had been carefully laid to form a four-inch high stack. The slivers of sweet rare lamb carpaccio ringed a mini-tower of a tomato and Nicoise olive relish, which was then topped with watercress.

The menu is updated frequently here but offers a dozen entrees split between pasta, fish and meat dishes. (That night there was just one vegetarian entree -- linguine with assorted vegetables.) My companion chose a pasta dish -- fettuccini tossed with pieces of seared swordfish, Portobello mushrooms, grape tomatoes and wilted arugula. He declared it "pleasantly light" and cited the roasted-garlic wine sauce as an improvement over more common, heavier dressings.

I took the only poultry offered that night because quail and figs sounded compatible. I received two whole grilled quail propped against each other ("it's like they're wrestling") and surrounded by a black Mission fig sauce. Beneath the birds was a small fort made from four lengthwise-sliced roasted potatoes, which harbored a cache of young Brussels sprouts. Two slices of grilled apple completed the dish. There was a lot going on here, but most components worked well together. The juicy quail was well served by the dark, rich fig sauce, and I liked it even more with a bit of sweet apple added. The deceptively simple portions of potato were lightly grilled and very tasty.

The desserts that evening included vanilla or chocolate crème brulee, a choice of fruit sorbets and a "warm" chocolate cake. The server warned that the cake took 20 minutes to prepare. "It takes that long to warm up?" asked my companion. "No, it takes that long to bake. The cake is made fresh from batter." That sounded like the very epitome of decadence, to have a little cake baked especially for you -- so I ordered the chocolate cake, and a cup of coffee to ease the wait.

My companion had the vanilla crème brulee, which was prettily decorated with a twist of whipped cream, and alternating red and golden raspberries. Then, at last, my cake: It had been baked in a curvy mound-shaped mold. Vanilla ice cream sat atop it and melted down the cake's valleys. Inside, the cake was warm, moist and full of chocolate flavor but very, very light -- nearly like a dessert soufflé. My own personal cake was worth the extra time.
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