Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining review: Lucky’s Deli, Cafe Lucarne fill downtown breakfast-and-lunch voids

The menu at Lucky's Delicatessen divides sandwiches into two categories, inspired by Italian and Jewish deli traditions. The list offers something for just about every taste and mood.
The menu at Lucky's Delicatessen divides sandwiches into two categories, inspired by Italian and Jewish deli traditions. The list offers something for just about every taste and mood. jleonard@newsobserver.com

When Lucky’s Deli opened in June, it brought a welcome new breakfast-and-lunch option to the evening-heavy lineup of restaurants in downtown Durham. Just a few weeks later, Cafe Lucarne did the same for downtown Raleigh with its opening in City Market. Both are counter service eateries whose owners have already earned stellar reputations as chefs and restaurateurs at some of the area’s best restaurants.

And that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Cafe Lucarne

309 Blake St., Raleigh

919-803-7475

cafelucarne.com

Ask Will Jeffers about Cafe Lucarne’s unusual name, and he’ll explain that lucarne is French for skylight. Then Jeffers, who teamed up with Jeff Seizer and Jesse Bardyn to open Cafe Lucarne in July (and just four months later, Royale, which is quickly shaping up to be a City Market hotspot), will tell you that the name is tongue-in-cheek. The restaurant does indeed have a skylight, but it was tarred over years ago by a previous tenant or landlord. The owners haven’t decided whether to attempt to restore the skylight, “but we like the name anyway.”

If you detect a whiff of the ironic about that name, rest assured that Cafe Lucarne comes by it honestly. Jeffers is also a part-owner of Stanbury, known as much for its hipster vibe as for its outstanding food. A similar attitude is evident at the new counter service cafe, in everything from a Facebook page riddled with retro ’60s images (including James Bond – Connery, of course) to its menu.

Avocado toast, anyone? Cafe Lucarne’s version, punctuated with lemon zest and thinly sliced radishes and spread on a slab of wheaty toast (“Boulted bakes all our bread, it’s a custom loaf made just for us,” Jeffers notes), will get your day off to a promising start. Other variations on the toast theme include cheese (Welsh rarebit and heirloom tomato), ricotta with roasted apples and honey, and fava bean with mint, pecorino romano and olive oil.

You can also jumpstart your morning with a grits bowl, English muffin or big square biscuit – all available with your choice of additions ranging from Johnston County ham (pair it with seasonal jam on a biscuit for a popular combo known as the Ham & Jam) to egg and cheese (cheddar, gruyere or gouda). Other breakfast options cover a lot of territory in a little space, from house muesli to shakshuka, a northern African-inspired dish of eggs braised in a spiced tomato sauce.

Come lunchtime, that hearty Boulted bread takes on a new role in a varied assortment of sandwiches ranging from egg salad with Green Button Farm bacon to tuna melt with olives, smoked provolone and pickled peppadew peppers. Roasted eggplant with peppers, onions, harissa and cumin mayo is one of the menu’s many vegetarian options, and this omnivore would happily order it again.

There’s also a small selection of salads (panzanella, arugula and a market salad of mixed lettuces, radish and eggplant in tarragon vinaigrette), as well as a seasonal soup. If the curried squash soup is on offer, don’t pass it up. And don’t overlook the specials board, where you’ll find seasonal sides and entrees such as the Mediterranean Benny (poached egg on English muffin topped with arugula pesto, roasted tomato and pecorino).

When I spoke to Will Jeffers, he was excited to tell me that Cafe Lucarne had just gotten its liquor license. They’re phasing in evening hours, and will offer charcuterie, artisanal cheeses and a modest selection of wines, local beers and classic cocktails. You’ll still place your order at the counter, but they’ll bring it to your table. Lower lighting and weathered hardwood floors give the cafe a cozier feel in the evening. And after the sun goes down, you won’t even notice the blacked-out skylight.

Lucky’s Delicatessen

105 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham

919-864-8841

luckysdelinc.com

It should come as no surprise that, nearly six months after opening, the line at the Lucky’s Deli order counter still frequently stretches all the way to the door. After all, the restaurant’s owners, Drew Brown (former co-owner of Piedmont and chef at Firsthand Foods) and James Beard finalist Matt Kelly (Vin Rouge, Mateo, Mothers & Sons Trattoria) are two of Durham’s top culinary talents. And Lucky’s New York deli concept has been at the top of many a local foodie’s wish list for longer than I can remember.

Don’t worry, the line moves fast. And, while the food – a mix of authentic Jewish and Italian deli fare interspersed with a few seasonal specialties with a Southern accent – may take a while to get to your table when the place is hopping, it’s well worth the wait.

You say you’ve been craving whitefish salad ever since you moved here from New York? Lucky’s will scratch that itch with a generous scoop from the acclaimed Acme Smoked Fish in Brooklyn, on a sandwich or on a plate with pickles, onion, capers, labneh, cucumbers and toast. Or try one of the house-smoked and -cured fish. I can vouch for the smoked N.C. trout, and no doubt it won’t be long before I’ve yielded to the supple pink temptations of smoked salmon and herbed gravlax.

Order a cup of matzo ball soup, and you’ll score a classic Jewish dumpling so big there’s little room for the rich, grease-slicked chicken broth it’s immersed in. Go ahead and spring for a bowl. You won’t regret it.

The menu divides sandwiches into two categories, inspired by Italian and Jewish deli traditions. Under the Heroes heading, you’ll find the likes of Eggplant Parm, Meatball with red sauce and provolone, and of course, a classic Italian with salami, mortadella, ham and provolone.

Tempting as the heroes are, it’s the hard-to-find Jewish deli classics under the House Sandwiches heading that make Lucky’s worth a drive from anywhere in the Triangle. The Reuben, made with house-cured pastrami or corned beef, is first rate just as it is, but if you want to gild the lily, the Super Reuben adds chopped liver and substitutes chow-chow for the kraut.

The list offers something for just about every taste and mood, from roast beef (rare top round, pickled onion, blue cheese, horseradish mayo and greens on a toasted kaiser roll) to beets (roasted and sliced, topped with herbed ricotta, pickled onion and pistachio pesto). You can customize to your heart’s delight, even create an Italian-Jewish fusion sandwich. I saw a roast pork and whitefish salad combo recently, though I think I’ll pass on that one.

Hot dogs are all beef, of course, in snappy natural casings. They’re available with a wide range of topping options – including ketchup, presumably a nod to Southern tastes.

Personally, this Southerner would rather get his local flavor in the form of pimento cheese or a seasonal salad of collard greens and peanuts – two recent options in display cases that tempt with a rainbow assortment of dips and salads, from egg salad to Moroccan carrots. True to deli tradition, these are also sold by the pound to take home, as are deli meats and cheeses.

And who, you might ask, is Lucky? Turns out it isn’t a real person at all. “Lucky just seemed like a good Durham name,” explains general manager Mary Deal. Looking at those long lines at the order counter, it’s clear that Durham agrees.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals.

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