Cucina Urbana offers new flavors, but bad tastes of the past still lingerRestaurant Review Saturday, February 12th, 2011
I often applaud restaurants that have the courage to reinvent themselves in this interesting economy and do it successfully. As I have stated many times, the days of white table cloth dining is past and vacant fine dining establishments need to either accept the fact that their restaurants will be empty or do something bold and change their identity all together.
The renovation from iconic Laurel to the trendy Cucina Urbana is a perfect example of taking lemons and making lemonade.
Hailing from the very successful Urban Kitchen Group, owner Tracy Borkum saw the need to do something different and maximize her prime location on the corner of Fifth and Laurel. Her new concept drew her to ditch the old style of etched mirrors, French banquettes and crystal chandeliers, and start all over with a look that is both amusing and dramatic.
Using only recycled material from local San Diego dumps, the modern poor man’s look was born. Witness columns wrapped with dilapidated fence boards, Edison light bulbs suspended from the ceiling as if it were a basement closet and a graffiti sprayed wall painted with Italian quips that are barely noticeable.
A few items were kept. The iron clad stair case that is now lined with vintage shoe-trees and the outrageous (and always packed) bar that is oddly reminiscent of a chicken coop.
Other items were added. The flaming hot open pizza oven sits in front of a new dining bar and a communal table attracts a variety of diners on a first come first serve basis.
All of this creatively combined proved once again that Tracy and her team are a power house in San Diego.
Being the first in town to offer the “$20 and under” menu that we now see all over, Chef Joe Magnanelli dishes up Italian fare from a menu that is large, friendly and set up in a way that invites you to share with your neighbor.
This menu proves that Chef Joe is one of the most versatile chef’s in town. From his days at the head of the stove at Laurel, to running the accelerated kitchen of Cucina, the passion he has for food is displayed in the dishes that are expeditiously brought to your table.
Laid out in a variety of categories, I always enjoy starting with a jar or board. The mini mason jars are a constant reminder of my Italian great aunts. Just as they would make, the jars are bursting with flavor. The Burratta and Roasted Garlic Confit ($7) is so creamy they serve it with a spoon. The Smoked Trout and Baby Golden Beets ($7) was a delectable surprise as I spread it on the accompanying rustic toast.
I love the idea of unique and playful dishes in a restaurant and here it is with the Boards. With selections of antipasto, formaggi and salumi, and polenta served tableside each is proudly placed in the center of the table, on what seem like wood cutting boards. The polenta changes each night, and recently I had the pleasure of feasting on Creamy Polenta and a Short Rib Ragu ($13.50). The mound of polenta is spooned right on the board, and out of a mini copper pot a fragrant shortrib ragu was placed atop. To this day, one of my favorites remains on the menu. The Ricotta Gnudi ($10.50) with sage brown butter is soft, delicate and literally melts in your mouth.
The salads are basic and rather boring. I’d skip over this section and order a second board. Bread is served on request and at a cost.
The pasta’s are fresh and made with care. If you are looking for the so-overused penne, you won’t find it here. Chef takes you back to the old world with dishes like Cavatelli and Corzetti.
Clam, shrimp and squid dote over the Cavatelli de Nero ($17.50). Truffle oil, pine nuts and English peas are merged with porcini cream and sheets of corzetti to bring you a rich hearty dish of Forgared Mushroom Corzetti ($15).
The gourmet pizza also doesn’t disappoint. Crispy thin crusts and interesting toppings of pears, fennel sausage, candied pecans and pistachios are baked in the open brick oven. Workout an extra day in the week and enjoy one of these carb filled delights.
Out of the entrée selections timeless versions of veal Marsala, Jidori chicken and grilled New York steak are staples you can’t go wrong. The eggplant “Parm” ($15.50), a classic in its own right, was a little lackluster and mushy.
The grilled ‘duroc’ Pork Chop ($19.50) was dry and overcooked, and nothing is worse than dried out pork chops. It seems the focus goes to the more profitable sections of the menu, leaving you to wonder if that is the plan all along.
With the brilliant redesign of the space, concept and menu, Tracy added a wine mart and dropped the bottle prices on the list to retail level. I think that idea is the cleverest in town. The prices are so reasonable, I often find it hard to control myself from ordering five or six bottles at a time, which I have been known to do.
I’m always acknowledged by the wait staff. Casual, frenzied, humorous, the edgy servers run the floor with ease. It is interesting to watch as they battle each other in a game of flipping tables. The door and hostesses, however, need a lesson in hospitality.
The LGBT community has been true supporters of new restaurants, trends and innovative concepts. When Cucina Urbana first opened, every table was filled with members of our community. Now it seems to be filled with a crowd of stodgy conservative residents of a north county suburb. Although still welcoming to us, the glimmer is gone.
It will be interesting to see how long it will take for our “double income, no kids” community to be asked back. Maybe this time we won’t have a time limit.
505 Laurel Street
San Diego, 92101
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