Epicurious Eating: Cucina Urbana
From crystal to Mason jars
Published Thursday, 27-Aug-2009 in issue 1131
When I first learned several months ago that restaurateur Tracy Borkum was about to transform Laurel into Cucina Urbana, I called upon the gods of every religion and begged, “Please, not another Italian kitchen pushing light pasta dishes and tiramisu.” Others less concerned with the culinary reinvention fretted simply over the fact that Laurel’s long-established formality was barreling toward a fast death. This was, after all, a San Diego landmark that welcomed Nordstrom-attired regulars with warm embraces and expensive bubbly.
Change in one form or another was inevitable, however, as the weak economy began shooting bullets at fine-dining establishments (and still is). Borkum realized that it was either “sink or swim.” So out went the Swarovski crystal chandeliers and starched linens and in came cement flooring and reclaimed wood to achieve an exquisitely artsy, yet casual look – all in four weeks’ time, no less! To sticklers of Laurel, the current jean-clad wait staff alone could send you running across the street to Bertrand at Mister A’s, which is one of the few prim dining rooms remaining in our urban core.
Cucina’s culinary offerings turned out to be a great surprise, causing me to rejoice over the menu the second I laid eyes on it. At a cursory glance it appears pedestrian Italian. But scratch a pepper flake beneath its surface and behold a wellspring of novel twists spearheaded by Executive Chef Joe Magnanelli, who carries over from Laurel.
Mini Mason jars containing assorted appetizers, for instance, prove catchy. We spotted numerous parties dabbling in them over full bottles of wine available from a cozy retail corner of the restaurant. The jars are filled with shareable foodstuffs, such as chicken liver paté, Mediterranean olives, goat cheese mousse or silky hummus topped with charismatic piquillo “jam.”
From the “boards” section, Cucina turns polenta into a valley for unctuous ragu that changes every few days. In tableside presentations, a wait person separates the dreamy mush on a small slat, and then loads the crevice with the protein du jour. On the night of our visit it was braised pork belly punctuated by fennel and sweet carrots. A few days earlier it had been duck with Bing cherries. The ritual is charming; the flavors chronically comforting.
Luscious and unconventional to American standards was a pizza “sauced” with béchamel and sprinkled with potatoes, pancetta and scallions. An oozy soft-boiled egg centered on top soon began bleeding into the crisp, yeasty crust made from sourdough starter. The imagination might gear you for something that tastes breakfast-like. But the outcome is instead reminiscent of a late lunch that you wash down with stout beer while gazing across the countryside from a rural European bistro. We loved it.
“What is this?” my dining companion asked when an appetizer of fried squash blossoms I ordered arrived to the table. A virgin to these mildly sweet blooms (a delicacy in Italian cuisine), his introduction to them was memorable. Magnanelli stuffs the fragile trumpets with herbed ricotta and retains their asparagus-like stems. Smears of purple basil pesto and cured lemon dressing (as thick as butter cream) effectively quelled the bitterness of those stems while adding a wispy aesthetic to the plate – not overly fancy, but hardly dull.
Cucina’s fast-working wait staff kept our meal moving at a timely clip, allowing us to savor vodka muddled with thyme and seasonal tangerines, and a Grand Marnier-Campari concoction reddened by ripe watermelon. The cocktail list is no less progressive than the cuisine, with many of the drinks infused with seasonal herbs and fruits.
For our main courses, we looked to the concise “pasta” and “piatti” sections of the menu. Magnanelli’s rigatoni Bolognese tops the list for heartiness, with a sinfully rich layer of chunky beef, veal and pork blanketing the pasta. The meats are bound together by a minimal measure of red sauce. Dollops of fresh ricotta sent the calorie count joyfully through the ceiling.
My companion swooned over the braised black cod, which I neither loved nor hated but felt was a bit much, as the soft-spoken flavor of the pistachio-crusted cod was upstaged by Limoncello butter and an overly robust version of peperonata (stewed peppers). If I come back with a hankering for fish, I’ll opt instead for the whole-roasted trout, augmented simply with lemon-herb bread crumbs, watercress and roasted tomatoes. But then again, the props for entrées change with the latest ripe offerings at nearby farmers markets. The fresh, roasted strawberries we savored in an almond-polenta cake (fregolata) for dessert will likely go poof by next week.
Borkum has found her groove at Cucina Urbana. “Nobody was coming to Laurel in this economy,” she says, admitting that Cucina’s concept first landed on the table about three years ago. Since materializing in June, the lulls in business are fewer and further between. Now, you come as you are. And you eat within a more hip and festive atmosphere enhanced by numerous seating options (bar, pizza bar, sunken dining room, street-level foyer or communal table). Just don’t come knocking for fettuccine Alfredo and garlic bread because this cucina operates in an Italian universe all of its own.