Authentic decor, rustic family-style dining, wildly original, comfy chairs, above par Management, thoughtful Chef, sustainable environment, eye candy, wine Savants, clever concept, and more than welcome to the OC. (I’m guessing it’s clear I’m a fan…)
My first experience at CUCINA enoteca was one that was random. I had a business meeting and we were going to just grab coffee BUT – always a BUT – I heard of this great new restaurant nearby that, when I saw it being put together, looked like a haven for creativity, open-mindedness, and a bold appeal. Let me first say, THAT impression was spot on. So I persuaded my fellow entrepreneurs and friends to meet at this new spot and see how it was. Upon arriving, the patio was packed. Turns out, Thursday night was a good night to eat. As you enter, there are two patios on opposing sides. It’s as it you’ve escaped into a beautiful European city with one patio built around a tree. The furniture is very “mixed media” with modern, rustic, green, and cozy. Once you walk inside what you find is a truly creative ensemble of decor, including a wall of wine (ALL for sale), 2 Community tables (one of my favorite things), emptied crates housing entirely original knick knacks from past and present, lampshade wire frames used as art, and an overall “take a breath because you’re about to relax and eat a good meal” kind of vibe.
I look for my two associates and am greeted by the Front of the House Manager, Ruth Rodriguez. Ruth, I should add, is super accommodating and incredibly nice (that is a great first impression). I give her my name and she finds my reservation and soon after, takes me to the table where my friends are waiting. Once seated, I pause. The chairs are not the typical “hurt-my-back-after-10-minutes” chairs – they are the most comfortable white leather seats with a coffee burlap sap shell that embraces your back and allows you to dine in comfort. Hooray for someone thinking of comfortable chairs!
Once seated, we are greeted shortly after by Director of Operations, Mike Rutherford who found out I was coming from Owner Tracy Borkum via Twitter. (And you thought no one was paying attention to Twitter. Ha!) He came over with a smile on his face and he could not have been any more gracious. He explained that the restaurant was not merely a single stop. The idea of CUCINA enoteca is to allow diners a chance to experience not only family-style dining BUT also allow them to enjoy a bottle of wine at retail rather than the steep inflation we all sigh upon at most restaurants. The wine has a standard $8 Corkage fee which, even with retail priced wine, is far less than what we’re all used to spending on a good bottle. He thanked us all for coming in and then told us we came on a good night because the Wine Director, Ben Kephart, was also there. He went over the menu with us and then said he and Chef “Lulu” (Lauren De Rouen) wanted to send out a few things. Ben came up to say hello as well and then talked to us briefly about our taste and preference to wines. We were all unanimously “Reds” and while the kind of red was up for debate, Ben talked to us about a smooth Felsina Classico Chianti. Described as, “Ruby red with deep intensity and hue. Fruity, fine and elegant aromas dominated by wild berries accompanied by various spicy notes. Fruity on the palate with good tannins and a lingering finish”. This is a very straight forward Chianti, pleasing to the palate.
While we savored, Mike brought us a Charcuterie plate they call “Formagi+Salumi” from Chef Lulu. The plate was adorned with 4 types of salami, 4 cheeses, beautifully carved persimmon, and mustard seed spread made in-house. The bread they serve is rustic and warm. We order and Chef LuLu sends out a few surprises as well. Before delving into the ever-creative menu, this next “review” is a culmination of two dining adventures enjoyed at CUCINAenoteca (hence the elusive quantity of food!):
burrata + speck ‘caprese’ | roasted persimmon + arugula + candied pecan
+ fried shallot + sherry vinaigrette *
This was refreshing. I love persimmon and any time a Chef finds a way to prepare it with a little pizazz, I’m beyond happy to introduce my palate. The fried shallot was the gentle wave of flavor that added to the dish.
ricotta gnudi | sage brown butter + parmigiano + amaretti *
As we sipped our Chianti, a surprise plate came out: Ricotta Gnudi. This dish is a very homey dish with one of my favorite and most underused spices, Sage. Sage has a sweetness to it while also having a pleasant bite and coupled with this simple dish, it’s a hearty start. This ricotta gnudi is served in a rustic bowl, perfect rounds basking in a refined medley of butter, parmigiano, and bitter amaretti. This dish is one that is served best around a table full of friends or family – it’s not award winning but it is a welcomed comfort food.
mini mason jars with tuscan toast | marinated olives
As a huge fan of olives, the presentation of these colorful olives id enough to transport you to the European countryside alongside the locals while enjoying a nice Chianti. And that is precisely what I did.
stuffed fried squash blossoms | herb ricotta + purple basil pesto + cured lemon aioli *
While it doesn’t look like much, this is a very simple and beautifully textured dish. The sweet pairing of ricotta, purple basil pesto, and lemon ailoi offer more subtle explosion than you’d expect.
burnt brussels sprouts + ivan’s hot sauce
Oh brussel sprouts! It’s fair to say this is a produce that takes some vision. Lucky me, I am one of the rare few that loves those little mini sprouts, however preparation is key. These brussel sprouts are bold! Crisp outer shell with the essence of spice that allows the bittersweet bite to melt away.
beet + housemade ricotta | greens + endive + pistachio + white balsamic orange vinaigrette *
This was fresh, colorful, and bright.
mediterranean mussels | peppadew pepper + kalamata olive + white wine butter + chile aioli + torn toast
Mussels are not only a sexy food but ones that require a very delicate balance. This dish is one that offers tremendous potential but the butter unfortunately was far too overwhelming and took away from what could have been a seamless bite of sensual fish. While the olive is a salty offset, there wasn’t any real acidity to balance the weight of the concept.
If I could have licked the bowl, I would have. This was one incredibly well thought out, zesty, light, perfectly spicy pasta. Not only was the gluten-free pasta cooked to perfection (a VERY difficult task), the duck melted in my mouth with this utterly intriguing effervescence of chile. *This is my CUCINA enoteca pick.
farmer’s market vegetable
Like many restaurants, the produce is Farm-t0-Table and sustainable whenever possible, especially if it results in the highest quality ingredients. These veggies were fresh and delicious.
I ordered pistachio. A wise choice! This is some of the best gelato I’ve had. The pistachio is not as “bite-y” as it can often be. In fact there were subtle hints of salt which contributed to a very clean finish.
The idea of serving dessert in a mason jar is ingenious. Not only does it look like a small work of art because you can see every layer; every color; every texture; it is such a visual temptation, that first bite is more than worth it (meaning the calorie counter needs to be put away on this trip).
It is worth mentioning that the drinks aren’t all served in the traditional stemware or barware. In fact, these margaritas are served in old topless mason jars. The drinks themselves are SO good. My pick is the Tequila Mule which comes with a subtle infusion of chile pepper. I love it when drinks go out on a limb and this one serves up a little kick.
I want to add that the restaurant had just opened and while I’m sure there are some quirks to work out, I was quite impressed by the flow from service and fare to ambiance. This is my new favorite pit stop in Orange County – especially as it’s within walking distance. Irvine Company, you might actually be on the road to getting it right after all…
A special thanks to GM, Peg Hicks and Manager, Ruth Rodriguez for their continued hospitality and welcoming attitude. It makes ALL the difference!
Owner: Tracy Borkum
Chef de Cuisine: Lauren “lulu” de Rouen
Sous Chef: Brent Omeste
Sous Chef: Chad Urata
Pastry Chef: Sergio Chavez
General Manager: Peg Hicks
Manager: Guy Conigliaro
Manager: Ruth Rodriguez
Wine Director: Ben Kephart
CUCINA enoteca | Irvine Spectrum | 31 Fortune Drive | Irvine, CA 92618 | 949.861.2222
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