Some of us have been around long enough to remember when Marguerite Marceau Henderson and Eileen McPartland first opened Cucina up in the Avenues. That was back in 1995, when it was an upscale delicatessen and gourmet market. Then in 2001, former Cucina manager Dean Pierose – an avid wine connoisseur – purchased Cucina and, in more recent years under Dean’s tutelage, the much-loved Avenues neighborhood treasure has evolved into Cucina Wine Bar.
Cucina now features regularly scheduled wine dinners that sell out just about as soon as they are announced, and last month Pierose released a new wine list. What impresses me about the Cucina list isn’t the number of budget-busting boutique wines or the ability to do a vertical tasting of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Burgundies. No. It’s that the wine selection is loaded with very appealing wines that don’t require taking out a second mortgage to enjoy. I only spotted one bottle priced over $100 and there are lots of excellent wines to sip in the $40 to $60 per bottle range. In addition, more than half of the wines at Cucina are also available by the glass and wine flights are also an option. So for someone like me, who likes to enjoy wines on a regular basis not just on special occasions, Cucina’s wine offerings hit all the right notes.
Along with a focus on wine, there’s also a finely-honed focus on food at Cucina. I’ve said it before: The smartest thing owner Dean Pierose did was to hire a young talented chef – Joey Ferran – to head up the Cucina kitchen. A protege of Log Haven’s chef Dave Jones, Ferran has really come into his own at Cucina, where he creates innovative dishes that blend classic cooking techniques with contemporary ingredients and flavors. To wit, a dessert of Goat Cheese Pot de Creme with thyme, blood orange honey and macadamias ($9), for example.
During lunch service, Cucina offers gourmet deli-style sandwiches, paninis and salads such as the Curried Chicken salad ($9.49) that the eatery is justifiably famous for. In warm weather, the dog-friendly patio is the perfect spot for a leisurely lunch away from the noise and traffic downtown. And then at night, Cucina morphs into an appealing bistro, with linen tablecloths, dim lighting and soothing ambiance and decor.
I’ve been fascinated to see how many ways there are to prepare cauliflower, which has become the trendiest vegetable over the past couple of years. But I haven’t come across a cauliflower dish any more creative than Ferran’s, where he roasts Romanesco cauliflower until lightly charred and serves it with rich Oaxacan-style red mole and blood orange mojo; pico de gallo made with nopalitos (cactus); and topped with fried yucca strips and petite verdolagas ($9). This is killer cauliflower and gluten-free, to boot.
The Honey Gem Lettuce ($8) and Roma Crunch Wedge ($13) salads are smart menu choices, but I especially think the Grilled Treviso ($10) is interesting. Treviso – a type of chicory that’s similar to radicchio – is grilled and served with D’Auvergne bleu cheese, açai gingerbread, pomegranate vinaigrette and dried strawberries.
During a recent visit to Cucina to celebrate my stepson’s 25th birthday, the appetizer that was the biggest hit at our table was Chef Ferran’s Pan-Fried Duck Wings ($14). I don’t know that I’ve ever seen duck wings on a non-Asian restaurant menu and always wondered, Where do all the duck wings go? At Cucina, a trio of meaty duck wings are pan-fried and slathered with fermented black bean braisage, served with spaghetti-like puffed rice strands, julienned scallions and smoked squash coulis. No other duck ever had it so good.
I mentioned the new wine list at Cucina, which offers a nifty range of wines, from bubbles like Maresina Prosecco and Rock Wall Blanc de Blanc to Lorenza Rosé, Arsonist Chardonnay, Domaine Schlumberger Pinot Blanc, Chapoutier Ciboise Rouge, Rock Horse Ranch Cabernet, Pacific Rim Vin de Glaciere, and many, many more. We chose a bottle of Halter Ranch Grenache Blanc from Paso Robles, California ($11/glass; $53/bottle), which I hadn’t tried before. It’s a very versatile, delicious Rhône-style white wine that I’ll definitely order again.
If you have a big appetite, then Osso Bucco ($29) should fill the bill. I believe Chef Ferran said that it’s 16-plus ounces of Niman Ranch pork shank that comes with smoked chile broth; a tri-color corn melange – red, yellow and blue; and here’s the kicker: cacao-black ant crème fraîche. Yes, there are actual black ants in it. “You can see their little legs,” said Ferran with a wry smile. If you think that’s weird, remember that to many people eating fish eggs (caviar) is pretty creepy, too. It takes all kinds to fill the freeways and insects are very nutritious. Ferran enjoys employing little critters in his cooking, including ground grasshoppers in the grasshopper salt that is sprinkled onto the Honey Gem Lettuce salad.
A somewhat more traditional (no insects) meaty menu item is Bison New York Strip ($36), which is cooked sous vide to perfection and served with a side of parmesan pomme frites, red currant ketchup, truffle aioli, watercress and smoked lemon. Kudos to Cucina for taking the time and effort to double-fry those fabulous frites.
My wife loved her Ahi Tuna Steak ($25), which was gorgeous sushi-grade ahi loin, coated with sesame seeds and seared until crisp around the edges but still raw and tender inside. The terrific tuna came with a kaffir lime rice cake, hot & sour cabbage, green garlic oil and sambal-coconut cream. Wow. Simply wow.
For his birthday, Clayton enjoyed an innovative, vegetarian take on the classic Wellington preparation. It was fresh butternut squash and mushroom Wellington with wild mushroom stew, butternut “paper” and micro greens ($26). Who needs beef with veggie Wellington this wonderful?
I don’t know why more restaurants don’t put Cornish game hens on their menus. It’s a nice alternative to the ubiquitous chicken that’s on most of them, easy to prepare, and very flavorful. At Cucina, Chef Ferran serves up a hearty, yet elegant version of Roasted Cornish Game Hen ($28) with wheat berries, black currant confit, squash, bing cherry reduction and lighter-than-air pear brandy foam. Game on!
Portions at Cucina are more than generous – no one will leave this restaurant hungry – and so for dessert the four of us chose to split a simple, but sensational Chocolate Lava Cake made with Columbian dark chocolate, chile cream, and topped with mole ice cream. Now that’s what I call a happy birthday cake!
With so many new and hip eateries opening all over town, it’s all too easy to overlook a time-tested, tried and true neighborhood gem like Cucina Wine Bar. But, if you’re looking for a quiet, comfy place to wine and dine with impeccable service and extraordinary cuisine, THIS is the place.
Culinary quote of the week:
The disparity between a restaurant’s price and food quality rises in direct proportion to the size of the pepper mill.. — Bryan Miller
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.
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