Food & Drink

Cucina’s Killer Cuisine

Cucina is a must-visit destination in The Avenues. An upscale restaurant and wine bar by night,along with a much loved local delicatessen by day.


Cucina has been a revered dine and drink destination in The Avenues for nearly as long as I’ve been writing about dining and drinking in Utah. It was opened by business partners Marguerite Marceau Henderson and Eileen McPartland back in 1995 as an upscale delicatessen and gourmet market, prior to being purchased by current owner Dean Pierose – Cucina’s former manager – which he then turned into an upscale restaurant and wine bar by night; and a much loved local delicatessen by day. Dean’s enthusiasm and knowledge of wine is evidenced by the restaurant’s killer wine list and the ever-growing cork collection on display near the restaurant’s entrance. The last time I wrote about Cucina there were a couple dozen corks on display; today the cork display case is nearly full. 

Wine lovers on a budget will appreciate that although Cucina’s wine list is loaded with very appealing wines from around the globe – and many that you don’t see regularly in local restaurants – it is also peppered with an abundance of affordable wines. Manoir du Capucin Chardonnay from Macon, France, for example, priced at $66. Indeed, there are only a handful of wines by the bottle at Cucina priced above $100; and most are in the $50 to $70 range. With only a handful of exceptions, all of the wines on Cucina are available by the glass and by the bottle, and 2 ounce per glass wine flights are also available Sunday through Thursday for $15. There are four different flights of three wines per flight: All White, All Red, French, and Old World. For those who prefer to enjoy a special bottle from home, Cucina charges a mere $15 for corkage.  

Smoked Venison Carpaccio

I tend to still think of young Executive Chef Joey Ferran as a promising protege of Log Haven Chef Dave Jones. But he has evolved into one of Utah’s best chefs on his own and his menu is as eclectic and innovative as any in the Beehive State. Take for instance a stunning (both visually and on the tongue) appetizer of Smoked Venison Carpaccio. It is thin – nearly see-through – slices of ever-so-lightly smoked lean venison with pea shoot gremolata, pickled black currants, cured egg yolk, fleur de sel, and ingenious dollops of bacon mayo. “We go through a lot of bacon in the deli,” said Ferran, “so I use some of the bacon fat to make this mayo.” This is the sort of eye popping, delectable dish I’d expect to find on a menu at a 3-Star Michelin restaurant such as NYC’s Le Bernardin.

It’s no easy decision when a restaurant critic (me) and a restaurateur (my wife) select a restaurant to dine in for Valentine’s Day. But my wife had a rare V-Day off from her own restaurant this year and so we chose Cucina for our Valentine’s Day dinner date, knowing from past experiences that we wouldn’t be disappointed. Much credit to Chef Ferran for offering a truly innovative tasting menu for Valentine’s Day – not just the standard filet mignon and lobster tail with oysters and chocolate dipped strawberries sort of thing – in addition to Cucina’s regular menu. 

Pasilla Caesar Salad

We both loved Ferran’s Southwestern spin on the traditional Caesar salad. His version had a zippy pasilla chile pepper dressing for the baby romaine, with Castelvetrano olives, cumin-spiked croutons, baked Grana Padano cheese crisp, and fried white anchovy ($14).

Popcorn Chicken

Each table at Cucina is set with share plates for each guest, and Chef Ferran’s menu items are particularly well-suited to sharing, including the generously portioned Popcorn Chicken ($18). Chicken nuggets were tossed in seasoned flour, then flash-fried and served with a sweet and spicy honey-habanero barbecue sauce, brassica, fennel, macadamia butter and goji berries. It’s a delightful dish. 

Sesame Ahi Steak

Other superb shareable plates include Crab Cakes ($21) with chipotle mayo, cilantro paint, scallion and cucumber slaw; and Hen of the Woods Mushroom Under a Brick ($18) with shiitake 3-ways, baby bok choy, purple radish sprouts, and ginger-soy glaze. We thought the entree-size Sesame Ahi Steak ($30) was exceptional: sesame seed-coated sushi grade ahi lightly kissed by heat, with hot & sour cabbage, kaffir lime rice cake, green garlic oil and scrumptious sambal-coconut cream – simply awesome ahi. 

Executive Chef Joey Ferran

Some of the more innovative dishes from Chef Ferran’s tasting menu are ones like his Black Truffle Pasta with cacao pappardelle, red pear, Humboldt Fog mornay and saba; or Chicories with Fior d’Arancio blue cheese dressing, pickled cranberry, candied pecan, pinot cherry, and spiced brioche. Simply put, Ferran’s cuisine is some of the most creative I’ve encountered in Utah. 

Annatto Chicken

One place I see Log Haven Chef Dave Jones’ influence on Ferran’s cooking is in his use of Southwestern flavors and ingredients, which Jones also likes to play with. I absolutely loved Ferran’s Annatto Chicken ($29) – a wonderful dish of annatto-spiced chicken confit with blue Hopi masa (sort of like polenta), borlotti beans, chile de arbol butter, rapini & mushrooms, and chamomile-infused queso fresco. A hearty, delicious dish like that one, priced at a mere $29, is also a reminder of what a great value a meal at Cucina can be. 

Blue Cheese Ice Cream

Of course, not every culinary creation is going to be a hit with the masses. Ferran self-deprecatingly admitted to us that his homemade blue cheese ice cream may be a somewhat acquired taste. I can’t say it was my favorite flavor of the evening, but kudos to the intrepid Ferran for being willing to go where some would not. 

Wasatch Chocolate Ganache 

On the other hand, his Wasatch Chocolate Ganache is dessert perfection. It is Soltice Wasatch Chocolate ganache with Oaxacan sweet corn, green pepita cream, pumpkin seed praline, marvelous mole ice cream, and a chocolate cricket shell on the mole ice cream made from, yes, ground crickets and chocolate. In a recent Utah Stories article, writer Heather King made mention of Ferran’s fondness for experimentation with ingredients like the grasshoppers in his grasshopper tagin and freeze-dried black ants on his bruschetta.  

As one who’s been reviewing restaurants and writing about food for 30 years now, I certainly have fond memories of many great restaurant meals. Our recent Valentine’s Day dinner at Cucina Wine Bar is now one of those fond memories and one of the most enjoyable restaurant experiences I’ve had in a long time. Our server, Eddie, was outstanding, as was General Manager Erika England. Joey Ferran is as talented and creative a chef as we have in Utah, and Dean Pierose’s wine selection is wonderful. If I’m being honest, I think that the food and wine at Cucina is underpriced. But shhhhh … don’t tell anyone. Let’s just keep this between us.  

Photos by Ted Scheffler

Culinary quote of the week: “Baker’s Dozen: Twelve of today’s doughnuts and one of yesterday’s.” B.C., Johnny Hart

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