We sat under a leafy olive tree. If not for butcher-paper placemats, the cold, metal surface of our table would've sapped the warmth from the bare skin of our elbows. Above us, the strung-up lights flickered on as twilight approached. From our seats, we watched the ebb and flow of the Irvine Spectrum crowds, heard the clap of the fountains, and witnessed the birth of a pleasant Saturday evening spent outside.
The server, almost fumbling with too many things to hold, was bright and chatty. She gripped a miniature pot in each hand. One contained a patiently stirred polenta, the other a ragu of pork. She cradled a wooden paddle, which she eventually placed on the table. She poured the polenta onto the paddle, smearing it to an oblong shape before digging out a well in the middle to receive the meat. When she finished, she invited us to dig in with our spoons. She knew this “polenta board” was a treat, something new to most customers. As one of chef Lauren “Lulu” de Rouen's signature dishes, the rustic presentation of the cornmeal mush—creamy and faintly sweet, but bland if you eat it without the shredded-meat gravy—is kind of a revelation, an idea so rudimentarily perfect in what it communicates it makes you wish every Italian restaurant did it.
But then CUCINA enoteca is an Italian restaurant unlike any OC has ever seen. Owner Tracy Borkum has a theater background and three other restaurants in San Diego, all with the same shabby-chic aesthetic as this place, her first venture north. Everything inside feels as though it's a patchwork quilt of found items, bought on a whim, cobbled together from disparate places but converging to make sense of the nonsensical. Wooden shoe molds dangle from strings, and a hallway is papered with vintage Italian movie posters and discovered-at-the-flea-market pieces that fly against the beigeness of its landlord, the Irvine Co. Nearly everything you see is for sale. The woven metal seats can be yours for $425. Even the polenta boards can be bought for $15.
For $3, you can bring home the mason jars used to serve the dips. The best part, though, are the dips themselves, such as the gorgonzola walnut mousse, a toast-spreadable, slightly stinging, blended cheese scooped up with near-disintegrating slices of poached pear. The pear cuts through the richness as only a piece of fruit could. I still have the remainder of the cheese, still in that jar, in my fridge. I plan to eventually use the jar to store homemade spreads that, I'm afraid, won't be nearly as good.
There are pastas, of course, and pizza and antipasti and a giant meatball that's exactly that—gigantic, served by itself on a skillet and fun to chip away at until it dwindles into nothing, resembling a game of Asteroids. The pizzas are of the thin variety, with a bulbous crust and a Neapolitan bent that characterizes all pies you'll find in restaurants that realize they're in a post-Mozza world.
That's not to say de Rouen is trying to catch up to Batali. Not at all. She was educated at Orange Coast College, then cut her teeth in Joachim Splichal's Patina Group, eventually becoming the executive chef at Leatherby's before Borkum stole her for enoteca. Just look at the confidence in her mac and cheese: Despite carrying the typical stink of truffle oil that afflicts most restaurant versions, hers is done with orecchiette—a smart move since the dimpled pasta coins retain their chew and carry the cheesy sauce as though the little cups were designed specifically for the purpose.
There were other flashes of brilliance: a plate of mussels came with torn pieces of bread already soaking in the broth, and a refreshing yellowtail crudo was surrounded with micro-diced tomato and its crisped, crinkled skin. A short-rib pappardelle with tape-wide belts of springy pasta seemed alive and became a quick-footed version of stroganoff, the noodles tangled and wrestling long-stewed beef stripped to shreds in a ragout rich of vegetables and wine. The chef also cooks a fine jidori chicken served as a “Frenched” breast, its skin rendered to a crackle, the meat beneath almost milky in its purity of flavor. She pairs the bird with a wiggly poached egg, some cooked-down Swiss chard, asparagus, pistachio pesto and more polenta, this time made tangy with fontina.
The burnt Brussels sprouts was the most controversial dish at our table. The vegetables are purposely charred almost to the point at which they become inedible. If the dish weren't advertised as “burnt” on the menu, I might have sent it back. But de Rouen is on to something. Hiding behind the bitter charcoal patina is a concentrated vegetal sweetness that makes them compelling and hard to stop eating. If there was a diametric opposite to those sprouts, it would have to be the zeppole, a dessert of Italian doughnut holes injected with vanilla crema, covered in cinnamon sugar and sauced with a few squirts of dulce de leche—the exact thing to have while sipping espresso. There's also a wonderfully executed tiramisù with some unidentifiable crispy bits that snapped as would Pop Rocks between the soft mascarpone. The tiramisù, by the way, also came in a cute flip-top mason jar, which I knew beforehand: I ordered the dessert because I had every intention of bringing its container home. Imagine that: You want to bring a piece of an Irvine Spectrum experience with you!
This review appeared in print as “The San Diego Treat: CUCINA enoteca flies against Donald Bren's beige boringness.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.