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Cucina Enoteca

This California-inspired Italian kitchen at the Irvine Spectrum Center is a triple threat of décor, food and service.

Communal-style dining room
Ed Olen

Put a Cork In It  
Choose a bottle of wine from Cucina Enoteca’s
onsite wine shop and take it to go, or enjoy it
on the premises for a low $8 corkage fee.
949.861.2222 :: cucinaenoteca.com

There are those restaurants that use décor as a type of diversion – a diversion from the outside world, from your troubles (or an upbeat anecdote thereto) or, in some cases, from the fact that the food is a mere side show to the restaurateur’s greater interior design aspirations. Cucina Enoteca, a California-inspired Italian kitchen that opened recently at the Irvine Spectrum Center, is not this type of restaurant. It is the latter type, the kind that dazzles you with its contemporary decoration – a mixture of rustic farmhouse meets urban hipster, with a sprinkling of bohemia thrown in – while simultaneously impressing your gastronomic sensibilities with delightful flavor combinations, fresh ingredients and a holistic approach to dining out. And the restaurant just so happens to look really pretty.

The head of this fine balance is Chef de Cuisine Lulu de Rouen, one of Orange County’s up-and-coming chefs. It came as little surprise that de Rouen rules the roost, as it were, here; her refined signature style is found all over Cucina Enoteca’s menu. Most notably: in the caprese salad, which arrived on a long rectangular plate, all the better to showcase the candy-like heirloom tomatoes dressed with sherry vinaigrette and served atop burrata, with speck (a smoked Italian salumi), arugula, pickled pear, and candied pecan. Our only complaint? It was just slightly more complicated than it needed to be. We’re big fans of simplicity, and when you’ve gone to the trouble to source tomatoes as perfect as those used in Cucina Enoteca’s caprese salad, it seems unnecessary to add a plethora of extra ingredients. Specifically, we’re talking about the candied pecan and pickled pear, whose distraction factor outweighed their flavor contribution.

But then there were the vasi, mini mason jars filled with a variety of all things edible and spreadable and served with Tuscan toast. The very definition of simple European-esque farmhouse cooking, the first vaso we tried was filled with chicken liver paté topped with brown sugar shallots. The smooth texture matched the delicate flavor of the paté and the shallots rounded out what could have been a gamey aftertaste. The next vaso – gorgonzola-walnut mousse served with a side of red wine-poached pears was the perfect combination of pungent and silky, with some ripe, sweet fruit for balance.

Pastas adapt to the mood at Cucina Enoteca. They’re a little bit earthy, a little bit traditional and quite a bit creative. Take the squid ink linguine dish, for example. With large chunks of squid, a light sauce and other sea delights, it was one part rustic, one part sophisticated and one part de Rouen’s creation. There are also options like the kabocha squash and parsnip ravioli with porcini and chanterelle mushrooms, aged balsamic vinegar, cocoa, and sage for the adventurous, or the very basic bucatini all’amatriciana with guanciale, tomato, onion, Calabrian chili, and pecorino for those not so inclined toward taste bud wanderlust. But even while playing it safe, this latter dish had all the requisite parts – deep tomato flavor, saltiness from the guanciale and heat from the chili – to produce an outstanding, albeit, predictable (in a good way) dish.

The main piatti range from light (roasted Jidori chicken) to intense (Brandt Farms ribeye). We stuck with the in between, beginning with Columbia River steelhead trout accompanied by squash, farro, fennel, tangerine, and orange-caper sauce. The combination of flavors was spot-on, with each freshly sourced ingredient playing off the other. The grilled Berkshire pork chop fared much the same, with cippolini onion, sekai ichi apple, white rose potato, and cider reduction all working together to bring out the tenderness of the meat and the subtle hint-at-summer grilled flavor.

As far as sweets go, Cucina Enoteca mixes the classic with the contemporary with delicious results. Zeppole (Italian-style donut holes) are enhanced with vanilla crema, dulce de leche sauce and sugared cinnamon, and a blueberry fregolata (crumb cookie) is intensified with saba, a syrup made from grape must, and served with vanilla bean gelato and orange-apricot coulis. Bittersweet chocolate budino is not for those who prefer their chocolate on the light side; it’s dense, intense and not shy with its full-blown chocolate mania. Generously topped with chocolate Chantilly and served with a salted chocolate cookie, it’s a metaphor for the greater message behind Cucina Enoteca: Go big or go home. Or rather, go big and get it right or go home. And from décor to food to service, Cucina Enoteca gets it right. And goes big – at the same time.

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