Equinox sunset at Salk

Friday, October 11, 2013

Mi Cucina

It's no big secret that I love food. You can call me a gastronome or a glutton, I don't really care. The truth is that for me, the act of eating great food goes beyond simple nutrition. If you can exist happily on a diet of acorns and gruel, well my hat is off to you. I am more of a sensualist and I make no apologies.

One of the great things for me, being one so interested in great food, whatever that means, is when I can share it with people that are equally committed and epicurily inclined. Dixon emailed me today from one of my favorites, Le Cheval in Oakland, to tell me that he had just finished the greatest asian dish of his life, basil shrimp with eggplant and a rice clay of with veggies, shrimp and chicken. I am happy that he saw what I saw in the restaurant, he is one of the most talented cooks I know, and when I talked to him on the phone I only expressed mild disappointment that he hadn't tried the quail with salt and pepper sauce, which is simply without equal.

I am blessed to be married to a superb cook, who was trained in the French restaurant kitchen of Emil, an august and wonderful gentleman from Lichtenstein. As I have mentioned before, Leslie and I both say that we would rather eat leftovers at our friend Melissa's in Berkeley than any fine restaurant in the world. Melissa is a private chef who has cooked for decades for some of the most particular people in the world and raised two boys and an ex husband to become fine chefs in their own right. Melissa knows food and loves food. Not expensive food, good food.

Melissa and her boyfriend Gary as well as her mom, Peggy, are in town for a wedding and we met last night at my fave spot of the last several years, Cucina Urbana for dinner. I have written repeatedly about this rustic italian place, the site of the former Laurel, with no entree over twenty bucks and an incredible commitment to excellent fare. How would my friend, who can be hypercritical as hell, like my hometown haunt?

We met them at the trendy hotel in the gas lamp for a drink before we headed  up to Bankers Hill. We entered the stepped down restaurant and  I introduced myself to the new manager, mentioned that I was a friend of the old manager and they couldn't have been nicer, finding us a great table with a great server after a short wait.

We started the meal with a bang, a complimentary crudo of all types of wonderful sauces, olives, cornichons, cheeses and sliced meats. We then had a squash blossom antipasti stuffed with herb ricotta, pesto and lemon aoli that were worth the rice of admission by themselves. Please forgive my crummy phone pictures which I include only for purposes of illustration.

I asked the server about the bone marrow appetizer that I had previously sampled and we were brought a generous hot half bone full of succulent marrow along with a bay scallop bruschetta and another appetizer that is now slipping through my memory.

We feasted on the wonderful bread and dug into our vasi, two jars, one full of burrata with a full roasted garlic and one a chicken liver pate with brown sugar shallots. We could have just stopped right there but we were only getting started.

My tablemates loved the wine list, which they thought was great both for selection and price. Spottswood, some really good stuff and nothing over priced. They settled on a nice Sancerre that was off menu and delicious.

The next course was a roasted suckling pig with a poached egg, frisee and cracklings and a sherry mustard dressing. It was sublime, I am glad that I followed the server's advice and tossed the whole thing together. Best dish of the night on a night where everything was good.

Leslie and Mom wanted a salad and we got an acre's worth of arugula and heirloom tomatoes. We were an hour and a half in by this time and hadn't even started on the entrees yet. I was stuffed but couldn't lose face in this company and bravely soldiered on.

One of the cool things about Cucina Urbana is that you can order a family style platter and we received a giant serving bowl of short ribs pappardelle, replete with cremini mushrooms, carrots and parmesan. Ben once told me that they actually once tried to take the dish off the menu but the diners wouldn't have it. The cooks at the table said that you would have to cook the short ribs for hours, with great care and élan, to have them come out that good.

I was overjoyed. My food guru loved my favorite spot. Yippee, a confirmation that my palate was on the right track. Anybody can find expensive food, it is a lot harder to find and appreciate good food. Leslie and Melissa felt that the pasta was underdone, even in an al dente world and the server wanted to cook us a whole new batch. We told them not to bother, the only tiny blemish on a wonderful repast. Later we saw that they took it off of our bill.

After the pasta came not one but two whole baked fish, the special, in this case bream, moist, flaky and perfect. But definitely overkill. It was getting rather late and I had to get up at five to go to Los Angeles for my show.

We ended the night with coffee and zeppole, sugared donut holes filled with meyer lemon curd and topped with wild blueberry preserves.

We got the bill and it was peanuts. We ate all night, had one of the best meals in memory, five people with wine and it was under two bills. A great dinner, an unusual menu that even enchanted my wise and educated gourmand friends from the north. They were on their way to find the duck burritos at Bultaco in Cardiff today.

Cucina Urbana has had a soft opening for their new sister restaurant at the Flower Hill Center in Del Mar, Cucina Enoteca last week. I hope to check it out soon! Was great to pig out with my friends. I went way beyond overdoing it but the diet starts today.

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