505 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill
Don’t cry for Laurel. It has gone to a far better place. Reincarnated as Cucina Urbana, you can now hang your hat (on the back of your chair) without a preprandial wardrobe change or bank-balance inspection. It’s a place where you can eat very well, a little or a lot, for a little or a medium price. A place to take weekend guests just off the Friday-night plane for a pre-midnight welcoming nosh. Where you feel as if you could drop in and have some fun with food. But sorry, it’s been packed since Day One, so for prime dinner hours at a table (unless you’d rather wait for a barstool), better reserve a day ahead. It’s crowded because it’s a restaurant the city has been needing and craving for a very long time. Its format reminds me strikingly of San Francisco’s beloved Zuni Café and its ilk: it’s a big, handsome “little neighborhood restaurant,” with neighborhood prices for uptown food.
The cuisine is putatively Italian but a radical departure from both the Gaslamp’s pricey (and chancy) alta cucina and the checkered-tablecloth joints. Restaurateur Tracy Borkum had a better idea, and chef Joe Magnanelli (carried over from Laurel) was the right guy to bring it to fruition. The playful array of classy trattoria food offers a vast, supremely flexible choice of snacky starter dishes (which can become main dishes), plus smart lists of pastas and entrées, emphasizing seasonal vegetables and interesting combinations. I’d like to eat my way through the whole menu, it is so not boring.
Sweetening the pot is the wine pricing: You can wander among the racks or pick from the wine list, and all bottles are priced at retail plus $7 corkage (a clever idea nicked from Ed Moore’s Third Corner in O.B. and Encinitas). That’s the best lure of all — my summer cruise through bargain dinners at serious restaurants demonstrated that wine costs often dwarf food costs for even the cheapest bottles on the list.
Let’s get ambiance out of the way before we hunker down to the food. The old Laurel was all white and creamy and grand; going down the staircase to the subterranean dining room, I always felt like Bette Davis making her big entrance. Now it’s urban-Mediterranean, with lots of wrought iron (including solid banisters for getting down those stairs, although you won’t need your spindly heels here anymore), tables clothed with brown paper, walls with intricately patterned orange wash. Informal settings include a small lounge a half-flight down from the street, with high tables and barstools, or a long bar at dining-room level.
Along the interior side of the dining room is a wine “store” with tall racks of bottles. Banquettes line the room’s edges; the regular chairs are hard but ergonomically comfortable, with good straight backs. The lighting is dim and the noise level high, but at least there’s no awful piped-in music. The feeling is civilized but so informal we nearly invited the couple at the next table to join our dinner party. (Later, just before they left, the gent gravely clinked wine glasses with us in a farewell toast.)
This time, our “family-style” dinner was for an actual family: my friend Fred, his lively mom Flo, and his sister Kathy, a wine-lover. We started with a round of creative cocktails. (On the old website, these were listed at half-price on Thursdays. No longer true, alas.) Flo did well with the “Italian Screw” (a sprightly screwdriver variant) and took the teasing about the name with good grace. Our other choices (“Lavender Sidecar,” “Socialite,” and Sangria) all had interesting twists but were so cloyingly sweet they soon bored us.
The first category of appetizers is “vasi” — mini-Mason jars filled with spreads, served with baguette and whole-grain toast slices. (As at all other Borkum restaurants, there’s no table bread unless you order it specifically or order something that comes with it. Tracy feels that table bread fills people up before they get to the real food.) The chicken-liver paté, topped with “shallot marmalata,” proved exemplary — the richest, sexiest mousse you can imagine.
Another odd category is “boards” — the evening’s bruschetta or a cheese and salumi array (some Italian, some local) or our choice, creamy polenta topped with the day’s ragu. A server arrived with potfuls of polenta and ragu and a small wooden board, which she set on the table. Then she ceremoniously spread the coral-colored red-pepper polenta over the board, drew a line down the middle, and spooned on the evening’s garnish, a stew of bacon chunks and caramelized onions. (Other evenings, the ragu might be oxtails, short ribs, etc.) This combination was wonderful. (I’m rationing out the little leftovers inch by inch, as a nightly treat.) It was Kathy’s favorite to that point — until the squash blossoms arrived to blow everything else out of the water.
The blossoms, from the antipasti array, are those huge yellow flowers on your zucchini (or other squash) plants, and Mexican and Italian gardener-cooks are smart enough to recognize that the male blooms (which pop up a few days ahead of the squash-bearing females) make great stuffable eating. Here the filling is angelic, creamy, herbed ricotta. Even better was the edible cooking lesson: a couple of inches of tender stem remained attached to each blossom, which kept the petals from shriveling and shredding (a problem when you try to DIY with the flowers alone). The stems tasted like artichoke hearts, and the dressings — both purple-basil pesto and a floaty, tangy “cured lemon dressing” — were ideal dips for flowers, cheese, and stems alike. (My sole complaint: four people, three blossoms. Some restaurants, e.g., Vela most recently, quietly add an extra of whatever-it-is for a foursome, especially if the group orders a lot, as we did.)
Kathy, whose husband is Italian-American, mentioned her disappointment with the doughy weight of most restaurant gnocchi, so we decided to try Cucina’s ricotta gnocchi antipasto. They were creamy, airy, held together by a millimeter’s worth of a pasta-like coating, and came with a zesty sauce of sage brown butter with parmigiano. They certainly passed the test.