I love stuffed squid as a concept, and usually as a dish: it’s an open invitation for a good cook to exercise some inventiveness. Here, the grilled sheathes were filled with chorizo. I anticipated mild, tight-grained Spanish chorizo, chopped and dispersed among bread crumbs or rice and/or minced tentacles and vegetables. Instead, it was coarse-ground, highly spiced Mexican-style chorizo served straight up, with a texture so dense and flavor so strong it obscured the calamari. The accompanying “Sicilian caponata” sauce was amusing, with tiny squid tentacle clusters amid the minced sautéed onions, peppers, and capers. The olive-oil aioli underneath went nicely — or would have, with a less overwhelming stuffing. With a lighter filling this could be a spectacular dish.
Pizzas are substantial, about 12 inches in diameter. I chose the odd topping of pancetta, poached egg, potato, scallion, and besciamella sauce. The crust was thin and chewy, New York-y, but there was only one egg (a bit overcooked) on the whole pizza. Without yolks spilling all over the surface, what remains is potatoes, bacon, toast, a bit of gravy — a crucially abridged Denny’s Grand Slam. Given a Mulligan, I’d go instead for the topping of figs, pecans, and Gorgonzola, or a pure Margherita (plum tomatoes, housemade mozzarella, fresh basil).
The starters weren’t served in this order but in two mixed courses. Our fabulous waiter, Kevin, tried to slow down the kitchen for us (seeing how we were savoring our food and conversation), but when he wasn’t looking, a runner brought the second batch prematurely, and a buser robotically attempted to remove the first bites well before we were done with them. When he grabbed the jar of precious chicken liver, I grabbed it right back, along with the toast slices from the serving plate. At that point, he developed second thoughts about kidnapping the polenta board, perhaps because Kathy and I were glaring at him and reaching for our table knives.
With an exciting wine list selling for retail (albeit higher retail than, say, Trader Joe’s), you can afford adventure. For the first course, I chose a weird white, a Malvasia from Kenneth Volk (Santa Barbara), with a big, floral, tropical nose, partly because I’m into Santa Barbara whites — but mainly because I loved the name, sounding like an evil queen in a Disney movie. A great first sip, but over time, it proved too sweet. Kathy prefers reds and is a fan of Paso Robles wines (anything but Pinot Noir). Under the heading “Funky Stuff for Wine Geeks and Cork Dorks” (meaning blends) was a Tablas Creek Paso Robles Syrah-Grenache fake-Rhone blend. I passed the tasting honors to Kathy, who found it a bit “strong” freshly opened. Just as I was about to ask Kevin the Wonder Waiter to decant it, he offered. It opened up beautifully, rich and mellow and easygoing. “You’re really good at your job,” I told Kevin. “I love my job,” he said. “Been doing it for 20 years, wouldn’t want to do anything else.” That’s a pro.
For a pasta, we chose the lightest possibility — ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and lemon, garnished with corn purée, spring onions, and pistachios, under a veil of basil oil. It was charming, one of Kathy’s favorites of the night. But the rest of the pasta list also sounds like a hit parade — tagliatelle with duck confit, short-rib papperdelle, linguine and clams with mint and bottarga (roe), rigatoni with genuine meat-bedecked bolognese sauce, et al. So much to explore!
From the entrées, I chose braised black cod because it’s my favorite finfish, velvety and rich in good fats. (Jewish delis sell the smoked version under the name “sable” for slightly less than smoked sturgeon.) The major criterion for judging a restaurant’s treatment of this manna is, do they cook it tender? Yes! It’s lightly dusted with minced pistachios and capers, accompanied by “smashed potatoes” (firm-tender bits of new potatoes, maybe Yukon Golds), with sweet-tart limoncello butter and a side of peperonata (sautéed slivers of red and yellow bell peppers and onion). “I love the way the food includes so many good vegetables,” said Flo, who lives in Poway. “A lot of restaurants where I live don’t pay any attention to vegetables. Here, they’re important parts of all these dishes, not just second thoughts.”
The same was true of veal piccata bedecked with sensual oyster mushrooms and a load of white-corn kernels, with slim slices of speck (the Austrian version of prosciutto, common to Italy’s northeast border, e.g., Trieste, and the formerly Italian territory of Istria). The garnishes were good, but it’s ordinary modern veal — thin-sliced, lightly pounded, lightly floured nothingness. (Sorry, industrial farming has ruined this meat.)
After all that, dessert seemed impossible, but the table consensus favored a light sweet, and I was desperate for an espresso to help me make it through the night (of taking notes before I forgot any of it). Among numerous light choices here (pastry chef Ben Rollins offers several airy options), the one that captured us combined roasted yellow peaches and brulée’d figs with white-peach basil sorbet, mascarpone cream, and “biscotti crumbles.” All the fruits were perfect, but I was really there for the sorbet, exactly as chilly-thrilly as I’d hoped, that sneaky combo of faint sweetness and resinous herb. The espresso was reasonably good, too. All in all, this could easily become my new off-the-clock hangout, with an alluring, interesting menu and wines I can afford even on my own dime.
How Laurel Became Cucina Urbana
Laurel was founded by wine maven Gary Parker and chef Douglas Organ as a chic, downtown spin-off of their suburban, French Provincial-style Wine Sellar and Brasserie. Here, Organ served more modern French cuisine. Soon after Organ moved to Boston (about seven years ago), Parker sold Laurel to Tracy Borkum, then owner of the late Chive (and now the live Kensington Grill), who adopted the umbrella-name “Urban Kitchen” for her enterprises, including her new catering company. (Cucina urbana means “urban kitchen.”) Never content to rest on her laurels, Tracy is something of the Anna Wintour of local restaurateurs — British, brilliant, driven, and demanding. After refreshing Laurel with a physical renovation, she ran through numerous chefs and format-tweaks, but nothing quite worked — the restaurant still seemed haunted by the ghostly music of a phantom Organ.