505 Laurel Street, San Diego
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.
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.
When the recession hit, Laurel was floundering as a special-occasion restaurant in leaner times. Realizing that a completely different approach was needed, Borkum evidently found inspiration in San Francisco (where she’s a frequent visitor) for models of the style of eatery she now envisioned — one that locals could regard as an anyday, everyday spot, whether for a light nosh and a glass of wine or a good meal and a couple of bottles. She renovated the space more radically this time but kept the same chef to create the less formal, more affordable, and highly flexible Mediterranean menu that marks Cucina Urbana.
Note: Due to deadline pressure, I didn’t attempt to interview Tracy Borkum for this review. Over the years, we’ve had several lengthy conversations (revealing, e.g., her enthusiasm for the San Francisco restaurant scene, where neighborhood restaurants with superior food are actually commonplace). I’ve also interviewed a number of chefs who have worked for her at Chive or Laurel. Like Kevin the Wonder Waiter with our wine, I am, I hope, making an accurate guess as to her intentions regarding Cucina Urbana.
- 3.5 stars>
- (Very Good to Excellent)
505 Laurel Street (at Fifth Avenue), Banker’s Hill, 619-239-2222, sdurbankitchen.com
HOURS: Tuesday–Saturday 5:00–10:00 p.m., with light dishes and pizzas Friday–Saturday until midnight; Sunday 5:00–9:00 p.m.
PRICES: Small appetizers and spreads, $5.50–$7; antipasti and salads, $9.50–$13.50 (plus $10 more for “family size” salads to serve four); large appetizers and pizzas, $12–$14; pastas, $15.50–$18.50 (plus $18 for “family style” to serve up to four); entrées, $15.50–$20; desserts, $7.50–$9.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Creative, playful Italian food, emphasizing light, shareable dishes in numerous formats. Exciting wine list, all bottles $7 corkage over retail price. Full bar, inventive but sugary cocktails.
PICK HITS: Chicken liver paté, fried squash blossoms, soft polenta with nightly ragu, pizza, goat-cheese ravioli, braised black cod. “Good bets” too numerous to list.
NEED TO KNOW: Wheelchair lift and handicapped parking slot just past front door of garage on Fifth Avenue (sign: Laurel Staff Parking). Be careful at bathrooms: third door is busy service door (wham!). Happy-hour specials 5:00–6:00 p.m. Very noisy but not painfully so. Hog heaven for lacto-vegetarians.