By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz
5:22 PM PST, November 20, 2012
There are several new eateries in the ever-evolving entertainment center that is the Irvine Spectrum. One of the hippest is Cucina Enoteca, just across the courtyard from the Cineplex.
As you approach the restaurant, the first thing you see is the inviting large patio with a fully grown tree providing shade for one side of the expansive outdoor eating area. As you enter the cavernous indoor space, you are actually in their wine store, with racks of bottles providing the décor and a bar/dining area on one end and a long communal table nestled between the shelves. It's a great place for a private party.
Continue on to the main dining area and you will find yourself in a room with a 30-foot ceiling with exposed ductwork. The attractive room has a very contemporary feel, even though the theme of the décor is repurposing rustic old stuff combined in a modern way with a lot of whimsy. For example, the ample dining chairs are white leather on the inside and burlap sacks on the outside, old barn wood lines the walls, three antler chandeliers plus various inverted wire baskets provide the lighting, and an old meat scale dangles from the ceiling in one corner. Go to the ladies' room and you'll find a whole wall decorated with an arrangement of old washboards.
Two open kitchens allow you to see pizzas coming out of the wood-burning ovens and chicken sizzling on the rotisserie.
The cuisine is Italianesque. In keeping with the theme, one section of the antipasti menu called "vasi" features small Mason jars containing spreads like olive tapenade, chicken liver paté or smoked salmon mousse. Our antipasto was fried squash blossoms stuffed with their house-made herb ricotta (they also make their own mozzarella), served with purple basil pesto and cured lemon aioli. They were perfectly fried in a thin tempura-like batter but the stuffing was bland with no herbal aftertaste and virtually no salt. Luckily, the pesto and the lemon mayo woke things up a bit.
From the Neapolitan pizza menu we chose an odd one. It was honey-roasted eggplant with balsamic-marinated onions, pistachio pesto, pine nuts and a little crumbles of herbed goat cheese. The combination of ingredients was not felicitous, although the honey-brushed eggplant was very nice. It needed more goat cheese to balance the sweetness of the onions.
Another unusual offering was the sweet corn agnolotti pasta with roasted crispy onions and Brussels sprout shavings. These plump pillows of pasta sautéed in brown butter were stuffed with a creamy, lightly corn-flavored cheese filling and sprinkled with Calabrian chili and Parmesan. This dish had plenty of flavor. Each bite was a delicious mouthful of creamy, crunchy, spicy goodness.
Watching the rotisserie whetted our appetites for the jidori chicken entrée. Kudos to the chef! The airline breast (breast plus drumette) had a nicely browned skin and was as juicy and moist as it could be. Pistachio pesto was piped on top but did nothing to enhance the chicken. The accompanying sautéed Swiss chard was very flavorful, with garlicky goodness and perfect texture. Several spears of asparagus were also nicely cooked. However, the fontina polenta was sadly underseasoned. A poached egg was a welcome but unusual garnish.
We were delighted with the excellent crust on the strawberry fregolata, a slightly sweet, buttery, almond cookie pastry served hot. The little tart was filled with cooked strawberries and served with toasted almond gelato, which was actually vanilla ice cream studded with toasted almond slices. A pretty drizzle of strawberry balsamic coulis completed the dish.
The service was exceptionally pleasant and attentive. The wait staff seems to take responsibility for any table in need of assistance, whether he or she is your server or not.
Cucina Enoteca is a busy, buzzy spot with high energy, but you can still hear your dining companion's jokes.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
If You Go
What: Cucina Enoteca
Information: (949) 861-2222 or cucinaenoteca.com
Where: 31 Fortune Drive, in the Irvine Spectrum
When: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. full menu, late-night menu 10:30 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Appetizers: $6.50 to $14.50
Entrées: $13 to $29
Desserts: $8 to $9
•Glass: $8 to $17
•Bottle: $18 to $1,700
Corkage Fee: $20, $8 if bought at their wine shop