Enoteca is the Italian word for a “wine shop” where one can sample and buy local or regional wine at a reasonable price while enjoying good food and good company; CUCINA Enoteca is uniquely that, and a breath of fresh air in our suburban dining landscape. On my first visit to CUCINA Enoteca in Irvine Spectrum, I was utterly enamored by the eclectic decor, the perfectly executed, rustic comfort food and how owner Tracy Borkhum and the Urban Kitchen Group of San Diego manage to exude the conviviality of a local Italian taverna/enoteca in a sizable space, in the middle of destination-mall Irvine Spectrum, in the midst of suburban Orange County sprawl. But, based on the rave reviews garnered in the first few months, CUCINA enoteca will soon be as lauded as it’s sister restaurant CUCINA Urbana in San Diego – OC foodies are ecstatic that they decided to come north!
The spacious garden patio hints as to what lies within: a relaxed feeling takes hold as your eyes take in the eclectic mixture of reclaimed wood communal tables, brightly painted garden furnishings, and colorful retro modern patterns punctuated with perfectly shabby chic flea market finds as you enter the soaring interior space striking in its contemporary eco bohemian eclecticism.
We began our lunch with a vasi selection: mini mason jars of tasty condiments and creations to be slathered on toasted Tuscan style bread. We had to try the burrata and roasted garlic confit, but chicken liver paté with brown sugar shallot and duck rilletes with apricot mustard sound intriguing.
I don’t think a visit to an Italian enoteca would be complete without sampling a few antipasti. A selection of formaggi + salumi, fried squash blossoms, and Mediterranean mussels quickly arrived. The cured meats: prosciutto, salami picante, and finocchio were accompanied by maytag blue, truffle tremor, and crotese cheese, but what was really was the cornucopia of condiments served alongside – the board was so busy, our cameras were having difficulty focusing! Stuffed fried squash blossoms filled with creamy herb ricotta were quickly devoured.
My dining companions and I had missed the media dinner and Executive Chef Joe Magnanelli and chef de cuisine Lauren “Lulu” De Rouen wanted us to experience the best of their farm-to-table California-inspired Italian classics, and that we did! In quick succession came the insalate, pasti, the pizza, the piatti (small plates), and a couple of contorni (sides) for good measure.
Overall we were impressed with the execution of the dishes and the quality and freshness of ingredients, from the bread to the sauces, were superb. My favorite dish of the entire meal was the all-out rustic Daily Board: a braised meat prepared tableside and served atop polenta – on this day it was tender rabbit with caramelized onion and carrot – molto bene! Duck, veal, lamb, and pork are also featured as the Daily Board.
The consensus among us and our feedback to chef was mostly limited to editing flavors to highlight the fine seasonal and sustainable stars: we felt the toast with drizzled chile aioli did not add to the mussels although you certainly want the toast to sop up the delicious broth; for us, the ricotta was a bit mild and the lovely candy-striped beets were overwhelmed by the lettuces; for our taste, honey roasting the eggplant made it too sweet, etc. Unfortunately, duty called and I missed the dolce (dessert), all the more reason to return to CUCINA enoteca, soon!
More on the wine shop: The wine list follows an affordable retail pricing program – one of the only in Orange County – offering approximately 200 selections. Guests can select a bottle for dinner (corkage fee of $8 applies) or purchase wine to go. Because wine is sold at retail prices, a bottle is priced much lower than you would typically find it on a restaurant menu; the relatively small corkage fee (other restaurants charge up to $20 corkage) keeps the cost low for guests. Wines of the Americas and the Mediterranean are among the major wine-producing regions in the wine shop, and CUCINA enoteca offers a diverse selection of wines by the glass for diners.
31 Fortune Drive