505 Laurel St. San Diego (619) 239-2222
The space may be familiar to many San Diegans as the home of long standing Laurel, but times have been a-changin'. Restaurateur Tracy Borkum has transformed the famed location into the down-economy sensitive Cucina Urbana. The opulence that helped define Laurel has been replaced by an interior that may best be described as "hobo chic". High tech halogen lighting fixtures mingle with wooden crates and garage sale nick knacks, creating a unabashedly cluttered and purposely unfinished environment.
The menu, too, has been re-envisioned by Laurel alum and Executive Chef Joe Magnanelli. The California inspired Italian offerings top out at $20, a decidedly lower price point than that of Laural. With all the buzz surrounding this restaurant's rebirth, I chose a rainy spring night to stop in and investigate Cucina Urbana for myself.
I arrived at 8:45pm on a tuesday night, and despite the inclement weather, the restaurant was packed. Flying solo for the evening, I chose Cucina Urbana's communal dining option, which the hostess had pitched to me over the phone as being lively and fun. Having spotted an end seat at the main bar, I pounced on it. I was quickly greeted by my enthusiastic server for the evening, who warned me that this was her first shift on the job.
This proved to be of no concern, as when queried with tougher questions such as, "What ingredients are used in the house made cavatelli?," she would simply flag down more seasoned servers to obtain prompt and accurate answers.
Cucina Urbana's communal dining areas are perfect for anyone dining alone. Instead of feeling as if you are an island of one, alone at a table, you become an instant member in a group of energetic diners. Friends are quickly made, menu items are discussed, and recommendations are tossed about. These two lovely ladies were part of our band of merrymakers.
To start off my meal, my selection from the appetizer list was "Chicken Fried" Sweetbreads with wild caper berries, garlic spinach, and lemon butter ($9.50).
Let me preface my description by stating that I am a huge fan of these amazing glands of joy, and I order them at every possible opportunity. That said, these may be the best damn sweetbreads I have ever tasted. They had a crispy exterior that gave way to a buttery foie gras like center. The huge, flavorful caper berries
While perusing the menu on-line, I had noticed a "family style" option offered in conjunction with CU's pasta preparations, which they bill as feeding 3-4 people. My server explained that for an additional $18 you can receive three times the quantity of your chosen dish.
This struck me as a good volume discount, so I ordered the Family Style Roasted Rabbit with house made, hand rolled Cavatelli, English peas, shredded carrots, brown beech mushrooms, and a mustard crema ($17 plus $18 for family style).
When my newbie server finished taking my order, sporting a concerned look, she made a beeline towards the head bartender for a consult. The bartender approached me with my server in tow, to make sure that I knew what the family style option entailed. After I assured him that I understood, said bartender challenged me, stating that I could not possibly finish so much food. At stake for me: my rep, for him: the cocktail of my choosing, his treat.
The rabbit pasta was fantastic from the first bite. This dish consisted of tender gamy meat, perfect cavatelli, delicious mushrooms, and crisp fresh peas, all tossed with an excellent mustard cream sauce. I sure was pleased that I had tripled up on this entree. My intention was to use the rosemary potato focaccia to sop up the mustard crema, but the sun-dried tomato pesto proved to be so flavorful that I ate all of my bread with the pesto smeared on it.
Back to the bet....the bartender lost. Let me say, though, this was a lot of food. The family style option would, at the very least, provide a hearty meal for two normal people. Near the end, when my victory was eminent, the bartender being gracious in defeat, suggested the Peach Pesca as my prize. This drink is made with vodka, St. Germain, peach puree, and a splash of prosecco. My only modification was to specify The Goose as my vodka of choice, and to make it a triple, please. He chuckled, and went about my drink's preparation.
If my experience is any indication, Tracy Borkum has created a winner with her incarnation of Cucina Urbana. She combines delicious food, excellent drinks, reasonable prices, a fun atmosphere, and a great staff who exude plenty of amusingly quirky personality that is well suited to the restaurant's funky setting. It all fits together into a well conceived package that makes me understand why this restaurant was packed on a rainy tuesday night, and in a weakened economy. Chef Magnanelli's whole menu looks great, and I can't wait to return and try the rest of it.
Lunch Tuesday - Friday 11:30am - 2pm.
Dinner Sunday, Monday 5pm - 9pm, Tuesday - Thursday 5pm - 10pm, Friday, Saturday 5pm - 10:30pm, 10:30pm - 12am pizza and vasi only.
San Diego Restaurant Reviews