REVIEW: Former critic puts on old hat for one last critique
Today we feature a guest review from one of our favorite Gazette dining critics. Our new critic starts next week.
Cucuru Gallery Cafe
(Tapas and wine bar; art gallery)
Address: 2332 W. Colorado Ave.
Contact: 520-9900; cucurugallerycafe.com
Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (open tango lessons, $5, 7 p.m. Tuesdays), 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays
Tapas: $5-10; salads and sandwiches: $5-8.55
Alcohol: Wine and beer
Credit cards: Yes
A few days earlier, I wouldn’t have noticed that the chair I was sitting in was a bit rickety. But that’s what it’s like when you stop being just a diner and become a critic. It’s like inserting a glass eye that makes you see everything objectively.
I stashed that cold eye in 2003 as I left this coveted gig, but when GO! editor Warren Epstein asked me to return while The Gazette’s next restaurant critic was being selected, that eye reinhabited my mental socket.
At Cucuru, I subconsciously noted color schemes and acoustics (fun, dreadful), consciously timed the arrival of my first glass of water (47 minutes!) and analyzed rather than raptured over the way that cubing the roasted spaghetti squash of the calabacitas tapa ($7) allowed each bite to implode into moist, sweet strands against counternotes of petit pois-size bits of baby asparagus and bright orange piquillo peppers, fine shreds of manchego and sweet, fresh basil.
Personally, I had a great time at Cucuru. But the glass eye was not entirely satisfied.
Cucuru doubles as tapas/wine bar and eclectic art gallery, each room featuring a different artist. Choose your table based on the art you like; on our first visit, I was surrounded by nudes with much better figures than my own. It required intense determination to order multiple desserts under such scrutiny.
Cucuru’s dual identity might explain the service (well-intentioned but largely untrained, although we were never abruptly interrupted by server spiel) as well as the menu: imaginative tapas and a few sandwiches, including an excellent Cuban ($8.55), whose smooth, melted Swiss and homemade mojo sauce combined to render the pickle authentically indispensable.
My husband arrived on time for a Friday dinner reservation (did no one notice crumbs covering the tablecloth when putting the “Reserved” card on the table?), and was seated in front of the two-man band in a tiny room of this west-side bungalow. The singer not only knew every diner/dancer in the room except us, he knew which person knew the lyrics to each song, Elvis to Englebert. Had we not made a reservation, we’d have been seated in the outer rooms and likely been noticed by servers more often — a conclusion I base on my second visit, for tapas on the lovely patio overlooking Bancroft Park.
The farmers market-inspired tapas menu (not fully available until 5:30 p.m.) changes weekly, and we found gems among the mid-September choices. Our sliced tri-tip steak ($9) folded onto perfectly toasted crostinis, floored with a slightly tart red pepper coulis and topped with bright green homemade chimichuri, stands out. So does the gambas aquacate ($9), three marinated, grilled shrimp adorning an avocado half artfully sliced and splayed, its negative space filled with a sharp-edged, oniony chopped salad to balance firm shrimp and creamy avocado. It far outshined the shrimp diablo ($8), boring despite a surname auguring spice.
The best tapa that evening wasn’t on the menu. The roving owner, Guillermo Alvarado, offered us half a grilled sweet peach, filled with soft, warm goat cheese, sprinkled with finely flaked black pepper and lemon zest, and garnished with rosemary he’d plucked from the planter next to our patio table moments earlier. We swooned from our first morsels until the tang of the rosemary leaves sounded the peach’s finale the way a final “ting” of a triangle can conclude a full-up orchestral piece.
Other tapas were more mixed: a Portuguese linguica ($7) featured appreciably lean sausage, but we would have appreciated a touch more cheese on the crostini; the pollo oloroso ($10) was prettily plated with three bite-size pieces of chicken on hand-mashed potatoes topped with overly reduced, too-sweet Oloroso sherry sauce whose mahogany hue lent a jewellike quality to its pale green thyme sprigs. If it had looked more like plain home cookin’, we might have been satisfied, but this dish visually promised more than it delivered.
The aioli on the plate of patatas bravas ($5) was creamy and mild, allowing the potatoes’ crisp three-paprika coating to shimmer vividly on the tongue instead of rasping like my old nemesis, stale paprika. But its “romesco” sauce puzzled me; romesco should be rustic, yes, but not excessively crunchy or stiff. The still-patrolling Alvarado noticed either the uneaten sauce or my expression, sighed, and uttered a frustrated but accurate evaluation of the lump.
The berry bleu salad ($7.50), though short on berries, was nearly saved by its noncloying vinaigrette, but we had asked for the cheese on the side. When reminded, our server confessed she had forgotten to mention it to the cooks, and suggested that my anti-bleu companions could eat from both sides — which they did, wrinkling their cute noses at every bleu bite.
And that was our best server. I’ll discuss service only from our Friday visit and the first hour of our Saturday visit, because a young couple nearby may have tattled on my out-of-practice note-taking at that point. Servers became more attentive; empty plates were cleared in 10 minutes rather than 20; glasses were refilled more promptly. This contrasted with my first visit: When an enthusiastic dancer bumped our table and spilled my wine — twice — neither server noticed our soaked, red-blotched tablecloth or offered club soda for the spots on my slacks.
Wines at Cucuru are generously poured, and instead of being matched to specific dishes, they bolster the buoyant spirit of the Cucuru adventure. Servers steered us to the newly released Cellar No. 8’s “8” ($8, $28), an informal, heady blend of eight grapes with a lovely finish, and the irresistibly named Hodge du Podge ($12, $30), a fruitier, perhaps more adaptable blend. The Zazo Moscato spritzer ($6, $20) was sweet enough for a dessert wine but nearly flat; perhaps the bottle had been open too long. I relished a glowing Casadovalle vinho verde rosé, possessed of the fresh, fruity sparkle I love in white vinho verdes (“verde” refers to the wine’s peak within a year after bottling, not its color).
Cucuru also offers three desserts, none homemade and only one (the tres leches cake) I’d order again. That and a cup of Cuban coffee fortified me enough to say “chao” and stash my glass eye — for good.