Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cucina Bene: What Happens When I'm Hungry

Here's what happened...

I was on my second attempt at trying to hit the Blue Dog Tavern. I walked into the place -- farther than I got last time when I had car trouble en route -- and said, "NOPE!" It was packed. And I was hungry. So. Very. Hungry.

Luckily, in the vicinity (on Sepulveda, south of Ventura Blvd.) is a short strip of restaurants and storefronts. Being far too ravenous to make a decision, I left it to my dining companion. "Indian, sushi, or Italian?" He picked Italian, which is how I ended up at Cucina Bene.

Now the translation of "Cucina Bene" is basically "upper-class kitchen." (And yes, I just looked that up online.) If I knew that going in, I probably would have been even more disappointed than I ultimately was.

It all started so well. We walked in. We sat down. We ignored the table of screeching 40-somethings and perused the menus. A plate of quickie amuse-bouche items was dropped off for us -- a pleasant surprise! I reached for the least readily identifiable one; black olive tapenade (VERY finely pureed). Not bad. The white bean and tomato ones were also quite tasty. Ooh, small garlicky rolls! "Score," thought I.

Meh. Lukewarm. Chewy. Clearly the victims of having sat too long under a warming lamp.

Out comes soup and salad. The mixed salad was both mixed and a salad, dressed in what I cannot describe as anything but "house" dressing. My companion didn't fare so well, with a bowl of carrot-artichoke soup that really tasted of nothing but salt. Hmmm...

Seduced by a the seafood lineup of "Tiger Shrimp, Mussels, Clams and Scallops," I caved to the Sapore di Mare. Allow me to dramatize my encounter:

Dana: Whoa! Um, okay... So, tell me a bit more about yourself.
Dana: Yes, I can taste that. Very seafoody. What else?
Dana: Clearly. And I like your noodles. But wait, what's that I taste...?
Dana: Ah yes, that's it.

Now don't get me wrong; I love me some tomato sauce. Can't get enough of it. And because of that, I fully recognize how good as well as how potentially bland it can be if you're not trying (having made plenty of bland tomato sauce in moments of laziness myself). Which brings me to a major, over-arching (if not somewhat tangential) point.

This place seems torn between trying too hard and not trying at all. For example, the decor. It tries very hard to emulate what reads in America as a southern Italian classy-yet-rustic vibe; there was a textured faux-finish on the walls (decently done) and the majority of the place looked nice. And then on each table was a solid plastic flower-ish object. Not even trying; I've seen better fake foliage at Steak 'n Shake. (OK, I made that up, but you get the point.)

So the food. My Sapore di Mare had mussels that were nicely cooked and had one shell removed (thanks, easier that way!), clams with hardly any meat in them (eh, I GUESS that's not their fault), scallops (lovely), and shrimp with the texture of pencil erasers. Seriously. It's not hard to cook shrimp properly, but all too easy to overcook 'em. This was a case of just not trying.

Finally, my companion had the Penne all'Arrabbiata, a dish I really like... generally. This was just a plain yet slightly spicy tomato sauce. The only saving grace was the sausage (crumbled, not linked) he had added to it; that provided some flavor lacking in, well, everything else.

However, the staff was very sweet, and our server was personable and a little jokey, but still very professional. So there's that.

But here's the thing: the quality and the price definitely didn't line up. I have no problem putting down some cash for a good meal; food is one of my great joys in life, thus it's worth indulging now and then. This? Not making the Worth-It List.

And this is why you never tell someone, "I don't care! I just want food!" Because inevitably, you will get that -- just food.

Cucina Bene
4511 Sepulveda Blvd.
Sherman Oks, CA 91403

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