One of the things I love about this Avenues restaurant is how it has changed and stayed the same, both at once. Without losing its spirit, personality or charm, Cucina Deli has expanded its identity from the New York-style breakfast-lunch gourmet cafeteria/shop (a little like Silver Palate, a little like EAT) started by Marguerite Henderson years ago and continued by present owner Dean Pierose, to include dinner with table service and wine. Now it’s called Cucina. I would call it casual dining—like Copper Onion, like Epic, like Pago, like many of Salt Lake City’s independent restaurant success stories.
The food press is full of stories about the death of casual dining. Across the country, restaurants like Applebee’s, Chili’s and TGI Friday have seen declining sales for years. A desperate revolving door of CEO’s has tried to slow the slump, but so far, mostly unsuccessfully, according a recent Business Insider story. And how are these restaurants trying to freshen their image and appeal to younger customers? They’re moving out of malls and focusing on urban locations (TGI Friday’s), installing wood-fired grills (Applebee’s), adding craft beers (Chili’s) and increasing the quality of ingredients (Red Lobster.)
Yes, national chain restaurants are trying to “differentiate” themselves by emulating independent restaurants. But it’s impossible. Because the primary difference between successful independent casual dining restaurants and chain restaurants is that the former are fueled by the passion of the chef or owner. That passion is why Pierose chooses to continue to adapt to a small, slightly awkward but beguilingly quaint space and to allow for culinary creativity in the kitchen. Our plate of frenched tandoori lamb chops were red in the center, spice-crusted on the outside and complemented by a smoked harissa and mint chutney with raw cacao—all aromas and flavors that emphasize the meat’s sweetly mild gaminess.
The beautifully presented baby romaine salad was a take on a Caesar with green chilis spiking the dressing. The bouquet of lettuce was wreathed in a fried onion ring and sided with black beans and corn. A gorgeous butternut squash risotto was flecked with pistachios and rested in a pool of beurre rouge—topping the dish was a glorious whole maitake mushroom, looking like a butterfly had just landed on the rice. Crispy-skinned game hen was swimming in a vivid lemon-thyme jus with einkorn-wheat gnocchi. Wines from the reasonably priced list are suggested to go with each entree and there are plenty of by-the-glass options. Service was a little eccentric, at least until the owner himself sat down for dinner. But altogether, this was a stellar meal in a charming setting—at least in this pocket of the Avenues, casual dining is thriving.
Under Pierose’s ownership, Cucina has grown from a gourmet deli to a casual dining haven with an emphasis on its wine cellar.
1026 2nd Avenue, SLC, 801-322-3055
See more inside the 2017 May/June Issue.
Photos by: Adam Finkle