Cucina Sorella Works Its Magic in Kensington
Tracy Borkum finally finds the right fit with Cucina Sorella
4055 Adams Avenue, Kensington
Fried Squash Blossoms
Letting go is not a natural instinct. Sometimes we hold on too long. That’s why Hoarders is such a popular show. We can relate to people with mounds of human hair in their apartment. We have very few possessions in life we truly love. Most—whether trinkets or immensities—are designed for disposal. So when we find something that floats our boat, we often keep rowing long after the river’s run dry.
That’s what seemed to be happening with the restaurateur Tracy Borkum’s flagship restaurant spot in Kensington. It was where she first found success with the quaint, beloved Kensington Grill. Along with the Ken Club, Ken Cinema, and Ponce’s, it helped develop an arty little community east of the 15 freeway. So it must be special to her. And it’s especially hard to delete the number of your first love. That’s why people Google their high school crushes even though it’s been decades.
These days, most know Borkum as the carbohydrate queen with the huge successes of Cucina Urbana and Cucina Enoteca. She’s one of San Diego’s most talented hospitality minds, and not sheepish about euthanizing ideas that underperform. She pulled the plug on ultramodern Chive downtown and white-tablecloth Laurel (transforming it into the rustic, come-as-you-are Cucina Urbana).
The Laurel-to-Urbana transformation in 2009 was an immediate hit, its “everything under $20” model resonating deeply with San Diegans who were newly broke but still had an eating-out habit to tend to. But reinvention in Kensington has been sputtery. In 2013, Borkum decided Ken Grill wasn’t suited for modern times. So she recast the space as Fish Public. A year later, she realized Fish Public wasn’t quite right, either.
At that point, she could’ve let go. She could’ve abandoned the smallish bistro space and focused on her Cucinas, which were booming. But she tried to makeover her first love yet again—this time as Cucina Sorella.
Whether it’s the Cucina name or the fact that you can’t hold a Borkum down for long—Sorella is working. Partially because it borrows some of the Cucina magic, notably the relaxed, hip atmosphere dotted with unpretentious knickknacks. Like that armada of hanging plants; you know, the ones that hang from the ceiling on crocheted ropes. It’s indoor hippie foliage, an aerial garden of retro kitsch. Or the wallpaper in the lower dining room, spackled with multicolored images of leaves. If Jackson Pollock had thrown his autumn yard trimmings at a canvas instead of paint, this wall would’ve been the result.
For Sorella, Borkum pulled in chef Daniel Wolinsky, who’d spent time in some venerated New York Italian kitchens, including Frankies 570 Spuntino and Prime Meats. He also staged (interned) under three-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura of Osetria Francescana in Modena, Italy. For Sorella, he worked with Urban Kitchen Group’s executive chef, Joe Magnanelli, to create a pasta-focused, shared-plates menu.
It’s all made in-house, of course. These days, any pasta joint that doesn’t throw eggs in flour every single day is soon to be Darwin’d out of restaurant evolution. And the pasta is delicious, a little thicker than most, with a bite and a flavor of eggs and good oil that’s impossible from a box or bag. Two dishes especially stand out. First, the cappellacci (a sort of pasta dumpling) with pumpkin, oxtail ragu, and pumpkin seeds for texture. Wolinsky siphons maximum joy from the oxtail—which is to beef what belly is to pork, an ambush of flavor—and the pumpkin adds a nice hint of fall harvest.
The real stunner, though, is the triangoli with goat cheese, mascarpone, eggplant, fig, almond, and brown butter balsamic. Brown butter acts as the nutty, movie-popcorn bridge between the sweetness of the fig and the subtle high note of mascarpone. We find his pappardelle a little less distinctive, lacking the well-browned meatiness that makes Bolognese so rich and addictive.
Sorella has, in good tradition, meats and cheeses on offer to start, like lomo Iberico, venison salumi, fiore sardo (pecorino), and casatica di bufala (which every fan of buffalo di mozzarella should try). Next, we order a Cucina classic, the fried squash blossom. Pretty flowers are nice. Pretty flowers that are deep-fried and filled with sweet ricotta cheese are even nicer. Tossed in a fennel-lime vinaigrette and horseradish gremolata, you’d have to be severely low on serotonin to not enjoy it. The Sorella house salad is excellent, with escarole, roasted pepper, red onion, smoked almond, pecorino, and almond dressing. The many layers of nuts work perfectly, splitting the difference between a vinaigrette and a light riff on pesto.
The octopus, though tenderized perfectly and tentacles nicely crisped, suffers from a too-faint piquillo pepper sauce. It comes with smoked potatoes, though not nearly enough, since those campfire nuggets of joy should be a side dish all their own. The polenta board is quite a show—spread out tableside on a cutting board by the server, then populated with sautéed vegetables. Only, there’s something off about our vegetables. They’re acrid, and far too acidic even next to the base polenta.
From the mains, always try the chicken. If a chef can make that wan, wallflowerish protein shine, chances are you should sign up for his or her mailing list. And Wolinsky’s is very good, flattened for even cooking and served in the “frá diavolo” sauce—a spicy, tomato-based sauce that perfectly offsets the creamy polenta underneath. The Mediterranean sea bass with fragola, fennel, leek, and tomato sugo (sauce) is also very good, the fennel’s punchy licorice flavor not overwhelming the fish.
For dessert, get the county fair option—the Nutella zeppole (traditional Italian donuts). Split one of the fried balls, watch the warm almond-chocolate filling spill out, and dip in the blood orange reduction, which gives it a nice high note.
It took a bit: some plastic surgery, and some house-made pasta with a New York vet. But Borkum seems to have breathed new life into her old haunt, and has another hit to add to the oeuvre.