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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Bringing the Sea to Ocean Avenue

I Cugini in Santa Monica retools its menu to emphasize seafood, with whole fish as the focal point.

July 23, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

I Cugini, University Restaurant Group's long-standing Italian on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, has a change of format. It's still Italian, but now the emphasis is on seafood.

As you follow the host to your table, look left toward the open kitchen, where there's a display of silvery fish on ice to encourage diners to order the new specialty: whole fish.

The antipasti selection, both hot and cold, includes seafood, too. Not only steamed clams in tomato broth, but a nice rendition of fritto misto or "mixed fry" of calamari, shrimp and smelt. I like the "white anchovies," what the Italians call alicie, which are fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar and olive oil. Grappa-cured white wild salmon is another delicious cold antipasto.

Of course, there's a mixed seafood pasta, but no seafood pizza. The real news is the whole fish. Most nights it's striped bass or Arctic char, sold by weight, which you can order either roasted in a rock salt crust or baked in foil, with mussels. Obviously, a whole fish isn't meant for just one person, or even two, unless it's very small. Waiters, however, could do more to explain how much that fish is going to cost by estimating its weight.

Once your fish is cooked, the waiter shows it off and then retires to a side table, to filet it for the table. But once our Arctic char was relieved of its coverlet of salt, we found it was woefully overcooked. The cook agreed, and offered to make us another fish--a smaller striped bass, since that wouldn't take as long to cook. This time he got it right; the fish was moist and flavorful. (Judging the cooking time of fish cooked under rock salt is notoriously difficult, especially in a wood-burning oven.) It takes practice.

But if the restaurant can sell enough whole fish to have a good choice on hand, and the kitchen perfects the cooking, I Cugini just may be able to offer something that's hard to find at the beach: namely, fresh fish that's cooked with expertise and that tastes like fish, not a dozen other ingredients.

BE THERE

I Cugini, 1501 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 451-4595. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Valet parking. Appetizers $4 to $6; main courses $9 to $19; whole fish market price.

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