We went to Cucina 24 on Wall St. in Asheville last Tuesday. We had a decent table, one side with a window overlooking Sugo (we’re going there next week) and on the other side was the open kitchen. We’d really like to go back and sit at the bar by the open kitchen to watch the chefs in action. It was pretty crowded, at one point most of the tables, the kitchen bar, and the room in the back were nearly full.
The hostess stand area almost gives the sense of a chain restaurant with the placement of the hostess stand and benches in a sort of ‘holding area.’ I guess it makes sense, but it was a little strange. You can’t see much from there, except for a small bar in front of you to the right, and a few tables in the back. We were lead down the ramp into the dining room, and that’s when we had the first full view of the open kitchen and the rest of the dining room. I liked the intimacy, the exposed brick wall, and the tables by the window. You’re looking onto Patton, but there are enough trees and greenery (inside and out) that you feel like you’re peering out from a secret garden of sorts. The tables were spaced well, even though we could hear the party of 6 right next to us, it never seemed too loud. The kitchen never seemed too loud either. There is a private room in the back that looked cozy, but I didn’t get a full view of the seating arrangements inside. One small touch that I really liked was the dark brown napkins. It’s just a little different than plain white or plain black napkins, and the dark rich brown went very well with the dark wood throughout the dining room. Someone was paying attention to details, and I appreciate that. When we first got there, I thought the lights were a little bright, and someone must have read my mind because they were dimmed within the first 10 minutes we were there. The crispy breadsticks were a nice touch, a bit more unique than flowers or candle, and you could eat them; even better. Again, nice details.
The tone was set when we first walked in the door. There was a party of 2 in front of us at the hostess stand, and a larger party of 5 or so off to the side on the bench. There was no hostess. We waited for a few moments, and when the hostess did appear, she looked a bit confused as if she didn’t realize there were so many people waiting. They really need two people at the hostess stand during busier times, one who stays at the front greeting and assigning tables on the computer, and one who seats and helps with the flow in the dining room.
Our server was a pleasant Italian gentleman, which added to the authenticity of the experience. They were a bit busy, and throughout the meal it seemed like we had to wait a little longer than we should have for certain things. For example, we got our antipasti before our bottle of wine came. We also had to wait quite a while for our second serving of bread (which was hot, fresh and delicious when we did get it). The biggest disappointment with the service was that we had to wait a very long time for our check. After trying to make eye contact with our server without being obnoxious, I put my wallet on the table so that there would be no question about whether or not we were ready. We did notice that our server had a large table in the back room that most of his attention was focused on, which was somewhat understandable, but there needs to be a balance. It seemed that there were plenty of food runners and bussers around that could have helped in some way.
Everyone we encountered was friendly. The manager brought us our second serving of bread and cleared some of our dishes. He was definitely present and available the whole time in the dining room, but didn’t really talk to us much or ask us questions, though I saw him doing so at other tables. Our water stayed filled and our empty plates were cleared promptly throughout the meal. On our way out, chef Brian Canipelli was sitting at the large booth between the kitchen and bar speaking with the family there (maybe someone he knew) and he thanked us for coming, which was nice. So overall, the service was genuinely friendly but could definitely use a bit of polishing for efficiency, especially during the busy times.
Wine: We asked for the server’s recommendation for a bottle of white, something dry, crisp and spicy. His recommendation (Pagliatura Magliano Vermentino 2005) was a little sweeter than we expected, but it tasted better and better as the meal progressed. It was reasonably priced at less than $40.
Antipasti (3): (1) Mozzarella Fritta: Yes, it is fried cheese, but it was good fried cheese. The mozzarella was definitely high quality, and the breading was crispy and not at all greasy. I would have been happier with a little more marinara sauce, but it was still tasty. (2) Roasted Garlic &: Cipollini: Delicious. (3) Prosciutto and melon: just the right amount of melon proportionate to the prosciutto. I am a big fan of savory/sweet combinations, and the meat had just enough salt without being too much, and it wasn’t too tough or chewy like some can be. The portion sizes were perfect for two people, and three was the right amount as two wouldn’t have been enough and four may have been too much. It’s great to have the option for different combinations that you can match according to the number in your party.
Insalate: We shared the warm asparagus and sunny side egg salad. I actually have a recipe for the same thing, but have never tried it. The egg was perfectly sunny side, and the asparagus was plump and tasty. They left more of the ends on than you normally see, but they were still both tender and crisp. The dish also had crunchy breadcrumbs that rounded out the texture of the asparagus and egg perfectly. We finished this pretty quickly.
Secondi: I had the chicken Braciola with fava beans, spring onions, marinated mushrooms and Marsala. It was colorful with the earthy color of the mushrooms, the bright green favas, and the golden crust of the chicken. Since I didn’t know (and didn’t ask) what the ‘braciola’ was, the sausage stuffing in the chicken was a nice surprise. The sausage was flavorful and not overpoweringly spicy; however, by the end of the dish, it was a little too much. The chicken itself was tender and flavorful, though with a little more fat than I’m used to. I’m not a big fan of mushrooms, but these were very tasty. A mushroom lover would have finished the plate, but that was the one thing that I did not finish. The favas were good, and I would have liked more.
We’ll definitely give it another try. Everything about it has potential, and we’re giving the benefit of the doubt that it is a new place, and they’re still getting used to the ups and downs. The atmosphere is good, the service needs improvements, and the food set high expectations initially, which we felt were not ultimately met. If you’re looking for somewhere to go for a great selection of antipasti and a bottle of wine (or one of their signature cocktails that looked fabulous but we didn’t’ try), I would recommend it.
While our experience at Asheville’s other new place (S&W) was a little more satisfying, it was also much less busy than C24 was, so it wouldn’t be fair to judge one above the other based on one visit.
After reading what others have written about Sugo vs. Cucina 24, we’re trying out Sugo tomorrow. I’m definitely curious about the menu similarities and who steps it up.