So, had a birthday dinner with a group of 11-14 (some came later for drinks, but 11 of us ate) last night at the new location of the Italian bistro/bar/lounge of Cucina on Duncan in the Entertainment District. I should have known that the College St. formula wouldn't transplant well to this location - the service, wine list, portion sizes, ambiance and overall experience were a lot more Entertainment District than College, making for a much less enjoyable birthday dinner for my friend than deserved.
The room is down from street level and has some nice design features like a bar in the center, semi-open kitchen at the back, nice leather banquettes and exposed brick, but these features were marred by the overbearing presence of TVs and the too-bright lighting, made worse by the white-red colour scheme.
We had reservations for 9pm, and the place was void of other diners, with the exception of one other part of 20 or so at the front, but they didn't appear to be eating. Later, a few tables in the back filled up - I guess post-theatre or pre-club is their business, but even though it was a Saturday during Film Fest, there didn't seem to be a buzz to the place. The music was actually non-existent when I came in, and ranged from an entire album from Amy Winehouse to (I kid you not) Blur and other 90's rock, Spice Girls, Pulp Ficiton Soundtrack, Johnny Cash. It was equal parts annoying and invasive and inappropriate.
We ordered drinks which took forever to come and came to the wrong people. The others had martinis ($9ish), which were reported to be sweet and yummy, but two people who ordered the same drinks had two very different colours in front of them. I saw the wine list, which had about a dozen whites and a dozen reds listed as being avaiible in bottles OR by the glass, for about 7-10$, from various new and old world centres, and was significantly intrigued by the Malivoire Gamay, having heard their wines raved about on this board. Before I even got a chance, the waiter notified me that they only had 4 options by the glass - a chard, a sauv blanc, a merlot and shiraz. I went with the shiraz, Wilderness Estates from Australia, and it was significantly spicy, but I would have really prefered a Riesling or Gewurtz or something lighter to pair with my eventual meal.
The menu is the same as the College location but doesn't have the mains - just anitpasti, apps, pizzas and pastas. A few people started with apps, including the caesar salad (just ok), mussels (filling, good, flavourful), and the cucina soup (a white bean/tomato/chorizo business that smelled wonderful and delivered on the spice/flavour front). Most of us just ordered a main or an app as a main, because it was late, etc. I had a so-called app - the grilled salmon on arugula with pine nuts and shaved parmiggiano and sherry vinagrette ($11). It arrived on a huge plate, but was defiantely an app size portion. The salmon was lovely, well grilled but still tender, fell nicely from the skin. The arugula as very tightly packed on the plate in the center, and the dressing, which was actualy balsamic, was sort of glazed around the exterior. I endedup stealing some olive tapenade from a neighbour who had the grilled calimari because I needed some more flavour for my greens. While my portion was small, my friends who had pasta and pizza left with half their meals wrapped up to go, which I guess is a good sign. The overall verdict on the food was that it was good, but nothing stood out, we were so hungry and the service was so abyssmal (read on), that it wasn't worth the dollars.
The service. Yes, I know we were a group. But the place wasn't busy. The waiter put just about everyone's plates and/or drinks in the wrong place at one point or another. Neglible, but annoying. We inevitably had to ask for bread, remind him of drink orders, and then ask for more bread and water and drinks. But more striking, is that he/the kitchen completely messed up two of our orders. One friend ordered the Carne (aka as many kinds of meat as possible) pizza, but it came with no meat, three different greens, and red peppers. He had to send it back, and when the Carne arrived, it was literally covered in four whole slices of proscutto (as well as sausage, salami, meatballs). too much meat, detracted from the flavour. Also, a friend with a severe dairy allergy had trouble choosing a meal, so the waiter recommended a particular pasta with olive oil and tomatoes, which was lsited as having shaved parmigianno on the menu, but he said he'd leave it out. So, the pasta arrives, and has extra cheese. As waiter starts to put it down, we all give the dish and him a second look, and he says, flippantly "oh, I forgot you wanted no cheese and I asked for extra cheese, whoops, my bad." He says he'll fix it and turns back to the kitchen, then turns back to us and says "wait, is it an ALLERGY?" and friend says "yes", as forcefully as she can politely, having already mentioned it. it's not like she just doesn't want the cheese, it will actually make her violently ill. So, he turns dejectedly as if to say "well, i can't just pick it off then" and says "i'll have the kitchen do up another dish".
So, food was decent, but not special enough to make up for a lacking wine list, an incongruant ambiance, and poor service. I doubt I'll frequent either location again.
312 Lake St, St Catharines, ON L2N4H4, CA