A few weeks ago I started to follow Cube Marketplace & Café's tweets, and the next Wednesday morning my Twitter feed was bombarded with @cube_la's breathless reports from the Santa Monica farmers market. Beautiful chanterelles at a beautiful price! Radicchio from Maggie's Farm just begging to be grilled and doused in olive oil! Gorgeous fresh flageolet beans! The cafe's chef Erin Eastland was excited about what she was finding and it was making me very hungry, which, I guess, is pretty much the point.
When I got some friends together for dinner at the cafe on La Brea a couple of days later, sure enough, those flageolet beans played a role, swimming in a bowl of rich chicken broth with tortellini. Those crazy gorgeous chanterelles showed up that same night on an oval thin-crusted pizza carpeted in mozzarella, leeks and chives. Put it all together and Cube is a great little neighborhood restaurant, warm and familial, with honest seasonal cooking.
FOR THE RECORD:
Restaurant review: In a review of Cube Marketplace & Cafe in the Dec. 16 Food section, owner Alex Palermo's last name was spelled Paderno. —
For me, eating tortellini in brodo is the supreme way to appreciate the texture and taste of handmade pasta. These plump little rings were stuffed with mortadella and Parmigiano. Not just any Parmesan, but Red Cow Parmigiano, made from the milk of a special breed that give less milk, but with superior flavor. This is a real treat (even though they may be bigger than they would be in Italy).
The pizza is almost as good. The mushrooms, leeks and chives make a lush combination of flavors. The crust is thin and not overloaded with ingredients, though it seems a bit underdone (this may just be the restaurant's pizza style). Ordering one right away as an appetizer gives everybody time to look over the menu. You can pretty much count on there being a Margherita and a pie topped with whatever makes sense for the season.
Twitter also gave me the news that the menu that week had switched from Tuscany to Emilia-Romagna. It changes every Thursday — at least somewhat. The handful of dishes that vary is enough to give each week's menu a distinctive regional flavor. And the menu is honest enough to say it's "inspired by Emilia-Romagna." Eastland's dishes tend to be more California Italian — West Coast interpretations of Italian classics.
Some dishes seem to be too good to take off the menu. On my first visit, a good portion of the crowd appeared to be back for the wildly popular Tuscan fried chicken. I came back too and brought more friends to revel in Cube's wonderfully shaggy dish. You get a half-chicken, very brown and crisp, sparked with hot pepper. It comes with mashed kabocha squash and goat cheese and overcooked Brussels sprouts.
Another menu standby is the Piedmontese steak, which refers to a breed of beef, not a specific dish from Barbaresco and Barolo country. Glazed with balsamic vinegar, it's a flat-iron steak with great flavor and texture.
That same night, a new entry is just as alluring: veal Milanese — a pounded, breaded and fried veal chop in a sweet and sour sauce with little cipollini onions, grapes and chestnuts, served on creamy polenta.
Believe me, nobody at Cube is just picking at their food. This crowd comes to eat. The place has a great energy. While walk-ins wait for a table or a place at the long bar, they end up investigating specialty groceries stocked on shelves that run around the room: a full line of Rancho Gordo dried heirloom beans, organic farro and rice for risotto, as well as jams, marzipan, vinegars, oils and oddball items like a bottle of biodynamic elderberry syrup from Austrian wine producer Nikolaihof.
The business used to be Divine Pasta Co., and that's how receipts still read. Started by Alex Paderno when he was a student, the business sold fresh pasta. It gradually morphed into Cube Marketplace and was a destination for cheese and salumi. But recently it has become more of a restaurant with the addition of a new wine room, which does double duty as a dining room for private parties, or on busy nights a communal table to fit all the walk-ins. The remarkable thing is that the place has kept a coherent identity through it all.
Soup and salad
Back to the food. Soup? The menu last week listed four, including a rustic harvest soup of pumpkin, tomato and potatoes with a little of that great Parmigiano shaved over. It's the closest thing to real country cooking I've had in a while. There are a couple of wonderful salads too. My favorite right now features shaved Brussels sprouts in a heap with persimmons and pomegranate seeds.
But the killer starter is
a sumptuous platter of
fresh imported mozzarella flanked by rosy slices of prosciutto di Parma and a feisty wild arugula salad drenched in olive oil and lemon.
At Cube, you always have the option of salumi and cheese, one of the finest selections around, from artisanal producers in Italy and the U.S. Ask about a cheese and the waiter will bring you a taste on a slate tile with the name written in chalk.
One of the best things about Cube is its great quirky vibe — mostly because of the terrific staff. How often do you go to a restaurant where everyone who works there seems to like each other and the teamwork is seamless? And that goes from the person who takes your reservation on the phone to the manager and host, the waiters and runners.
This is a neighborhood restaurant with a warm embrace for everyone. And it's open all afternoon too, if you need a pick-me-up after errands or shopping on La Brea or Melrose.
CUBE MARKETPLACE & CAFE
RATING: Two stars
LOCATION: 615 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; ; http://www.cubemarketplace.com.
PRICE: Dinner soups, $8 to $9; salads, $11 to $14; antipasti, $8 to $14; primi, $9 to $18; pizze, $13 to $16; secondi, $18 to $30; contorni, or sides, $6 to $8; desserts, $9. Wine and beer. Corkage fee, $15.
DETAILS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times