Restaurant Reviews

Justin Cucci Reaches New Heights with El Five

Bet you can’t eat just one: the Moroccan lamb sausage.
Bet you can’t eat just one: the Moroccan lamb sausage. Danielle Lirette
“Lucky them,” I thought as I stepped out of the elevator, edging past people clustered in the downstairs foyer at El Five. They weren’t feeling lucky, though, having hassled with parking and hosts/bouncers who’d told them that no, despite the two-hour wait, they couldn’t sit at the bar, because the restaurant, which opened in April on the top floor of a brand-new LoHi office building, was at capacity. To these harried would-be diners, faces sporting the same expressions of shock, annoyance and resignation I’ve seen at customer-service desks when a flight’s been canceled, I must have seemed like the lucky one. Getting off the elevator meant I’d already been up it, had eaten my fill of tapas and sipped sangria with the breeze on my face while dusk rosied the skyline. But still, they were the fortunate ones: Their night at Justin Cucci’s sensation was only beginning, whereas the elevator door had just closed on mine.

For a moment, I considered riding back up. I’d feign that I’d forgotten something, if only to again experience that surprising darkness when the elevator opens to the upstairs foyer, viewless and cramped as a cubicle. That pop of purple and orange from kilims that hint at the world Cucci has created, part Mediterranean, part mad-genius fantasy. That first exhilarating breath when your table is ready and you’re led around the corner into the restaurant’s crazy, chaotic glory. People are everywhere — down corridors that open into view-drenched dining rooms to your right and left, standing, sitting, ordering drinks, saving seats, sharing steel pans of paella, laughing and leaning in across velvety booths to be heard over the primal thump of a dance beat. Blackness envelops you in the inner sanctum that is home to the open kitchen, a blackness curated with dim lighting, a shiny black ceiling and ebony walls. Everything else glows in stark contrast, backlit with light pouring in through the open-air bar and wraparound windows. You strain to take it all in: the mosaic of hundreds of hexagonal mirrors reflecting faces and beams of light, the bold reds and yellows of vintage movie posters, their characters groaning in pain or pleasure (it’s hard to tell which, since the words are in Arabic).

El Five isn’t just a restaurant. No one waits for hours, pays handsomely to share small portions from small plates, then fights the urge to do it all over again for just a restaurant. Cucci, who runs some of the quirkiest eateries in town, including Linger and Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, knows this better than anyone. “I’m after a craveable experience,” he tells me later, putting a word — “craving” — to the pull I felt to get back on the elevator that night.

But what about craveable food? Did the tapas, appetizer platters and paellas disable my prefrontal cortex equally, leaving me awash with the impulsive urge to have more, right here, right now? One did: the Moroccan lamb sausage. Fragrant with cardamom and cumin, the sausage tumbled in meaty bites over a smooth layer of hummus, while other colorful ingredients teetered high: shelled green fava beans; twisty, stemmy pea shoots; crinkled roasted tomatoes. Chunks of feta added salt more judiciously than a shaker could. The dish was simple, just a deconstructed shawarma sandwich, really, albeit with sausage rather than sliced lamb, and it was more straightforward than many other items on the menu. But like the best omelets or the best baguettes, the simplest recipes are the hardest to get right, and when they’re done right, there’s nothing better. The plate’s messy remnants hadn’t even been cleared and I was already longing for another. Turns out that everyone else at the table wanted more, too.

Patatas bravas, a whole, flash-fried potato served intact and sliced in wedges, was also a crowd-pleaser, with smears of puckery gastrique, salsa brava and garlic aioli to punch up the spud. The lamb ribs were puckish, daring you to lick your fingers in polite company in order to suck off the last of the pickled-mango glaze, the cinnamon and cardamom rub. Avocado fattoush was another overachiever, a blend of creamy avocado and shards of fried pita, like chips and guacamole rolled into one. It easily outshone more typical, and often soggy, versions of fattoush, not to mention the bland, flaky triangles of cauliflower yufka that it was supposed to accent. There was nothing craveable about that cauliflower.

click to enlarge
El Five’s space is a fantasy mix of Spanish and Middle Eastern influences.
Courtesy of El Five
Valencian paella was hearty, with plenty of rabbit confit and sausage, plus a crunchy socarrat of pan-crisped wild rice, but the rabbit was dry, equal parts jerky and confit. Matzoh-ball soup dumplings should have all the goodness of Grandma’s chicken soup tucked inside — but when I tried them, they were so dry that no broth squirted out. Both of those dishes were imaginative, but not quite craveable.

What you will crave after a bite or two of whatever you’re eating at El Five — and a bite or two is all you’ll get, given that these are meant to share — is the next dish, the next flavor combination, the allure of the unknown. What is nigella oil? What is mastic chili honey? Sometimes, the unknown is unknown even to folks who should know better. “I just got back from vacation, and I’m still learning all the words,” apologized one runner, who halted her spiel to return to the kitchen to check on an ingredient. But descriptions, no matter when they’re given, only go so far; to really solve these mysteries, you must order a parade of plates and get your own whiff of nigella’s nutty fragrance, mastic’s piney scent.

The culinary team — Cucci, culinary director Jeremy Kittelson and executive chef/Root Down veteran Corey Ferguson — handles flavors the way they do design elements, juxtaposing strong ingredients with equally strong ones, favoring rich over mild, exotic over familiar. Many tapas are so rich and flavorful, they’re best treated like passed hors d’oeuvres. Goat-cheese croquettas, as brown and plump as meatballs, crack open to reveal creamy white centers. The tomato-vinaigrette-laced frisée is there for a reason; use it as a palate cleanser to take the richness down a notch. Diablos are amped to maximum sweetness, saltiness and richness, with sweet, shriveled prunes, sultry blue-cheese centers, and scorched ham wrappers. One is all you need, especially with the sauce that looks like puréed red peppers and tastes like feta. Our server could have steered us around the excruciating richness of croquettas and diablos arriving together; a saner combination would have been one or the other with tabbouleh lettuce wraps, the closest thing to a salad you’ll find on the menu, with enough starchy bulgur wheat to reduce the assertiveness of dates, feta and preserved lemon. Similar flavors underlie the grilled mackerel, with more dates, more preserved lemon and cauliflower “couscous,” a tapa from the menu’s new-school category. (The other categories are traditional and Middle Eastern.) The $14 price seems high, given the sliver of fish that seems more like an accent than a main ingredient. Or do guests want it that way, given mackerel’s fishiness?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the truth falls in the middle. Cucci is adept at both the business of running restaurants and listening to guests; that’s why successive menus at El Five have tinkered with the large-format entrees, known as “principales,” bringing them down in scale and price from the opening menu’s $48 ribeye to mid-summer’s $32 grilled hanger steak. On the most recent menu, launched after my visits, principales have gone away entirely, so that the kitchen can focus on paellas that feed two to four and tapas that guests just can’t get enough of. “If I get a small plate that’s fucked up and it’s $12,” explains Cucci, “it’s way easier to swallow than a $55 plate.” In fairness, my pricey hanger steak wasn’t fucked up; it was fabulous, nearly as craveable as that lamb sausage — well-seasoned, cooked to the right shade of pink and accented with quince jam, chèvre and charred tomatoes. Sadly, Cucci has since reimagined that steak as a tapa.

The pull of El Five is not entirely logical. You’ll hassle to get in. Your money won’t go far. And you’ll wonder why little details aren’t handled better: why cauliflower couscous is as coarse as hashbrowns, why sangria’s fruit is frozen so that it can’t soak up the brandy-splashed wine. But then you’ll be distracted by the stunning views both inside and out, and your small plates will keep coming, with all those strong, exotic flavors.
Craveable? Absolutely. Just wait until it’s your turn to leave the elevator.

El Five
2930 Umatilla Street, fifth floor
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Select menu items:
Patatas bravas $9
Goat-cheese croquettas $11
Diablos $12
Moroccan lamb sausage $14
Matzoh-ball soup dumplings $12
Cauliflower yufka $11
Lamb ribs $16
Valencian paella $33/$59

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz