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May 2, 2008 08:01 AM

My graduation dinner planning, am I on or off target with i.cugini?

Hi hounds:

once more I come to you for help on the west side. Daughter graduates UCLA next month, and because she graduates with a three month old baby :-) we have been a bit slow in planning the graduation dinner...but June will be here before we know it, and now I am seriously in the hunt for the right spot.

This post on the SF board somewhat describes my dilemma:

I was SO excited to hear about the back room at Musha, it sounded perfect to me and I just know daughter and SIL would love it, but alas, she can be stubborn, and she prefers Italian (her favorite cuisine) for her big day. In any case, I've tried reaching Musha several times to see if I can reserve the back room, and I can't get them to answer the phone... :-(

So, I am getting nervous about timing and may have to introduce them to Musha another time. Once I started looking I realized that many places in Westwood and Santa Monica and environs are already full for graduation night (which is, of course, also a Saturday) I grabbed a reservation at i.cugini. I have never eaten there, but it had the advantage of space, a location that sounds nice, and lots of seafood on the menu, which is a good option for daughter and hubby, who are Muslim and don't eat non-halal meat. Other than the fact that I don't know the food, and find relatively few mentions positive or negative on CH, the only disadvantage is the price: a bit more than I had hoped to spend for a group of twelve. That's ok (though my budget is a bit depleted by all the adorable clothes I've been buying for World's Most Adorable Granddaughter, not to mention all the trips back and forth to LA :-)) but only if the food is good. So what do the hounds think? Is the food worth it? What other options are out there? Is there anything similar (or different but really worth looking at anyway) that I should consider for a group of twelve? I considered and rejected the various Persian choices on Westwood as being too familiar (and I am not fond of any of them anyway).

If there were a really good Chinese seafood place I think I could talk daughter into that, but I know of none on the west side, and it would have to be really good. Upscale Indian might also work, if it is really good (one of the party will be from India and knows his stuff). But I dont think that exists on the west side either. and really, she wants Italian....

Parameters: not meat centric, and though they don't drink most of the group does, so a decent wine list would be nice, not horribly noisy, ok to take a baby (the rest of the party will be adults) and anywhere between UCLA and Culver City....Italian seafood preferred.

Your thoughts appreciated! TIA.....

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  1. imho, i cugini will be fine choice given all of the limitations with which you are working.

    ucla graduation night is always a difficult night to find a place, add to that the baby, the meat issue, etc. i think you've done the best that can be done.

    i would not do chinese seafood because there would be the distinct possibility of pork accidentally finding it's way into a dish... .

    1 Reply
    1. re: westsidegal

      yes, that is a good point....I have a similar issue with dim sum when daughter and SIL and I go out....also with Mexican food (due to lard and even chicken broth, since the chickens aren't halal)...though after being so careful for so long daughter finally confessed to me that she has adopted a bit of the 'don't ask, don't tell' approach to products that don't advertise but might have meat in general (though not to pork) which takes a little bit of the edge off of my worry. But still, it is her party, and I want her to enjoy it to the fullest!

    2. Congratulations to your daughter on her graduation!!

      I like I. Cugini. It is perfect for families and those with kids. When our kids were younger it was one of the only "upscale" restaurants that was child friendly and we frequented it for special family celebrations such as birthdays, Mother's Day, etc.

      In fact, that was the first nice dinner out that we had with my family when my oldest daughter was about 8 weeks old (she is now 11 years old and her favorite restaurant is Wilshire!). They are very accomodating in that respect.

      As to the food, I think it is very good. I have had one of the best aged steaks I ever had there, the whole fish in foil/parchment paper was very good (though not the best, but definitely good), and the pastas and salads are excellent. There will be something for everyone to choose from. If you limit alcohol purchases, you can probably keep the cost down.

      There may be something of a prejudice on this Board against I.Cugini and other restaurants that are part of this ownership group (including Ocean Ave Seafood and a couple others) because they are run by a large business conglomerate. But the space is lovely, staff and service are very nice, and I think they are used to serving large parties for special occasions.

      And then afterward you can take a walk along the ocean.

      As to chinese, there is the Islamic Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel area. It is very good, but not close to the westside. You can search this board for more information on that.

      4 Replies
      1. re: NAspy

        Thanks for the reply! Yes, daughter and SIL love some of the Islamic chinese places they've tried (IIRC there is one in Anaheim they rave about?) but everyone else is coming from out of town, and driving long distances won't really work well.

        It is interesting that you mention Ocean Ave Seafood. I actually considered it, and almost mentioned it, had no idea they were related. I've eaten there (with a business group) and enjoyed it, but I think it could end up being a bit pricier, if nothing else because a few of us won't be able to resist oysters and such.. :-) I do think Ocean Ave Seafood is a bit more corporate in ambiance than I prefer, but perfection is tough given the parameters and it sounds like the patio at i.cugini (which I have requested) would be very pleasant....besides, i.cugini has the pasta and pizza options (including my daughter's favorite Margherita)...and the fritto misto will make my SIL very happy if it is well done...

        and of course, as you say, the out of towners will appreciate the ocean walk after....

        1. re: susancinsf

          I too think i Cugini is an excellent choice. I've been there for wedding rehearsal dinners as well as smaller dinner parties. Very child-friendly, while still upscale & attractive dining (particularly on patio). Agree that it's great to stroll by ocean after. I like their seafood; fish is very fresh. Pastas are fine. Altho owned by same company, for some reason I too prefer Cugini to Ocean Ave., which I think has become overpriced (last time I was there, it definietly seemed more $$ than Cugini) & certainly feels more corporate. You'll have a great time @ i Cugini & it's always nice to celebrate occasions at the beach

          1. re: susancinsf

            Yeah I would stick with ICugini over Ocean Ave seafood for your purposes. I thought the food at Ocean had declined somewhat when we last ate there. But they are also by the ocean and are also child friendly in the same way ICugini is, though a bit more "corporate" in demeanor.

            1. re: susancinsf

              As one of the out-of-towners who will be traveling from this very hot desert to attend, I vote for the ocean-side location. DH will love an excuse to walk along the beach, and I will love the cool breezes. Even if "June Gloom" sets in we will like it...but does that patio have heaters?? We non-SF folks can find ocean breezes pretty chilly. Guess I'd better bring a sweater :-)

          2. if you are considering i cugini you may as well consider il fornaio which is also on ocean ave in the same neighborhood. they have a private room off the entrance that i have used for family dinners, with kids, several times. It has been great.

            I don't know where they would seat you at i cugini.

            1. Outside is fine, but inside is loud, loud, loud! Lots of hard surfaces, big room, really tough to converse.

              1. Finally, I am checking in with my update on how it all went at icugini....

                As these things tend to go, after I made the reservation for 12, our numbers went up to sixteen at one point, then back down to fourteen (not including baby), which was our final number at dinner. I made the original reservation on Open Table, then worked with them over the phone on the changes; they were always very helpful and pleasant in my phone contacts.

                Getting there from UCLA is easy, bonus points for that. Hubby and I wanted to be the first to arrive as hosts, so we used the valet. ($7). Most of the rest of our group found parking in one of the nearby city lots for about $3 (Hint: try the shopping center that includes Macy's up the streeet).

                We were a few minutes early and spent perhaps five minutes waiting in the bar while they finished setting up. I did like the small bar area; the bar counter area closest to the door seems to be quieter than the main dining room.

                We were seated on the patio as requested. When we arrived, the place was jammed and VERY noisy inside, so I was very glad of the patio location, where it was certainly possible to talk across the table. Not sure that would have been possible at some of the inside tables. It also meant a view across the street to the beach, which was pleasant. However, our location and table set-up was not without its downsides: first of all, they had us at one very long table set up against the banquette running along the street side window. This meant, first of all, that half the group had no view of the beach (but could see the room, I personally hate sitting with my back to a room). However, the bigger problem was that it meant that those on the banquette side, particularly in the middle, were sort of stuck there: you couldn't get up from that side without asking about three or four people to move out. Secondly, the long table meant it was difficult to impossible to talk with those on the other end (not a big worry for me, since my ex and his girlfriend sat at the other end from me :-)). Fortunately, there was space at the end of each side of the banquet so some moving about and socializing was possible (and it also gave daughter a good spot to 'park' baby in her seat so that baby could see the 'action' yet not be in the server's way. BTW, this was World's Cutest Granddaughter's first restaurant dinner, and she behaved quite admirably: alert but quiet for the first half of dinner, asleep the second half, and not a cry out of her! :-)).

                Anyway, table set up was not ideal. If I had seen the space in advance, I probably would have asked for two tables next to each other instead of one big table.

                The only other set-up issue was that (ironically, given that sister Janet asked about the heat lamps), there were some heat lamps by the room side of the table that apparently got too hot for some (not for me, I sat on the banquet side). Unfortunately, no one told me this until later: I wish they had asked to have them turned off, I am sure it would have been no problem...

                anyway, on to the food. But first, a word about service. It was excellent, and the head server overseeing the table was really great: engaging, responsive, friendly, professional. One small example: when ordering drinks, hubby asked for his martini with a twist. Server brought it with an olive, immediately realized his mistake before hubby could say anything, apologized, and went to get another drink. As he was leaving to fetch it, I made a comment that if he just bought a twist, I'd eat the olive since I loved them...but instead he came back with a properly made drink, AND a little shot glass of about five olives for me to enjoy! nice. He was also very good at helping us figure out the right amount of food to order for the group, given that much of it is served family style.

                Pacing of the meal: appetizers were slow to come out for some reason, but after that pacing went well. We were there for just about three hours, including some lingering and chatting over dessert and opening of gifts, which seems about right to me for a celebration meal with that many people.

                Food: one very nice aspect of icugini with a group is that dishes are meant to be shared and many are served family style.

                Appetizers: at our end of the table we shared some of the frito misto, which was very good, and several of us had salads, also good, and one had mushroom soup and liked it.

                Mains: As I indicated, most of these were shared. I didn't taste everything, but some of the dishes (those from our end of the table) included:

                Pasta de frutti de mare: this was a huge portion, easily enough for three as a starter, with fresh seafood and al dente spaguetti. I liked the fact that it wasn't too heavy on sauce, which is my usual complaint with this type of dish (I don't like the seafood and pasta to be drowned).

                Whole fish: at our end of the table we ordered two of the types of whole fish, and tried two preps: Adriatic Style and oven roasted in rock salt. We had branzino and trout. You order by the pound (we asked our server to decide how big of a fish we needed) and they bring the cooked whole fish to you, show it to you, then remove it to fillet it. The Adriatic style came with potatoes and chard (substituted that night for spinach), and the sides were also served family style and were surprisingly large portions: basically enough was brought to insure two servings for everyone sharing the fish. The generous sides definitely make the whole fish a less expensive option than it appears to be at first glance. I ordered an additional side of chard just because I love it, and it was probably more than we needed. The chard, with cloves of garlic, was delicious. Potatoes were roasted chunks with some type of crust, I thought they were just ok. In retrospect, I wish we had also tried a side order of the fries (not that we needed more food).

                Of the fish, I prefered the branzino. The trout tasted a bit muddy to me, but then I almost never eat trout other that little ones just caught in Sierra streams. Perhaps farmed trout is a bit muddy? The branzino was just a shade more cooked than I prefer, but was otherwise delicious.

                The Adriatic prep was the hit at our end of the table, particularly with my Serbian cousin-in-law, who said that it reminded her of her meals on family vacations in Croatia growing up...

                For dessert, we shared one of the dessert platters for a group; which was perfect for the occasion: gave everyone a chance to sample a bit but wasn't too much. (other than for my son the chocoholic, who took one bite of the budino al cioccolato, and ordered an entire serving for himself :-) I have to admit, even though I don't share his passion for chocolate (I know, heresy), it was my favorite taste of the desserts: very rich and dense, but not too sweet. They put a candle in daughter's portion and made a fuss over her with congratulations, which she appreciated.

                My Stepmom is the biggest wine lover in the family, so I let her handle that end of the meal. She brought two bottles of a nice Cline Rose with her (they live down the street from the winery and drove to LA), one or two reds from their cellars (those never made it to my end of the table) and also ordered two Italian reds from the list (again, I didn't catch what they were). Based on the web site the wine list appears to have a good variety of both California and Italian choices in a range of prices.

                The bottom line: Father and Stepmom ended up paying all the wine costs, an unexpected but appreciated gesture (but unfortunately, because of that I don't know if and how much they were charged for corkage on the bottles she brought along).

                The rest of the bill (dinner for fourteen, tax, included 18% tip, a bit of an extra tip since I liked the service, and perhaps six before dinner drinks, a few coffees) came to about $580, or just over $40 per person, not including wine. This was about what I expected to spend, and I thought it was a reasonable cost given the Santa Monica location, the venue, the food and the occaison.

                Daughter enjoyed her evening, which is what matters most!

                Conclusion: i cugini didn't disappoint, and with a few caveats that seating location and set-up does matter, I'd recommend it for a group celebration dinner of this type. Thanks to all the Hounds for your input!

                I Cugini
                1501 Ocean Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90401

                1 Reply
                1. re: susancinsf

                  Just found my itemized bill, so can add that the total also included several non-alcoholic drinks such as lemonade, and that the dishes at the other end of the table, none of which I tried, included several margherita pizzas, rigatoni, ravioli, clams and a lamb carpaccio. According to that bill our engaging server's name was Mohamed; he mentioned that he was Moroccan and he apparently spoke several languages; he traded a few words in Moroccan dialect and Classical Arabic with Daughter (whose college major was Arabic; guess he wanted to see if she deserved those Latin honors :-)) and Tunisian SIL, and with Stepmom and SIL in Italian....

                  Daughter is staying at UCLA for at least a Master's btw, and hopefully a PhD as well; so it looks like I will have many more opportunities to babysit and chow down in Los Angeles in thenext few years. Go Bruins and looking forward to the food! :-)