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Pasta Perfection

BY Lesley Balla | November 23, 2016 | Feature Features National

Akasha Richmond's AR Cucina brings rustic Italian fare to downtown Culver City.
ITALIAN INNOVATION AR Cucina's polpo (or grilled octopus) is prepared with chickpea puree, escarole, lemon and olive oil

The little pinched and pleated pasta dumplings have a greenish tint thanks to fresh chard. They’re soft and supple, tossed in butter and sprinkled with Grana Padano cheese before coming to the table. These tortelli—a house specialty at chef Akasha Richmond’s AR Cucina—are comforting and soul-warming; they’re familiar, but new because of the shape. Among all of the handmade noodles currently popping up in L.A., I’ve never seen these. The menu describes them as “similar to ravioli,” which is almost a disservice to the tortelli. A regional specialty of Piacenza, the little packets look like delicate leaves glistening in butter sauce instead of morning dew. The dish clearly takes time and effort—you can almost picture a nonna making these in her Northern Italian village for the family; a true labor of love. And that’s the feeling you get with AR Cucina: This is food that comes from the heart.

Talk to her for five minutes and you immediately realize how enthusiastic Richmond is about feeding people. After years working as a personal chef for stars like Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand, Richmond decided to open her freshman venture, Akasha, during Culver City’s downtown resurgence. Vegetarians, vegans and carnivores can all find something on the restaurant’s menu, which takes influence from the chef’s world travels to destinations like Italy and India.

That’s how Richmond’s next restaurant, Sambar, came to be. It was a passion project highlighting her true love of regional Indian cuisine. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Richmond compares that restaurant to an indie flick: Critics loved it but it bombed at the box office. The restaurant achieved quick acclaim, but it didn’t really take off. After a brief interlude, she opened AR Cucina in its place.

The same philosophies that fuel her other concepts pertain to the new one: buy local, stay seasonal and make as much as possible in-house. Instead of pizza, seasoned breads come hot out of the big wood-burning oven; the best is dusted with Parmesan and pepper— cacio e pepe-style. Order Richmond’s locally grown, pickled peppers mixed with olives for a perfect little bar snack. Her tomato-almond pesto, served with creamy burrata and thick slices of ciabatta, is something I could eat on just about anything.

The AR Cucina menu does not mirror any one region of Italy. It’s more like a mix of Italian dishes with California sensibilities, and even some Italian-American specialties thrown in for good measure. It’s probably more recognizable to local diners, especially Richmond’s usual fans and followers, and it’s more manageable for the kitchen. The whole concept just seems more in sync with the neighborhood.

Not a lot was changed in the space. There’s still a nice small bar and patios lining the front and side of the building. You can see chefs bustling in the kitchen toward the back, with seats along a counter near the oven. One wall now sports a handpainted pastoral Italian countryside, and a hallway is wallpapered with personal photos of Akasha and her travels through Italy. It’s like one giant postcard from the kitchens and farms that inspire her dishes.

The menu is designed for anything from lunch to light snacks to a whole feast. Salads are basic but fresh—order the chopped, which is chock-full of bitter greens, salami, cheese, chickpeas and olives, or the simple mista with balsamic vinaigrette. Make an effort to sample a few pastas including the straightforward bucatini all’Amatriciana— thick strands of al dente pasta twirled with a hearty tomato sauce; the pappardelle with duck topped with a light white sauce; and the lasagna verde, a homey favorite with layers of tender spinach pasta, short rib, and mushroom ragu and creamy fonduta.

It’s difficult to pass up porchetta anywhere, and AR Cucina’s is no exception. Chef de Cuisine Kirk Plummer’s is traditional—the superflavorful roasted pork shoulder is heady with herbs and fennel pollen, and comes with a housemade pear mostarda and dandelion greens... A meal unto itself.

I’m a sucker for soft-serve, and the sour cherry sauce and almond amaretti crumble is the perfect topping for the creamy vanilla swirl. The ice cream, which is made from Straus’ organic dairy, also makes a fine affogato. A plate of Italian cookies and biscotti is another nice way to end the meal.

With the departure of places like Bucato and the long-gone Fraiche, the neighborhood has been devoid of great Italian food. AR Cucina is just what Culver City needed, an everyday spot that can feel special even for lunch, with just enough touches to make it unique. This is not just another Italian spot. It has soul.

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