Unlikely Bastion of Good Eating : Restaurants: Amid Irvine’s office buildings and cookie-cutter homes stand a variety of eateries may be the best in Orange County.
When Irvine was little more than a sprawling ranch and a blueprint, the architects and planners couldn’t have envisioned that it would turn out to be the gastronomic center of the county. Well, surprise!
Planned communities such as Irvine are always identified with the rash of restaurant chains and fast-food emporiums that blot the collective landscape, and Irvine, I suppose, has its share of them. But it is more important to note that you can eat very well amid the office buildings, man-made lakes and cookie-cutter homes of this city, in a variety of restaurants that stand up to the best. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that Irvine has more really good restaurants than any other Orange County city.
The biggest concentration of quality establishments is located just east of the Costa Mesa Freeway, adjacent to John Wayne Airport, but there are good ones all over town. Here are six of my favorite places, and some of the things I like to eat in them.
McCormick and Schmick
Bill McCormick and Doug Schmick of Traditional Concepts Inc., a Seattle-based chain, passed over Los Angeles in favor of Irvine to open this restaurant, the county’s best fish house. That’s our good fortune.
There’s lots of good food and atmosphere in this location; a mahogany and beveled glass dining room filled with plush booths, deco-style stained glass lighting fixtures and a long, Hopper-esque counter.
And it’s worth a detour to eat a plate of the restaurant’s wonderful Pacific oysters, ones with such names as Rock Point, Kumamoto, Malpeque and Shoalwater, or several other specialties of the Pacific Northwest.
Rock shrimp popcorn are wonderful, deep-fried shrimp you smear with a tangy remoulade, and the vinegary salad of marinated green beans with red pepper bacon dressing kicks like a mule.
Among the main dishes, Hawaiian spearfish, when in season, and Alaskan king salmon are terrific departures from the snapper, halibut and swordfish of the more predictable seafood houses. The owners are connected to a chain of commercial fisheries and have all their fish flown in daily.
Spearfish will remind you of a meaty tuna, with an oily aftertaste more complex than swordfish. The king salmon, pan fried in sweet butter, is flat out one of the best fish anywhere. It is tender, juicy, and subtly perfumed with the rushing waters of an icy Northwest river.
McCormick and Schmick, 2000 Main St., Irvine. (714) 756-0505.
Yolie’s Brazilian Steakhouse
When it comes to sheer exoticism, Brazil has Irvine beat all to pieces.
But why suffer the inconvenience of a 16-hour flight when you can find a little bit of Brazil right here?
At Yolie’s Brazilian Steakhouse, you can sample a relatively obscure method of cooking known as churrasco , where meats are cooked on sword-like skewers, then literally sliced from the skewer onto your plate. ( Feijoada , the only other Brazilian main dish at this restaurant, is a black-bean casserole topped with a variety of stewed meats.)
The dining area is a loft space, occupying the top level of a postmodern shopping mall, and doesn’t much look exotic. But when you take the first sip of your frosty caipirinha, a Brazilian aperitif made from a sugar cane brandy known as cachaca , you’ll think of palm trees and the bossa nova.
Dinner is a set affair, at a set price. It’s basically all you can eat, beginning with a choice of salad or black-bean soup, then progressing to a parade of meats and side dishes. Waiters come around with the sabers, planting the point on your table and slicing. Seconds are yours for the asking. Bom approveito (bon appetit)!
In all, seven meats are served: sausage, turkey (wrapped in bacon), spring chicken, top sirloin, New York steak, leg of lamb and pork tenderloin. All of them have been marinated in Brazilian spices, taste great, and make you long for the tropics.
Now if only Irvine had an Ipanema beach.
Yolie’s Brazilian Steakhouse, 2646 Dupont Drive, Irvine. (714) 251-0722.
Irvine is touchy about commercial signs, so you might have to plan on an extra minute or two to find Bistro 201.
Just leave it to David Wilhelm to open a restaurant in the middle of an office complex anyway, a location where you have to look twice to find the door. Bistro is Wilhelm’s signature Irvine restaurant (the other being the popular Zuni Grill), so you’d think the man would be more eager to show the place off.
He certainly gets your attention once you are inside. His restaurant is all raw metals, blond woods and sharp, angular corners, deconstructionist if you’re an architect. There are high ceilings, a beige marble floor and an enormous, zinc-topped bar. A good deal of the clientele dress to match.
Food here tends toward the seasonal and the eclectic, and chef John Sharpe changes the menu four times a year. Don’t be confused by the futuristic nomenclature. Appetizers are called “small plates” here, main dishes “large plates.” Desserts are called desserts. There’s some comfort in that.
There’s even more comfort in what you eat here. The Southwest is represented by good grilled shrimp on creamy polenta with roasted peppers; the Atlantic states by lobster cakes with basil sauce and corn relish. Europe surfaces in the form of delicious forest mushrooms and hickory-smoked ham served en brioche , in a creamy sauce that will make you long for more. A classical Caesar salad is made with strongly flavored herbed croutons.
Simple dishes work best here. Great lumpy mashed potatoes. Baby vegetables from Chino Ranch. Roast pork on apples with a green peppercorn sauce. An excellent hamburger.
And let’s not forget the rustic. Something the restaurant calls “rustic noodles” are a pleasant surprise: egg-less noodles shaped like pappardelle (flat, wide and wavy) crisped up in a pan and served with smoked chicken, mushrooms and herbs.
Bistro 201 also, apparently, wishes to enhance Irvine’s reputation for night life. The restaurant now serves a late supper menu to go with the wonderful desserts, like the souffle made from Belgian chocolate, the sumptuous apple and blackberry cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream and their peerless raspberry brioche bread pudding. Great cappuccino, too.
Bistro 201, 18201 Von Karman Ave., Irvine. (714) 553-9201.
Burrell’s Bar-B-Que and Cafe
The arrivistes can relax. Fred Burrell has come to Irvine.
Time was when you had to go all the way to Santa Ana to eat good ‘cue. No more.
Fred Burrell’s newest venture, Burrell’s Bar-B-Que and Cafe, serves the same good pork ribs, barbecued chicken and hickory perfumed meats that have made him the unofficial barbecue king of Orange County.
This restaurant, though, is a bit, ahem, different from his others. It’s brighter and more upscale for starters, and serves things like--perish the thought--espresso. But you can expect the same down-home vittles here that you get in his other two restaurants. The only difference here is that this place serves breakfast, grits, stuffed biscuits and even red-eye gravy, a thick country gravy made with, of all things, coffee grounds.
Best dishes here are the soft, fragrant beef brisket and the exotically perfumed pork shoulder, hickory-smoked meats eaten with a sloppy sauce rich with pepper, vinegar and exotic spicing. The best sandwich is North Carolina chopped pork, a chewy roll sogged up with spiced, chopped pork shoulder, cole slaw, pickles and relish. This sandwich has defined barbecue to generations of Carolinans, and who are we to argue?
Breakfasts are equally sumptuous: stuffed biscuits smothered in gravy, slab bacon, country ham trucked in from Franklin, N.C., homemade sausage. Three-egg breakfasts are even more inviting, served with a choice of smoked pork chops, hot-link sausage or fried catfish. And then there is the fluffy, golden corn bread, steaming hot, slathered with butter. Irvine, no soul? Don’t bet on it.
Burrell’s Bar-B-Que and Cafe, 14962 Sand Canyon Road, Irvine, (714) 786-0451.
Prego has a new chef--Marcello Appolonio--and a new style pizza, cracker thin (to please the glitterati), but the restaurant hasn’t lost its place as one of the county’s premier Italian restaurants.
It remains one of the shining lights of the Spectrum Food chain, the company that owns and manages, among others, Prego of Beverly Hills, Tuttomare, Harry’s Bar and Grill, and Chianti. And it is still the one place you would have to call a happy hunting ground for the young and the restless in these parts.
Visually, the place is impressive. It is a makeshift Tuscan villa with a towering ceiling, immaculate tile flooring and open kitchen, elegantly designed with tables set in white. The menu has been carefully designed, too: simple, direct dishes like homemade pastas, light, fresh salads and rotisserie meats.
I like what I have eaten here recently. A new antipasto with the unpronounceable name of misticanza di lattughe is a well-conceived combination of mixed baby greens, crostini, Gorgonzola and a grape vinaigrette.
And the standby rotisserie meats--duck, rabbit, chicken and leg of lamb--are still wonderful. The meats are rubbed with fresh rosemary and sage, an irresistible perfection of nature, and look as well-dressed as most of the customers.
Good Italian wines and fine desserts, too.
Prego, 18420 Von Karman Ave., Irvine. (714) 553-1333.
I’ve saved my favorite for last. Bistango is a genuine pheenom--part gallery, part architectural wonder, all restaurant.
Owner John Ghoukassian has long had the most impressive restaurant space in Orange County, a cavernous, art-filled seating area looking up into more than 1 million cubic feet of indoor space. Now he has the kitchen to match, thanks to consulting genius Jonathan Waxman and young Austrian talent Paul Gstein. Bistango gets my vote as Orange County’s most consistently exciting restaurant.
Architect Michael Carapetian’s design may also be the boldest visual statement made by an Orange County restaurant. The rough slate floor, immense blue-gray granite bar, chic Italian furniture and deliciously low-slung, gray plastic ceiling make the room exotic enough for a James Bond adventure. Forests of lush tropical plants, oversized white canvas umbrellas over tables and the sound of rushing waters add a lush sensuality.
Ghoukassian’s cafe-style menu received a positive jolt when Waxman was given a free hand with this menu. Waxman, now cooking at Napa’s hot new Table 29, is known for his ambitious interpretations of California cuisine. This food doesn’t always work. But when it does, it really does. Shrimp and scallop pizza with corn, bacon, tomatoes, green onion and rosemary is a killer. Smoked chicken salad with watercress, endive, radicchio, walnuts and goat cheese is even better.
Young chef Gstein can cook, too: salad Nicoise with charred ahi, green and white tagliarini with Santa Barbara shrimp, poussin with goat cheese and spinach. And make room for dessert. The remarkable orange ginger cr e me brulee, possibly the best brulee, I’ve ever had, is an absolute epiphany.
Bistango, 19100 Von Karman Ave., Irvine. (714) 752-5222.