A Brave New (Yummy!) World
Photo by Tenaya HillsFor decades, Irvine was the epitome of everything wrong and evil with Orange County: master-planned, sterile and white, white, white. Nowadays, though, that stereotype is as outdated as Larry Agran's progressive street cred. Irvine is one of the county's most diverse cities politically—two Asians sit on the City Council—economically, and, for our purposes, culinarily. Jeffrey Road hosts two separate Chinatowns; pho houses and international supermarkets open at a brisk rate; and a Little Tehran now dominates the Heritage Square Plaza near the Culver ramps to the Santa Ana Freeway.
Irvine is Orange County's preferred melting pot, where the majority of newcomers are affluent, non-lefty and content with their stucco paradise. And no restaurant better personifies the Irvine immigrant experience than Chakra Creative Cuisine. Although open for only about half a year, Chakra is already the ritzy playground for the county's Indian elite and students from UC Irvine across the street, drawn by the restaurant's comprehensive swath of culinary India.
The Chakra experience starts with breasts—big, golden globules jutting from the statue of some Hindu goddess at the restaurant's entrance. There's a knee-high pool near the entrance with lotus blossoms and lilies; outside in the patio is a roaring fire that's usually reserved for private parties, where power-suited men escort their sari-wrapped wives. The ceilings are high; the walls shine with drapes, soft earthy tones and random sentences in Sanskrit. The bar side of Chakra is where the youngsters indulge in multiple "chakratinis," the restaurant's multicolored take on the supper-club standard.
You can imagine Bollywood goddess Aishwarya Rai filming some steamy-but-chaste dance scenes in the confines of Chakra's opulent set. But, thankfully, Chakra owners Ravi and Sunita Koneru invested money not only in the décor but also in chefs capable of doing more than chicken tikka masala or bland vindaloos. It begins with the seafood-oriented appetizers: masala scallops seared only with the slightest murmur of char. The chefs allow the scallops' succulent natural state to combat a dusting of chile flakes. Salmon receives the tandoori treatment but, instead of becoming another cliché, is sweet, crispy and lusciously mild. Chakra even takes on the complicated cuisine of the coastal Indian province of Kerala via a mussel-and-clam soup, a tempest of coconut broth spiked with various spices.
Chakra doesn't tone down its boldness for the main courses, instead embarking on a trek through India's major foodie provinces not found in any other Orange County restaurant. Gujarat appears with vegetarian entrées that bob in various curry seas, accompanied by chutney painted on the sleek porcelain plates. The tandoori rack of lamb is outsourcing in reverse: a successful attempt by Chakra cooks to transform this elite fave into a revelation of sweetly burnt meat.
Most impressive, however, are the heavily spiced Hyderabadi selections, such as lamb korma, a bowl of yellow curry bobbing with luscious lamb chunks, and the Chicken Sixty-Five, a stir-fried chicken dish that sounds like a Bryan Adams song but is actually the Indian version of Buffalo wings. The latter meal gets its number from its creator, a nameless Hyderabadi roadhouse keeper who claimed to put 65 types of chiles in every serving of chicken he prepared. It's a claim as outlandish as the Hollow Earth theory, but the Chicken Sixty-Five does burn: some of the magma detected in the dish includes green peppers, tiny-but-potent mustard seeds, curry leaf, cumin, ginger and even cayenne pepper. Only an accompanying order of raita—unctuous and exciting with cucumber bits—prevents the Chicken Sixty-Five from eviscerating your tongue (or you can mitigate it with their better-than-usual mango lassi).
Desserts also impress, especially the carrot pudding encased in phyllo dough. And that, ultimately, is Chakra's promise. Food, after all, is a prime vehicle for uniting the masses, and if Chakra can unite the rich with the Anteaters, the Muslims with the Hindus, and serve it with a pretty hostess, then there's hope in this world. Or at least Irvine.
CHAKRA CUISINE, 4143 CAMPUS DR., IRVINE, (949) 854-0009; WWW.CHAKRACUISINE.COM. OPEN MON.-FRI., 11:30 A.M.-2:30 P.M., 5:30 P.M.-10:30 P.M. SAT.-SUN., 11:30 A.M.-3 P.M., 5:30 P.M.-10:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $25-$60, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.
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