Andrei's Braises Consciousness About Sustainable Dining

Clam it up
Edwin Goei

Braising Consciousness
Though the website and full name of Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails tout the sustainability agenda, the only thing in your face here is (mostly) good food

With Food, Inc. screenings changing minds every two hours, this is as good a time as any for restaurants to tap into the growing unease that people have about their food and where it comes from. Sure, plenty of places— Avanti, Slowfish, the original incarnation of Manhattan Supper Club—already source produce from local farmers, meat from free-range ranchers and seafood from sustainable fisheries. But when it comes to marketing this do-good philosophy, most have been gun-shy, offering web-only flirtations with telling the public of such virtues. Walk in off the street, and you’d be oblivious as to whether the food came from a factory farm.

A new restaurant in Irvine breaks from the pack immediately: The full name of the place is Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails. That’s not only a mouthful to say, but it also sounds a bit lofty, even presumptuous. One commenter on our Stick a Fork In It blog, on which we previewed the restaurant, wrote: “Wow. Who opened the wormhole to Berkeley? It looks tasty, but I’m worried that they’ll be contributing to the smug problem.”

Despite the earnest, even poignant inspiration for the name—Andrei was the owner’s late brother, a proponent of environmental causes whose life was cut short before he could open his dream restaurant—I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was expecting to be accosted by unshaven hippies flashing peace signs as soon as I walked in. But the hemp tablecloths and “herbal” brownies were not to be. The servers—young, uniformed, clean-cut and professional—could have been flight attendants. The restaurant itself is quite corporate-looking: Constructed with a surplus of marble, it’s unwaveringly rectangular and as sterile as an executive boardroom. I was expecting tie-dye, but got power-tie.

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This, I guess, was still Irvine after all. An office high-rise towers above, and lunch customers looked like out-of-town, briefcase-carrying white-collars who might have mistaken the place for a hotel restaurant. And in some of the menu items, the kitchen—headed by Yves Fournier, formerly of 6ix Park Grill—hews closely to the hotel-restaurant formula of “protein, starch and veg.” The chicken panini, for example, is something I’d expect from room service: a dry, double-D poultry breast barely able to contain itself within its grilled ciabatta bread. And the wild salmon—despite being presented over a colorful base of julienned peppers, onions and arugula—fails because of its monochromatic flavor.

Andrei’s braised beef, flanked by a rapidly congealing reduced-wine-sauce puddle, falls away into pot roast-like mouthfuls. But the mashed potatoes need to be creamier.

Though I can’t confirm the beef was organic, the cheeseburger tastes handmade and sported a brioche bun so gorgeously shiny, it could’ve been buffed with wax. The side of homemade fries, deposited into a parchment-paper cone, makes the $10 price tag the best deal of the house. It’s refreshingly non-uniform and organic, but in a different sense of the word. Each fry is cut to be as thick as a finger and fried so that some are overly crunchy, while others bite softly like potato-bread sticks. They’re even better when you ask the kitchen to toss them in truffle salt. Just a few grains of the wonder crystals bloom into mushroom-y funkiness in your mouth.

The two best items happen when the kitchen takes a chance. If you’ve seen clams bigger and plumper than in their Manila clams appetizer, you were gazing at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. And the saffron-coconut broth it swam in out-Thais Irvine’s few Thai restaurants. Best yet, there are crispy pieces of bacon in it.

Come to think of it, the second-best dish also has bacon—pancetta, to be exact. Mahogany slivers of it are rendered crunchy, then perched atop a seared halibut steak, which sits upon a silken mound of garlicky hummus. The vegetable component comes as bitter baby fennel and fava beans. The dish had enough Greek flavors to please Homer—and enough bacon to satisfy Homer Simpson.

If I haven’t mentioned much about the “conscious cuisine” thing, it’s because aside from the name and that web page, the restaurant doesn’t overproselytize once they’ve already got you sitting there. Besides, you don’t need to be told. You did already see Food, Inc., right?

Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails, 2607 Main St., Irvine, (949) 719-7218; Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Dinner entrées, $10-$29. Full bar.

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