Continental Drift

Photo by Jack GouldIt's not all neutrinos and stem cells at UC Irvine. "So, have you been to Britta's yet?" asks a molecular biologist who's discovering how to reverse the crippling effects of multiple sclerosis in test mice when he's not trying out new restaurants.

It's a question I've been hearing often about the latest addition to the University Center plaza across the street from the campus.

"Sure, I used to go to the place when it was on the peninsula," I say. "What do you think?"

And on it goes. Aside from the usual campus gossip, faculty and staff at old 'Eater U love to talk about restaurants, and Britta's is the latest buzz—a buzz that has been a long time in coming because, frankly, the University Center's restaurant lineup had become as stale as year-old crackers.

A few of the old places there, like Steelhead Brewery and the Asia Noodle Café, are certainly good enough, but the center's dining scene needed new blood more than Keith Richards after the Sticky Fingers tour.

So now there's Britta's, a quaint, European-style café where servers offer you individual pieces of bread (baguette or pumpernickel?) and a savory rustic tart isn't some old queen sashaying through a gay Parisian bistro but an appetizer you'll completely enjoy. It's a great addition to the center, mostly because it's so civilized, so quaint and so very anti-Irvine, which, if you spend a good part of your day in that fine community, is most appreciated.

The Britta in question is Britta Pulliam, who for 14 years ran her charming little café a short walk from the Balboa Pavilion. It wasn't knock-down-the-doors popular, but if you appreciated a traditional omelet for breakfast or a warm bowl of beef stew on a chilly winter's eve, you knew Britta's.

But Britta closed down her little place in July and reappeared during the Labor Day weekend in the old Trocadero spot adjacent to the Trader Joe's. And the place couldn't be more popular. Usually, it's no problem finding a table in a University Center restaurant, but Britta's is pretty much filled all the time.

And for good reason. In the best continental tradition, Britta and her cooks prepare food in a way that brings out the best in each ingredient. Nothing is flashy or driven by overwhelming ingredients. You get the feeling after eating an entrée at Britta's that there's no other way it should be prepared.

Britta's features seasonal menus, so all we've had to sample thus far is the autumnal one. As new restaurants are wont to do, Britta's has kept its dinner menu small—no more than 10 appetizers and entrées, with a few salads tossed in.

This menu is a delight, with dishes featuring strong, individual flavors that will leave you savoring each bite. Among the starting dishes, the only real choice if you're feeling trés European is the daily cheese selection, the staple of the French countryside diet (non-liquid variety). Quality French cheeses are the ultimate indulgence, and Britta's features at least three each night (they differ depending on availability), each filled with taste-bud-popping delight. It's $12 for a few little chunks of cheese and fruit, but this isn't the Cheddar you buy at Albertson's.

The entrées similarly feature the best ingredients. The chicken pasta swims in a Bill Gates-level rich garlic-cream sauce with wild mushrooms and sharp Swiss chard—you'll find nothing like this at the Olive Garden. A rainbow trout is filled with forest mushrooms, and a steak filet is covered with a rich Gorgonzola and spicy cracked peppers. Cheese lovers will freak out over the calzone packed with goat cheese, buffalo mozzarella, proscuitto and tomatoes.

But Britta's does German food best. The Oktoberfest dinner at the old place—prepared by Britta, her mother and her grandmother—were legendary, and the best of that appears in the pork tenderloin dinner. Slices of tender pork are covered in a tangy blackberry-port wine-rosemary infusion sauce and laid over a spot of cabbage and a delicious bed of spaetzle, which, if there were justice in this world, would replace mashed potatoes as a starchy side dish. This meal is the most un-Irvine food you can eat—indulge.

So the molecular biologist ultimately gives Britta's a thumb's up, but opines, "It's too expensive." True, entrées range from $13.50 to $32 for the Gorgonzola filet (my dear pork tenderloin is $23), and the wines under $30 aren't too intriguing. But as I wrote recently of Jimmy Z Grill, which is just a few blocks down the street from the University Center, Irvine could use a few more good restaurants. Actually, a lot more.

Britta's Café, located in the University Center at 4237 Campus Dr., Irvine, is open daily, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. (949) 509-1211. Full bar. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. All major credit cards are accepted.


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