Sometimes, buzz about a new restaurant spreads organically by word of mouth. Other times, it’s manufactured by savvy PR people. If you’ve heard anything about TusCA at the Hyatt Regency in Garden Grove, it’s likely because of the latter. In a move almost as brilliant as those Old Spice Guy YouTube videos, the PR firm the hotel hired knew exactly where to plant the seed to get the word out.
Around May, they corraled OC’s influential Yelp Elites and food bloggers for a proverbial dog-and-pony show at the hotel’s newly minted Italian restaurant. There was talk of a rooftop herb garden, a newly designed dining area and a fresh-faced new chef who knew her way around that country’s cuisine. This, above all, was a strategic plan to target the grassroots of OC’s dining community so they could tell the world.
The invitation was also extended to me. I politely declined; I decided I would bide my time and observe as the online reviews rolled in.
When they did, most were positive. Though more than a few reviewers wrote about TusCA while on their best behavior during that sponsored field trip, it seemed that people were genuinely excited about the place, regardless of the PR push.
But first some background: TusCA is a chain of restaurants exclusively conceived and managed by the hotel giant. There are others at different Hyatts in California. And as far as hotel restaurants go, the Garden Grove incarnation of it functions and looks a lot more like the defunct Tracht’s at the Renaissance in Long Beach than, say, Studio at the Montage. TusCA doesn’t so much have a dining room as dividers separating it from the hotel’s lobby.
Above the seats, your eyes follow the room windows as they climb up the vertigo-inducing heights of the glass-enclosed atrium. The ground-level dining area, by comparison, underwhelms with the dull, safely muted colors you would expect from a corporate-branded hotel chain. Its soothing blandness seemed perfect for the too-tired-to-go-anywhere-else Disneyland tourist and the tuckered-out conventioneer. A stimulating date-night destination it’s not.
The steak, titled “bistecca” for Italian effect, turned out to be just steak—the kind that cuts like a sirloin served alongside sunny-side-up eggs at late-night diners, neither tender nor particularly flavorful. Overcooked to well-done even though I asked for medium, the beef wasn’t helped by a reduced Chianti sauce curdled into purple clumps and a soggy stack of roasted potatoes.
Its redemption came from an unlikely place. A simple sauté in oil transformed the Tuscan kale from a plate garnish to a bona-fide side dish. It was the first time I wanted more veggies and less meat.
An actual vegetarian option called tortino di verdure went all-out for presentation and playfulness but forgot the crucial detail of palatability. Reminding me of a fashion-reality-show contestant, it had the personality of sawdust. But, man, was it pretty! Thinly sliced zucchini were wrapped around a ball of wild rice, forming a bulb as architecturally beautiful as the Taj Mahal. Under this, a slice of tofu masqueraded as mozzarella. Around that was spooned a sauce from reduced bell peppers called peperonata. Unfortunately, you’d need at least another bowl’s worth of the peppy brew to endure the boredom of the rest of the dish.
The same can be said of the short-rib pappardelle, which was denied greatness by a dearth of sauce. The Scotch Tape-wide belts of pasta suffered of thirst, which could’ve been easily quenched by a ladle of the meat’s braising liquid. I imagine there must be plenty of tasty juices left in the cooking pot that will never fulfill their destiny.
Gnocchi, green as an overenthusiastic St. Patrick’s Day celebrant, was notable because it eschewed potato for torn-up pieces of bread as the main ingredient. But the texture of the dumplings was too soft and ate as mushy as paste.
On the other hand, texture was the winning feature of the pizzas. All of the thin-crusted discs possessed a crust that yielded as easily as Play-Doh while also being as crisp as lavash. The toppings, ranging from olives and artichoke hearts to asparagus and egg, almost didn’t matter—a sign of a good pizza. Along with the Manila clams appetizer, which hid an unexpected chile kick under a delicate white-wine broth, both dishes vindicated the kitchen from its other shortcomings.
But what ultimately left me with a positive impression of the place was our server, Jesus, who for the span of our meal made us forget we were dining in a corporate hotel restaurant. He joked, cajoled and talked to us like friends, not customers. And that’s something no PR firm could engineer.
TusCA at the Hyatt Regency Orange County, 11999 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 740-6047; orangecounty.hyatt.com. Open daily for breakfast, 6:30-11:30 a.m.; lunch, 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Entrées, $11-$24.
This review appeared in print as "Hotel California: Never mind the manufactured buzz. TusCA is a hotel restaurant, albeit a notch above."
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