'Tis the season to reinvent yourself, at least, if you're a restaurant. With more changes in the last two months than we can keep up with, dining at Irvine Spectrum sees yet another update as P.F. Chang's relaunches in the nick of time for holiday crowds and business lunches.
A designated testing playground, this particular site will evaluate new techniques from not only the kitchen, but bar and design aspects as well, with the intention of eventually rolling out successful concepts in their 200+ locations. We sampled a few sips and tastes over dinner.
Reminiscent of something we'd order in an izakaya, the shrimp and bacon okonomiyaki is a crunchy plate of sweet and savory. A play on a traditional Japanese pancake, it loosely translates to "cook what you like". What we thought was a batter-fried dish was in fact the result of mixed cabbage and herbs cocooning our seafood/pork marriage. Finished with Japanese mayo, tonkatsu sauce, and shichimi togarashi seasoning, it keeps your taste buds busy.
Dubbed their Kashmir wok-seared lamb, this blend of carrots, red onion and Baltic masala spice by itself maintained a rich flavor. However, the accompanying scallion cakes and chunky raita dressing muddled the flavors with their blandness. Swapping out the starch with a stack of lettuce cups, and using a side of chili mayo (used in their bang bang chicken flatbread -- a dish suffering from similar symptoms) provides this starter a better base to feature the lamb.
The Thai noodle chicken salad was grandiose in presentation, yet surprisingly mild in execution, with a spicy peanut dressing that wasn't so; in fact, it was rather sweet. Our neighbors in the next booth found out it was missing lime wedges. Their quick fix: a few shakes of the almost transparent bottle of vinegar at every table. That splash of acid cut through the single note of flavor and gave it more dimension.
Our fifth course of Sichuan grilled steak frites left us clueless: meat and potatoes at P.F. Chang's? It was the polar opposite of our plate of black pepper prawns, which we sampled minutes before. While the wok-seared shellfish glaze was very peppery, our spice rubbed beef somehow lacked the same intensity. Crisp shoestring fries, flavored with sesame, were more confusing than appealing. We weren't going to discuss the surprise moon cake dessert with jackfruit, but we will mention that we stuck our spoon in it, and the spoon didn't budge. Our tablemate used her spoon in conjunction to literally pull apart bites of dessert for us to sample.
Ultimately, these are experimental plates created for consumers to decide their fate. There are opportunities for improvement in a few of them, but we cannot deny the restaurant's overall attention to detail, especially in their aesthetics and bar selection. Featuring a hard-to-find Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer, and a Cru by Vineyard 29 Cabernet with great legs, it's a vast wine list capable of many memorable flights. The spacious enclosed patio is almost voyeuristic to those strolling past the movie theatre. Inside, a dim twinkle of candlelight casts a warm glow onto guests. We would not hesitate to drop in for drinks, but venturing beyond P.F. standards is something we'll consider on a future visit.
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P.F. Chang's at Irvine Spectrum will reopen at 5 p.m. this evening. They are located at 61 Fortune Dr., (949) 453-1211; www.pfchangs.com.