With all due respect to the Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's, the past few years have seen a renaissance for Irvine Spectrum's food scene. Don Bren's most accessible and populist retail shopping center hasn't experienced such a noticeable uptick in quality and unique restaurants, since, well, ever. The outdoor mall even decided to jettison its food court; there was simply no room for Sbarro's or McDonald's in a vast and varied landscape that now includes, among others, Cucina Enoteca, Tender Greens and Capital.
Things are continuing to evolve as we speak. Within the past few months, Pieology opened to mobs who routinely choke one of the Spectrum's entrances. In the near future, Umami Burger will add its fourth OC outlet here. And then there's Taverna Blu, the Orange County outlet of a San Diego-based Greek restaurant that represents a lot of what now represents dining at the Spectrum—eateries that are doing serious, uncompromising food in a center that previously played to the lowest common denominator.
With windows as its fourth wall, Taverna Blu resembles a diorama, with all the seats and polished-wood tables visible from the outside and vice versa. Just as Peruvian restaurants are required to have pictorial nods to Macchu Picchu, Taverna Blu's most prominent feature is the giant photo of Santorini, the seaside town that all Greek eateries must pay homage to. This Santorini-scape is in the form of a mural that has the city's MC Escher-esque buildings seen as though through a kaleidoscope.
Taverna Blu, 81 Fortune Dr., Ste. 155, Irvine, (949) 450-1100; www.tavernablu.co, Open Mon.-Wed., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
If there's any dish you must order at Greek restaurants such as this, it's the saganaki. Despite being served in a Teflon pan scratched up by too many metal spoons, the square of fried cheese still comes with the requisite theatrics of a tableside flambé and shouts of "Opa!" by the servers doing the igniting. The restaurant offers two kinds: Both have the outer surface of the firm cheese seared to a savory brown crust, but opt for the honey-glazed saganaki over the original. This way, you'll have something to mop with the extra pita bread when the last morsel of cheese is as gone as the Greek economy.
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It's best to spend most of your money and appetite on Taverna Blu's other small plates. There's a bowl of Greek meatballs, four orbs that yield two mouthfuls each, smothered in a bold, chunky tomato sauce tart enough to pierce through the densely packed fists of ground beef. For the Green Eggs and Gyros, a perfectly cooked, sunny-side-up egg wears a halo of pesto sauce and drapes the shaved petals of the spit-roasted gyro meat, the whole thing riding a slice of crostini you're supposed to cut up yourself if you intend to share it. The kitchen won't disturb the perfect state of the yolk by doing it for you, but it does slice the short rib crostini into quarters, the perfect size in which to eat them since the meat can get a little salty in larger amounts.
Another small plate offered is fried calamari—not in the usual rings, but in meaty strips that resemble the Gorton's Fish Sticks you fed your kids last week. They will be weirdly squishy and spongy to the bite. If you can't decide whether that's a good thing, maybe ask for the tiger shrimp sauté instead—it's excellent, with the lemon-and-butter-slicked shellfish cooked to just wiggly and surrounded by a small dome of remarkably flavorful rice.
So far, I've not had much luck with the full-sized entrées. The short rib ragout was bland and almost watered-down, tangled with overcooked-to-bloated fettucine. A lamb shank plate was fine, but kind of boring; a stuffed eggplant dish was so messily presented I didn't know what it was supposed to be at first. I would also avoid the sampler platters, especially the vegetarian one. It's a lot of food to be sure, but the fries are limp and soggy, and the falafels were lukewarm and denser than Japanese korokke. The rest of the platter features decent spanakopita turned to egg rolls, tangy dolmas and an array of tiny plastic thimbles filled with a few tablespoons of appetizer dips. Some of the dips, such as the hummus and the tarama, a wondrously savory Pepto-pink paste made from caviar, are better ordered separately and deserving of all the attention you'll pay to them.
Then again, there's this layered dessert called Heaven, with amaretto-flavored mascarpone, that marks the first time a restaurant has used that word to describe a dish without actually overselling it. Opa!