Joe Manzella doesn't do small. The restaurateur's new TAPS Fish House & Brewery is much like his two other TAPS restaurants: big, boisterous and more akin to Grand Central Station than a steakhouse. But unlike the original TAPS in Brea--which is essentially an oversized sports bar connected to what looks like a juiced-up Olive Garden circa 1990--the Irvine branch boasts a charcuterie counter, an oyster bar and booths that might as well be private cocoons. This is the restaurant you go to when you want to celebrate something significant, disarm potential clients with a bloody steak, or impress a date by blowing an entire paycheck on dinner. And what better way to make that impression than having your Caesar salad, sizzling hamachi appetizer and a "Siberian Mule" cocktail prepared tableside with showmanship, the latter poured amidst a foggy haze from the liquid nitrogen.
And for your main course, you'll want the whole roasted branzino, signature miso-marinated Chilean sea bass or something equally spendy. That sea bass, by the way, is one of the few things this branch has in common with the one in Brea. It's set over the same slightly gummy rice and wilted spinach, the plate garnished with three colors of sweet pepper jam applied in spoonfuls. Other than that dish and a wedge salad that's always a good decision, the menu at Irvine's TAPS seems to have departed from the staples of the original restaurant.
The acre-sized meatloaf wrapped in house-cured pork belly I liked at other locations is nowhere to be found. An appetizer of Manila clams simmered in a broth singing of white wine, garlic, butter and herbs I once enjoyed has been turned into a cazuela that now involves Spanish chorizo, tomatoes, mussels and a Spanish-style rouille. Also absent, but not necessarily missed, is a trio of filet mignon with three different toppings--one of the most expensive meals you can have in Brea at nearly $40. In its place, the Irvine branch now serves a 16-ounce New York strip priced close to $50.
Thankfully, the distinctive attributes that have made TAPS a success in Brea are present and accounted for in Irvine. Service is still top-notch; the crusty domes of warm bread accompanied by a slurry of flavored dipping oil is still free and infinitely replenished. Most important of all, the Irvine branch continues what I think TAPS does better than any other restaurant in OC: a happy hour that lasts from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m. on weekdays and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
For most customers, the happy hour is the whole point of going to TAPS. It's always the busiest time, with the bar area barely visible through all the bodies crowded around it as though steel shavings to a magnet. You have to be lucky or come early to score one of the coveted first-come-first-served booths. By dinnertime, they're usually snagged by whole office departments toasting the end of the workday. If you manage to squeeze yourself in, TAPS' award-winning beer is the first thing you should order. Though this branch doesn't have an on-site brewery, it serves all the beers produced by the Brea and Corona outposts--14 in all, amounting to more choices than the others offer.
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To eat, order off the happy hour menu the tempura shrimp, delicate things paired with oil-shriveled shishito peppers and a kimchi-flavored aioli dipping sauce--one of the best things the kitchen makes. Or slurp four raw oysters with all the trimmings for $8. Get this over the ceviche, which is actually a misclassified Mexican cóctel de mariscos and too cloying once you run out of chips. Or you could opt for a charcuterie sampler that may be more cost-effective than doing it à la carte. For sure you want the well-constructed marinated beet salad with chicories, arugula and citrus-scented goat cheese, marked down $2 from the regular menu. Whatever you do, don't pass up the happy hour price of $9 for the pizzas. The pies possess perfect crusts, are embellished with unusually thoughtful toppings, and reaffirm Manzella is indeed Italian and isn't about to build a restaurant without an oven that can produce pizzas to rival Mario Batali's.
And did I mention TAPS offers a Champagne Sunday Brunch complete with a chocolate fountain? Our server regaled us with wide-eyed tales of how absolutely overwhelming the extravaganza is, motioning with her hands to suggest the mountains of crab legs that are put out. And though I've not yet been, I already believe her: Joe Manzella doesn't do small.
TAPS Fish House & Brewery, 13390 Jamboree Rd., Irvine, (714) 619-0404; www.tapsfishhouse.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $60-$80, food only. Full bar.