By the time I heard that Top Chef contestant Shirley Chung was opening a restaurant in Irvine, my interest in the show had long since waned. Maybe I should've stuck around until its 11th season, in which Chung was a finalist, because when I went to Twenty Eight--the modern Chinese eatery she opened in the space vacated by Kimera--I felt as if I were the only one at a rock concert who didn't know any of the words.
I knew nothing about Chung except from what I'd read. Her bio goes like this: She was 17 when she emigrated from Beijing. She got a business degree, worked in Silicon Valley for a while, and then went to culinary school. She eventually ended up cooking for Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy and Mario Batali. Then came the show and her move to OC to open this place. The only way I even recognized her is because she kept posing for pictures with customers inside her stark-white dining room the night of my first visit. Don't get me wrong: There are great things on the menu, but I realized as soon as I saw her that a missing ingredient was my own starstruck awe.
I ordered the best thing I ate, the Fire Phoenix, because the menu said it was a winning creation from the show. It's basically two pieces of greaseless fried chicken--a skin-on breast with its wing and the whole leg served next to a salad. Both pieces were juicy, cooked as though by stopwatch, the skin rendered to chicharrones. But what made it a Restaurant Wars-level dish was that it arrived with a domed cover that a waiter whisked off with the required dramatic flourish. And when our server did, a cloud of jasmine-tea smoke escaped as though someone took the roof off a Humboldt State dorm room. The smoke imbued everything on the plate, even the salad, with its slightly pungent, slightly sweet imprint--a flavor more essential to the dish than the decorative lines of peppered salt.
For another entrée, Chung swaddled the pristine white flesh of black cod in a banana leaf and steamed it to delicate flakes perfumed with the leaf's faint botanical aroma. For the appetizer Tongue and Cheek, she takes a clever menu pun and turns it into something you have to order--even if you're scared of eating stuff made from an animal's face. The "cheek" is super-thin slices of house-made pork headcheese, a beautiful mosaic of fat, gelatin and meat that melts in the heat of your mouth. But even tenderer is the beef tongue, deli slices of which are arranged in an arc on the other side of the plate. I dragged both through a tart dollop of California red mustard, chasing it with pickled carrots and cauliflower transformed into Sweet Tart candy.
Even though it ticks just less than $20, the Tongue and Cheek was better than the cheaper appetizers. After realizing the Steamed Farmers Dumplings tasted pasty and bland, I asked our server whether it's supposed to come with sauce. She said no but offered to get something from the kitchen to use on the last of our three diminutive pieces.
The fried calamari was, well, just fried calamari, coated in a light rice-flour batter, served with pickled veggies and a shower of fried shallots. And if it weren't for its garlic-chive salsa verde dip, the hamachi egg roll would've been just another egg roll in which too many layers of skin muffle the filling.
There were some dishes I would've been better off ordering at Chinese restaurants whose chefs aren't stars. The hand-cut noodles coated in fermented black beans and minced pork were dense and clumpy. A Chinese broccoli dish with a runny poached egg you're supposed to mix into it wasn't better than the stalks dim sum houses glop with plain oyster sauce.
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But Chung's pasta-like squid-ink noodles were good, with two precious lobes of uni you're supposed to disperse between the tangles. And another dish with winter squash showered with puffed wild rice was elegant dining defined. For dessert, Chung offers a subtle but wildly imaginative dessert of tapioca and persimmon that I still can't shut up about.
It's about then that I realized Chung's restaurant wasn't the place to settle with old standards or bring frugal Chinese parents. You should instead come to be wowed by the not-necessarily Asian dishes and not think about the prices too much. After all, a Top Chef finalist is still feeding you, whether you saw her on the show or not.
Twenty Eight, 19530 Jamboree Rd., Irvine, (949) 852-2828; www.twentyeightoc.com. Open Sun.-Wed., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$75, food only. Full bar.