Z Marks the Spot

Photo by Jeanne RiceFor a city that likes to think it's the best place to live—not merely in Orange County but perhaps in all of the United States of America—Irvine is woefully deficient in quality restaurants. It is an unbroken chain of chains: IHOP, Islands, Mimi's, Coco's, Denny's, a culinary scene as bland as the architecture. And when you remove the airport business area from the equation (the center of expense-account dining), I can think of just two top-level, distinctive places to eat—Vessia, an Italian house in the Crossroads center, and Sam Woo, a Chinese seafood emporium in the Culver Plaza.

I can now count three. Late last year, Jimmy Z Grill opened in the Campus Plaza, a small shopping center across the street from UC Irvine's graduate-student housing. (It's not enough to know Irvine by its "villages"; real Irviners mark their town by its retail centers.) The plaza is a real residential spot suited to the daily needs of life—supermarket, bank, Starbucks. But it's also where James Parvin—the eponymous Jimmy—set up shop.

Jimmy Z belongs in the tiny pantheon of great Irvine restaurants. It serves a jazzy combination of contemporary California and Persian cuisine in a stylish atmosphere that makes you wish you hadn't worn a T-shirt the first time you dined there (like you do in other Irvine restaurants). Something dressy is more appropriate, especially on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, when live music plays and the place gets oh so sultry.

Those familiar with Parvin's previous efforts—he owned Forty Carrots and the Garden Bistro in South Coast Plaza—will appreciate how much he has expanded his culinary repertoire. His two old places harbored what's called "heart healthy" cuisine—lots of entrée salads and other dishes lower in calories and fat. To Parvin's credit, his food was creative and tasty, and I enjoyed it, not caring whether it was healthy.

But at Jimmy Z—where he's not only the owner but the chef, too!—Parvin serves grilled lamb chops with sautéed spinach and four types of steak (a charbroiled New York strip, a charbroiled skirt steak, filet medallions and a bombastic five-pepper steak doused with garlic, brandy and a whole bunch of spices). Heart healthy, indeed.

There's also a seafood section highlighted by a delicious pan-fried trout. Once the scourge of Idaho camping trips, trout is making a comeback in your finer restaurants thanks to some inventive preparation; call it the catfish of the new decade. Parvin's trout comes with a hazelnut-and-lime sauce and is covered with almond slices. (For some reason, trout and nuts really blend well.) It's perfect light fare, tasty and not filling. I recommend it for lunch.

But for dinner, I go for the broiled filet of salmon—about as distinctive as salmon can get. Parvin wraps a thick slab of the fish in grape leaves and broils it to produce a tender filet with that slightly acidic grape-leaf flavor. Competing with that taste is a side of steamed spinach covered with a lip-pursingly sweet raisin sauce with the texture of chutney. And all of it sits atop a bed of fluffy saffron basmati rice.

That rice: it's evidence that Parvin has not abandoned his beloved Persian cuisine. Among his entrées are three chicken dishes prepared in its centuries-old style: a standard kebab, chicken fesenjoon featuring a walnut-pomegranate sauce, and a dish called zereshk polo and chicken.

If you really want to try something different, order this last dish. Broiled strips of chicken breast are placed atop a bed of the saffron rice and topped with a sauté of barberries and currants in brandy. The barberries are deliciously sweet and add a nice, complex flavor to match those of the grilled chicken and the rice. It's filling, so resist the urge to wolf it down and save room for the house special dessert—apple strudel à la mode. You'll be yodeling in no time.

If you're a semi-broke UCI student, Jimmy Z Grill's $15-$20 entrée prices might prove a bit steep—the $8 to $9 sandwiches and pastas might be more your speed. But, hey, all you folks up the road in Turtle Rock: you've got money, so quit spending it on crap. Share the wealth in your neighborhood. Jimmy Z deserves it.

Jimmy Z Grill, located at 4517 Campus Dr., Irvine, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. (949) 737-6700. Full bar. Dinner for two, $35-$50, food only. All major credit cards accepted.


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