From the outside, the new Marriott Irvine Spectrum resembles another one of Irvine’s yawn-inducing office towers. Built with equal portions of glass, steel and concrete, it’s a square-shaped skyscraper that’s neither tall nor architecturally distinctive. The inside, however, is a different story. Marriott invested its $120 million budget in making it, in its own words, “tech-savvy.” But what I keep hearing is that it’s designed to attract millennials, who are forecasted to be the group that will spend the most money on travel in the next couple of years.
So what does it mean when a hotel is designed for millennials? From what I saw, it means that parking is valet-only and not free. It means the lobby cedes its space to a lounge-like sitting area with video screens and an exhibit by FastCompany that worships tech innovation and Silicon Valley. It also means that at the highest floor, there’s a rooftop bar, and at the lowest, a full-fledged Starbucks.
And then there’s the restaurant, which isn’t just called Heirloom Farmhouse Kitchen—something that sounds focus-grouped by the marketing department—but it’s also described as “produce-forward,” a term that seems to be the new way of saying “farm to table.”
Whatever it meant, all I cared to find out was if the place were a destination in and of itself or just a last resort for hotel guests who’d rather not leave the premises. But as soon as I saw it, I realized Heirloom Farmhouse Kitchen wasn’t just another hotel eatery. There were no defined borders; I couldn’t tell where the restaurant began and the hotel ended.
Behind the hostess podium was another lounge area, one as cozy as a hunter’s lodge with at least three plush sectionals. Where the fireplace should’ve been, a cinema-sized video screen made from a series of LCDs bathed everything in light. And to the left, a bar lit on all sides resembled E.T.’s spaceship. The rest of the space sprawled like an amoeba. Since the seats and table types changed from section to section, not one area looked alike. And when I walked in farther, I discovered a separate room for private parties. But rather than being closed off or hidden, it was surrounded by glass.
The menu is a single sheet of paper. On one side were the drinks, including a cocktail called “Master-Planned Perfection,” a subtle jab at Irvine itself that made me chuckle. On the other was a list of dishes that, at first glance, were like those of every other new American restaurant I’ve been to in the past five years. Present were the usual suspects: charred Brussels sprouts, roasted beets, even a mac and cheese. The waiter seemed kind of aloof when I asked him for recommendations.
Then the orders started to arrive. The recommended mac and cheese turned out to not be the usual pasta-breadcrumb-dairy gut bomb, but instead used cauliflower mixed with a Fiscalini Cheddar fondue and bits of bacon and was broiled in a skillet. Everything about this dish worked. The cauliflower not only fully absorbed the flavor of the cheese sauce, but it also tempered its richness. If it was a rebuke of the tired restaurant trope by its chef, Paolo Buffa—an Italian educated in Milan who’s been on the Marriott payroll since 2011—it couldn’t have been better.
It may also be Buffa’s pedigree that explains why the spinach gnocchi was the finest example of potato dumpling I’ve ever tasted. Light but substantial, soft but toothsome, these heavenly, bite-sized orbs were covered in a velvety sauce with foraged mushrooms, braised short ribs and palate-cleansing roasted tomatoes that burst when I bit into them. It was the second solid recommendation by my waiter, who, by this time, I realized was a great host. He refilled my water without me noticing and asked how I was doing with genuine interest.
But the best thing he did that evening was to steer me away from the skirt steak and toward the Kurobuta pork tomahawk, which turned out to be a spectacle even as it remains one of the lower-priced main entrées. The chop, as thick as the September issue of Vogue, came attached to a swooping bone that extended past the boundaries of the plate, easily dwarfing the accompanying roasted fingerlings and carrots. Brined, seasoned, cooked and seared expertly, it was the sweetest, juiciest, most satisfying hunk of pig I’ve had the pleasure of consuming.
As I nibbled what meat remained on the bone as if it were a barbecue rib, the chop had me re-evaluating the whole scene. If this is the kind of place restaurateurs and hoteliers are building to attract millennials, then bring on the rest! Just leave out the mandatory valet, please.
Heirloom Farmhouse Kitchen, 7905 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 759-0200. Open daily, 6:30 a.m.-midnight. Small plates and appetizers, $8-$14; main entrées, $18-$42. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.