Ah, youth. The smell of wet cement still lingers inside Kimera, the latest addition to the restaurant family that counts the much-revered Bistango and Bayside as elders.
This new eatery, located in an office complex under the shadow of Google's new Irvine outpost, boasts a striking interior. Cold concrete and steel dominate the sight lines, broken only by an undulating bamboo ceiling. One wall acts as an abstract mural, awash in red paint and textured with protruding geometrical shapes that invite our touch. We resist and settle into our booth, which is surrounded by a steel sculpture. It looks like a forged metal cage and clangs like a Christmas bell when we rap on it with our knuckles. (This one we couldn't resist.)
Buzzing about this modern-art space, the servers are as fresh as the paint—inexperienced, but earnest in their efforts. Ours seems genuinely dumbfounded when we ask for recommendations. She dutifully recovers, but only to stammer out two items that happen to be the most expensive on the menu.
Luckily, her suggestions sound marvelous to us, as does the rest of the menu, which is self-labeled with the restaurant biz's catchphrase of the moment: “global cuisine.”
Under this far-reaching, deliberately vague banner, a chef has free rein to use everything at his disposal: techniques learned from formal training, ingredients found from his travels, even secret recipes stolen from grandma. The product of this gustatory experimentation is usually a delicious meal and an experience more interesting than, say, a night out at your friendly neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
Such is the case with executive chef Chris Grodach—a true food alchemist from Napa Valley institution the French Laundry—who has created a menu that crisscrosses the continents, picking up elements from Asia, Europe and the Americas. He juggles such diverse offerings as prosciutto and kim chee in his appetizers, but thankfully not together (so far).
Instead, he deep-fries the prosciutto to a crispy plank, serving it upright like a sail with marinated artichoke hearts and diver scallops cooked just shy of raw. Then, lest we forget that this is an Italian-inspired dish, he shaves more of some uncooked prosciutto and drizzles on an olive oil emulsion.
For a Thai spin on things, he sprinkles crushed cashews and cilantro as garnish for an appetizer called Sweet Chili Prawns. But the main draw is the coconut foam he dribbles over the fat, swollen meat of the shellfish. The froth flattens quickly, but this design flaw left us with an intensified sauce pool so tangy, sweet and tasty that the shrimp became just a utensil to deliver it to our mouths.
For the main courses, Grodach gets bolder in bringing together what would otherwise be unthinkable combos. Caper berries are fried and act as salty counterpoints to a meaty block of seared ahi. Also on the plate: an Indian-spiced ratatouille and an artful smear of French truffle aoili. Conceptually, there is almost too much going on. But somehow he makes them co-exist peacefully, like a mediator between warring nations.
Salmon gets the Japanese treatment, but with no less complexity. The fish, daikon, grilled napa cabbage, sprouts and a crowning tuft of pickled ginger are stacked in one of those structurally unstable towers made to tumble.
Italian cuisine appears again in his Risotto Carbonara, topped with a sunny-side-up egg. But since every bite contains cubed salty bacon and cheesy Parmesan, the dish suffers from sodium overload. We each downed two full glasses of water before we got to our third spoonful.
Summer corn niblets, pearl onions and roasted peppers are sautéed and heaped together to form the base of the hanger steak—the best entrée of the night. Dusted with smoked paprika and grilled, this cylindrical chunk of meat is so tender it could've been billed as filet mignon. Each bloody forkful can be dunked into a side bowl of rich, soupy manchego fondue, along with a few pieces of bread.
Grodach's cultural mash-up continues with an Asian take on the classically French crème brûlée. Three separate and generous ramekins of custard come infused with flavors of toasted coconut, floral chai tea and almond milk—all topped with a glassy sheet of burnt sugar. A different cookie (a macaroon, gingerbread and an almond biscuit) acts as a marker to identify the contents of each container.
As we polished off dessert, I got a call on my cell phone. It was the restaurant calling to confirm my 6:30 p.m. reservation. Amused, I tell the person on the line we just finished our meal and that I'm looking at him from across the room. He turns around with a smile, waves to me and, without a beat, asks if I enjoyed dinner. “It was great,” I said into my phone, impressed at his suave comeback. With charm like this and food to match, Kimera is well on its way to growing up and making us all proud.
KIMERA, 19530 JAMBOREE RD., IRVINE, (949) 261-1222; WWW.DININGISART.COM . OPEN FOR LUNCH MON.-FRI., 11:30 A.M.-3 P.M; DINNER MON.-THURS., 5:30-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 5:30-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $60-$80, EXCLUDING DRINKS. 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.