Published January 2010
After months of delays, hardcore restaurant-watchers were jaded by the time Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails opened last July. The long, clunky name didn’t help. But when the venue in the heart of Irvine’s corporate zone premiered, it certainly looked worth the wait.
Handsome and polished, the sprawling site is an impressive showcase of expensive construction. From the moment the complimentary valet—nice touch—collects your car at the portico, the progression of upscale flourishes begins. A flower-lined path of shale tile leads to the soaring glass front door that opens to a two-story sheet of water flowing over enormous slabs of blue-green marble.
A tall, arching orchid is the sole sentry at the tastefully appointed reception desk. A stairway beckons. At the top, no check-in area is obvious, but on each of my visits a wait staffer greeted us and offered seating options, which are plentiful since the place is never heavily populated.
The vast scale of the room and expanse of striking pecan floors capture the attention. Cushy booths that easily fit six feel extra-large for parties of three or four. Some are anchored by large windows, others set off by hefty panels of carved glass with ocean-wave motifs. A U-shaped bar in the room’s center separates the booths from a lounge area, furnished with plenty of low, plush seating ideal for cocktails with a large group. The lounge’s best feature may be the immense windows that, weather permitting, open to bring the outdoors in. The effect is refreshing in a neighborhood known for sealed interiors.
Executive chef Yves Fournier offers a compact menu that isn’t nearly as vast as the setting. Most recently of 6ix Park Grill at the nearby Hyatt, Fournier applies French technique to dishes that defy easy categorization. France, California, and the Mediterranean are represented in classic or contemporary treatments of seasonal, organic, local ingredients—the “conscious” cuisine in the name. This is explained on the restaurant’s Web site, which also mentions that Andrei is Andrei Olenicoff, the late brother of owner and managing partner Natalia Olenicoff.
As for the “conscious cocktails,” they are seasonal and well concocted. Start here if spirits move you, since by-the-glass wine options are less interesting and not preserved against oxidation. I would happily reorder the spiced pear-infused vodka, cut with pear nectar and swizzled with a cinnamon stick, or the mighty caipirinha with rum, Brazilian cachaça, and fresh lime muddled with cane sugar. At $7, they’re nicely priced, too.
Small plates are appealing, and they get substantial billing. Who can resist oven-hot, Parmesan-crusted mini sandwiches filled with oozing goat cheese and prosciutto? A Mediterranean mezze sampler is a model starter with deftly prepared hummus, tzatziki, babaganouj, and dolmades, just right for sharing. Dungeness crab cakes are respectable, but ordinary and short on lump meat, and a yuzu aioli is nice enough, but the menu gives too much hype to the plate’s frisée, baby tomatoes, and watermelon radish, which seem more like a garnish.
Tender, plump mussels from Carlsbad Farms, steamed with garlic-basil pesto and tomato, are excellent, easily surpassing the phyllo-encased jumbo shrimp that don’t mesh well with a raisin-and-spiced-tomato compote. Skewers of marinated chicken, beef, lamb, or shrimp arrive barely warm—and overcooked on two occasions—making me wonder if Fournier is even in the house. No conscientious chef would allow these dishes to leave the kitchen this way. At least the truffle-salted pommes frites are reliably wonderful. They are sizzling hot and crunchy outside, with a creamy interior. Regulars are on to this dish; I see plenty of the parchment-lined cylinders sprouting golden spuds on each of my visits.
A lunch sampling of dishes that also appear on the dinner menu is perhaps my best meal. Pan-seared Alaskan halibut bundled in pancetta and brushed with pomegranate glaze is succulent and light, with heft added by a smear of hummus, fresh fava beans, baby fennel, and minted yogurt. On paper, there are too many flavors, but it succeeds on the plate. The entrée-size chopped salad also sounds busy, but the careful proportions of young greens, dates, avocado, Persian cucumber, tomatoes, Laura Chenel goat cheese, and candied walnuts tossed with sherry vinaigrette work well with a topping of roasted chicken and cornmeal croutons. It’s big enough to split, but too enjoyable to share. A glossy brioche bun is fine support for the half-pound burger with white cheddar, herb aioli, and those evil-good fries.
Returning for Saturday dinner soon after, the room is eerily cavernous without the business lunch crowd. Perhaps the happy-hour crowd has come and gone? As we make selections, our young-and-chipper waitress is flummoxed by the wines we’ve brought. She asks if we want both opened (yes) and which to open first (both) and what to pour first (white) and should she bring another set of stemware (not necessary). Her pours are so liberal, we offer to pour our own from then on. We learn the kitchen is “out of” two items after we order, one more sign our server is not practiced at this level of dining.
That night, the “all natural” rib-eye steak outshines the other entrées. It’s large, cooked to specification, and an able foil to a sun-dried tomato coulis, and spiced goat-cheese cream sauce. Short ribs should have more texture and I wonder if they’re over-braised. The ho-hum port reduction and crushed potatoes don’t add much. In lieu of dessert, we opt for the five-cheese tasting plate. The cheeses could use greater variation and a more learned introduction from our server.
Desserts are a mixed showing. The pear-cranberry crumble is luscious and not too sweet, but the crust is rock hard. Chocolate partisans enjoy the now gone chocolate-caramel tart, but I find it cloying and rely on the melting goat-cheese ice cream to cut the richness. Next time I’m going straight for the ice cream tasting since the ones I’ve tried—cinnamon, vanilla bean, peanut butter, and pear sorbet—are tremendous. They are dense, with clear, fresh flavor and a silky texture, and come from Patricia Samson’s Delicieuse Artisanale French Ice Cream in Redondo Beach.
Consciously or not, Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails is an enigma. It’s lavishly constructed to honor a loved one we don’t know, never will, and aren’t sure why dining is a tribute to him. There’s a skilled chef directing a capable but inconsistent kitchen. And on the floor, there’s no single person who connects diners with the energy that drives the enterprise. Like the windblown dandelion in the restaurant’s logo, the experience ultimately is scattered.
Mediterranean plate, ham-and-cheese bites, pommes frites, chopped salad, hamburger, ice creams.
Lunch, $7 to $23; dinner, $7 to $29. Corkage is $15, no bottle limit.
Mega booths on the south wall, low-lounge seating on the north wall.
Happy hour all day Monday, and small plates are 25 percent off; seasonal cocktails are $5; martinis, $6; wine flights, $6; and draft beer, $4. Happy hour is 3 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
Big games are bigger on the massive 80-inch screen on the back wall.
Look for the winter menu this month, and banquet space for 250 in February.
2607 Main St.
Photographs by Jessica Boone
Published January 2010