OK, so the central dining space of Irvine’s yearling Eats Kitchen & Bar is rather odd. At first glance, it feels like the awkward spawn of Denny’s and a generic gastropub. A high circular bar crowned with glinting flat screens is up front, and beyond that is a ferociously lighted sea of glossy, sparsely populated tables. Continue to the back patio and you enter a different world.
Sunset gives way to twilight, and candles glow on chunky marble dining tables. A fire pit flickers near folks kicking back on cushy, all-weather lounge seating, and the vibe here is chill, even under the heaters. This space crushes the casino-bright indoor setting. It’s still happy hour, and the waiter graciously points out a menu of special drinks and snacks. Craft cocktails for $4? Small bites for $2? In a slickly retooled Hotel Irvine? Get out.
Even better, I’m here to check on chef Jason Montelibano, a solid performer I discovered at Chapter One after he took over from inaugural chef Oge Dalkin. Montelibano is not your typical stove-weary hotel chef. His global-accented California cooking spans three menus a day and includes surprises such as the JFC, a play on Japanese fried chicken made solely with the tender ovals of dark meat prized as rich delicacies. We spend happy hour nibbling them like luxury McNuggets from their paper-lined mini fry basket.
A generous pickle platter of house-cured cauliflower, carrots, radishes, hard-boiled egg, and more is a delicious steal for $2. Another time we order it, it seems one-dimensional, as if all the vegetables are pickled in the same brine. Signature cocktails also prove uneven. The lively GT2 is a big win, with gin, fresh grapefruit segments and juice, tonic, and tarragon. It’s a worthy $10 drink and, at happy hour, a stunning deal for $4. But Pigs & Figs, which sounds inviting to this bourbon fan, is so out of balance that it tastes like drunk bacon, with no hint of black figs or vermouth. Beer lovers get $3 choices that include West Coast brews such as Lost Coast Brewery Tangerine Wheat and Coronado Brewing Co. Golden Pilsner.
Eats Kitchen is a hotel canteen, but the crowd is decidedly local, especially at lunch. Irvine office mates and near- burbanites dominate the sprawling 188-seat main room, bar, and spacious patio. The lunch menu is compact but covers just enough ground for wide appeal, and it’s elevated by a few seasonal dishes that fall in and out as the calendar dictates. A refined tamarind dressing doesn’t quite rescue the Chinese chicken salad from ho-hum. But on a pan-seared steelhead trout salad, the lemony yogurt dressing is but one delicious element that propels it to inventive healthy lunching; roasted tomatoes, pickled shallots, nutty farro, and candied walnuts pitch in to make it memorable. Ditto for the chimichurri steak salad with feta crumbles, ciabatta croutons, and a gutsy vinaigrette of sundried tomatoes with fresh basil.
Marvelous burgers abound these days, and Eats’ house patty makes a tasty case for inclusion in that race. Bacon, pear jam, and white cheddar do the sweet-savory shuffle with custom-ground beef, best ordered medium-rare for juicy texture. I love that Montelibano includes feathery mizuna leaves where others settle for arugula. The burger reappears at dinner, as does the Sweet Spicy Wings appetizer. At his previous gig, Montelibano’s reputation soared on these wings, and he’s wisely brought the beauties along here. His deceptively simple mix of local Backyard Bees honey and intense sambal cook up to habit-forming complexity when slathered on quality poultry. The formula inspired addicted nibblers to nickname him Chef Chicken Wing. Dinner’s menu feels a tad short, with share plates filling in the gaps. Artichoke and pesto flatbread is a great call, and it outshines the sometimes dryish ham-and-cheese version. Alas, the tempting steamed buns with Beeler’s pork belly, fried jalapeno, and house kimchi disappoint with far too much kimchi and too little pork for the springy bao buns. Some standout dishes deserve dinner love.
They read on the menu as winners and—hooray—they are. Wild mushroom-and-pork tacos, with braised pork, pickled onions, and soy drizzle, are tender-chewy umami bombs in soft corn tortillas. Half a beer-brined Mary’s chicken is one of the year’s top chicken dishes, with its tomato raita, wilted mustard greens, and mound of buttered rice. It’s hard to ruin pasture-raised Mary’s chicken, but this comfort-zone dinner shows Montelibano can raise it to super-chicken status. Meaty St. Louis-style pork Brulee BBQ Ribs get their deep-sweet edge from a just-sizzled brown sugar crust. Miso cod melts on the tongue, the Alaskan fish retaining its silky texture against rich yuzu butter sauce, and all those busy flavors steadied by a bed of black rice and leafy, green braised ong choy (Chinese water spinach).
Dessert is not strong, but that’s a minor loss. Who has room after all those snacks? On every visit, I ended up with leftovers. Over-ordering is a significant risk at Eats, especially when you start with the happy hour steals, but most mortals can’t deny the allure. If you need a sweet ending, I suggest the spiced apple mini tacos if they’re offered.
The kitchen is trying to find itself, but it’s clearly set on being a casual and distinctive neighborhood venue, not simply a business hotel restaurant. Stick to the patio seating, give happy hour a try, and you’re likely to add Eats to your list of unexpected finds.
17900 Jamboree Road, Irvine