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Rediscovery: Kimera Restaurant Lounge
When stylish Kimera sashayed into Irvine’s airport dining scene in 2007, the Google Building player wasn’t shy about turning heads. Cutting-edge décor, global fusion fare, and a trendy lounge zeroed right in on the iPhone set. After all, Kimera was the next generation from the team that gave us Bistango and Bayside—both known for bold, dazzling settings and confident cuisine.
The site is near-hidden and the layout confusing, but intrepid diners and local office denizens were rewarded with inaugural chef Chris Grodach’s creative cooking, and trendy elements such as a cigar-friendly outdoor lounge with a swell sound system. Grodach’s departure in mid-2008 coincided with a dizzying cascade of changes: promotional menus, happy hours sponsored by booze brands, and new chef Jon Blackford’s switch from global fusion to modern American comfort chow. A cozy counter in the dining room offered nightly wine flights.
Now Blackford is long gone, ostensibly replaced by executive chef Paul Gstrein, who holds the same post at Bayside. The striking space hums modestly at lunch, but is fairly empty during dinner visits. And I’ve yet to see anyone at that wine counter. Some nights the lounge buzzes with happy hour revelers, other nights are placid. Also gone is any presence of management; bartenders and servers are the sole points of human contact.
Our waiter disappears to fetch our drinks, and we wait in plush comfort. We’re one of two parties in the room, and the only one seated in one of its inviting circular booths. I never tire of their cushy glove leather and conversation-friendly design, and wonder why a small group would choose the more ordinary tables.
One evening two of us arrive eager to explore the wine nook’s touted offerings, but it’s dark and deserted, so we miss out. The waiter explains it’s not usually open without prior arrangement. During Blackford’s tenure, we sampled some spicy hush puppies, exemplary sliders, and a memorable panzanella salad—all off the menu now, but worthy of a comeback.
Tasty Blackford dishes that remain are a mash-up of small plates and pizzas. Bruschetta with roasted beets and knobs of goat cheese is plenty hearty thanks to savory assistance from rich prosciutto and crunchy pistachios. Pizzas with yeasty, oblong crusts are a reliable lot, too—both the mushroom-spinach-artichoke version, and the pesto with red pepper and goat cheese are solid assemblies and ideal as shareable starters.
Since all dinner dishes are small plates, expect to order accordingly. Two of the best spotlight braised beef short ribs: a terrific sloppy Joe slider with sage and fried shallots, and a more traditional take served with rich polenta, mushrooms, and wilted spinach. Tiger prawns and asparagus on linguini get welcome lift from a savory Parmesan cream sauce. A minifillet with mashed potatoes leans on its onion confit for complexity, but it’s not overcooked—a real feat with a 4-ounce steak.
Charcuterie is hit or miss. One night, two of our five cured meat choices are out of stock. Servers should disclose this up front. They’ve since reduced the sampler to three of four choices. Cheeses are a paltry trio of near-generic players, alas, served too cold.
Instead, make dessert an order of freshly fried, light-as-air doughnuts dusted in cinnamon sugar—a Blackford holdover. Those tender clouds rank far above the baked hot chocolate, which is a monotonous cake batter baked in a coffee cup and sorely in need of contrast or garnishing.
The sprawling space can feel understaffed when the dining room is slow. When servers are around, they’re eager and obliging, but diners are mostly left adrift. Twice one night, one of us leaves our booth to roam for assistance.
There is value and good cooking to be sussed out here. But Kimera is a moving target and continually subject to change as it defines its niche and audience. If it hopes to find new diners in this competitive marketplace, it needs to find itself soon.
Mushroom pizza, roasted beet bruschetta, beef short rib sloppy Joe slider, short rib with polenta, fresh cinnamon-sugar doughnuts.
Lunch, $7 to $21; dinner, $5 to $24.
Dining-room booths; patio seats by the fire pit for late-night drinks or cigars.
Free valet parking; garage is free with validation.
Discounts on selected cocktails, beer, and wine are offered when the lounge is open.
19530 Jamboree Road
Photograph by Jason Cizmas
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.