Main Course: Ini Ristorante

Fierce desserts and winning fusions delight in Fountain Valley.
Clockwise from left: duck ragu pappardelle, truffle cheese bread, melon and prosciutto salad, and the Gem-Ini cocktail, with bourbon, scotch, egg white, and more. Photographs by Emily J. Davis

You’re saying it wrong,” says the friend I invite to join me for a test drive of busy, buzzy Ini Ristorante in Fountain Valley. “It rhymes with deny, not teeny.” Like me, you’ll learn why later.

Booked solid since opening in June, Ini weaves Japanese flavors and ingredients into classic Italian fare. This atypical mashup was successfully attempted more than 15 years ago in Cypress by the enduring Cafe Hiro. But here the menu is shorter, the setting is hipper, and legit cocktails are expertly mixed with the good stuff. Ini is the latest production from Kei (pronounced key) Concepts, the burgeoning restaurant group conquering Fountain Valley with several distinct, thriving ventures that include Nep Café, Gem Dining, and Kin Izakaya. Helmed by founder and chef Viet Nguyen and partner Neo Du, the group serves it all, from strawberry matcha lattes to Prime tomahawk steaks, brunch to dinner, comfort food to deluxe fusion. Ini joins siblings Vox Kitchen and Kin Izakaya in the sprawling Fountain Valley Town Center. 

Dishes are predominantly Italian with Japanese flourishes that delight, not baffle. Think branzino with yuzu beurre blanc or a giant ribeye with wasabi peppercorn sauce over orzo. Nothing outlandish: In some cases, such as the calamari fritti, the dishes are 100 percent Italian. And the cocktails, they’re 100 percent excellent. Consider one to sip while you absorb the menu’s novelty, especially on your first visit. Nine signature drinks have your cravings covered, though the bar is well stocked for anything simpler. Kyoto Fashioned stars roasted tea-infused whiskey for an assertive Old-Fashioned over block ice. Vibrant but balanced, the house Negroni’s gin is steeped with figs.

Truffle cheese bread is a worthy, shareable foil for boozy drinks—a mound of toasted bread cubes mortared with fluffy truffle-scented ricotta and a veil of grated mozzarella. Drizzle the cubes with that hot honey served on the side—it boosts simple bread from sleepy to spellbinding. It’s awfully messy to deconstruct. Next time I’ll request chopsticks. Hamachi crudo and beef carpaccio are worthy raw starters, with beef having the slight edge thanks to the novelty of truffle cream and onion ponzu squiggles. 

Chicken curry pizza

Two salads that achieve always-order status are easily shared: melon and prosciutto, and burrata caprese. Sweet, truly ripe watermelon (later, Tuscan melon or persimmon) reveals the kitchen pays attention, precisely adorning the luscious fruit with prosciutto ribbons, yuzu crème fraîche, and crushed hazelnuts. The caprese’s unctuous burrata is flooded with a sluice of halved cherry tomatoes, honeyed yuzu, and fragrant fresh basil.

Of several small plates, fried calamari with too-heavy breading was a letdown, but not so with the mini skillet of soft, piquant meatballs in rich marinara—as good as any from my favorite Italian joints. Of course there’s pizza with a winning crust. Among the fusion options, mildly spicy chicken curry was instantly likable, but the “poke” pizza with octopus, shrimp, corn, and seaweed salad was an odd marriage for this rice lover. Pasta options include a bacon-flecked udon carbonara thick with miso cream and a solo egg yolk for mixing in. House-made pasta elevates two conventional dishes—a lush duck ragu pappardelle and the hefty sausage cavatelli that could use a hit of brightness. Two deluxe entrees are available only at dinner: lamb rack with sweet potato puree and Prime ribeye with stir-fried vegetables and orzo.

Desserts are fierce. Citrus panna cotta is silky-bright. Dark hazelnut cake is soft and gooey in all the right places. Vibrant strawberry sorbet includes juicy macerated berries. Butter cornbread, a tricked-out warm butter cake with popcorn ice cream, gets my vote for top last course. Each bite contrasts with the next, fueling a frenzied race to the end if you share, fair warning. 

Lights in the tree provide a lovely vibe.

Light from expansive windows and skylights fills the restaurant all day, and a looming tree is sparkling statement decor after dark, lit by many fairy lights. Dinner is dependably booked these days, so don’t drop in after 5 p.m. Once tables are full, the room’s noise borders on torturous. Daily lunch is a handy workaround—only the three priciest dinner entrees are missing from the menu. Or reserve for late afternoon, before the kitchen switches to dinner at 5.

I classify Ini as a recipe concept—front-loaded with R&D to perfect recipes that will be precisely executed repeatedly ever after. No nightly specials. No boldface media darlings as chefs. But heavy on reassuring consistency. Add knowledgeable servers and a welcoming, few-frills setting and, voilà, a revenue machine similar to flourishing haunts such as Bandera, Nick’s, and Caló Kitchen. 

And the name Ini? No, not like tortellini. Ini as in Gemini, a nod to older sibling Gem Dining. I still stumble over that one, but Ini isn’t stumbling one bit. It’s one of this year’s strongest debuts. 


16129 Brookhurst St.
Fountain Valley
714-277-4046

5 BEST DISHES

  • Melon and prosciutto salad.
  • Truffle cheese bread
  • Chicken curry pizza
  • Duck ragu pappardelle
  • Butter cornbread dessert

PRICE RANGE

  • Small plates, $8 to $26
  • Large plates, $18 to $125
  • Desserts and cocktails, $7 to $16

FYI

Only cards are accepted for payment.