Porch & Swing is likely Irvine’s first restaurant to debut during the disquieting days of the first lockdown in March—wretched timing for a launch. Executive chef Justin Werner and partner Andrew Parish had to make do with improvised takeout specials—and sell them to customers who were months away from experiencing the “taste of Charleston” the founders envisioned.
Now that Porch & Swing is open for patio dining, it’s finding its people. Eager diners finally bask in the purple twilight, sipping fine drinks on the concourse of this still-sleepy office tower. The sprawling patio attains maximum loveliness now that construction barricades are down, and open sightlines reveal a burbling fountain.
Parish’s discerning cocktails are a crucial force here, leaning hard into bourbon and whiskey libations like good Southerners do. Do try the Whilsner, a sophisticated sipper with whiskey, amaro, and beer poured over a large sexy ice cube. Crushed ice and a frosty silver cup aside, the Mint Julep lacked gumption, but oh that Old Pal, a right and proper take on the bold boozy classic. Draft beers outnumber wines. I long for the day I can linger at that open-air, 21-stool bar.
A choice of three house-made breads opens the compact menu, suggesting good things await those inclined toward carbs. Iron skillet cornbread drizzled with spiked honey butter is hyper-rich, soft, and so sweet-salty it could be dessert. One bite and you’ll forget the dry, crumbly squares too often served with Southern barbecue fare. Werner fusses 36 hours over his sourdough before each hefty, craggy dome is baked golden and served with silky pale butter cultured in-house. Sold by the half-loaf, it deserves its prime menu billing. Spread the butter on a piece and taste why cream from spoiled cows makes all the difference. There are biscuits too, though ours had burnt bottoms from overbaking and couldn’t complement the yuzu peach jam.
Gorgeous salads reveal imagination and attention to season, sourcing, and balance. Ride or Die Salad looks to be a signature starter. It’s one of a kind and easily shared. Bouncy fresh greens, crisp apple, and pickled cranberry tussle with crunchy quinoa and toasty hazelnuts. Sourcing really shines with heirloom tomatoes grown by celeb grower Girl & Dug in San Marcos. Find them in a salad dressed with white barbecue sauce, pickled jalepenos, and freshly fried cornbread croutons. Apple sangria vinaigrette glosses pickled watermelon rind and jewel-color baby beets for a bold take on beet salad.
I love that Werner doesn’t repeat ingredients. No profit-boosting cross-utilization happening here, folks. Dishes stand on their own, free from scrimping or shortcuts. This approach echoes the way of Playground, his last O.C. gig. Before that, he worked in boldface NYC kitchens such as Tom Colicchio’s Craft, Thomas Keller’s Per Se, and even Michelin darling Noma in Copenhagen. Here, he applies rigorous technique to mostly classic regional fare chosen for its “America-ness,” as he puts it. No wonder his first gamble on takeout in April was a righteous fried chicken sandwich.
That sandwich isn’t on the dinner menu. Sometimes there is fried chicken, though not always. The menu changes daily, rotating several alluring protein mains and super seasonal vegetables. Hyper-tender Sakura pork jowl is moan-inducing—its prized marbling amped in confit before deft roasting. It comes with perfect grits sassed by pepper jelly. Imperial Farms Wagyu flank steak gets the straightforward treatment necessary to highlight its naturally deep flavors. Also on the plate, an inspired hash of sunchoke and dates.
Seafood options are few but select. Preserved lemon supplies just the right number of flamboyant notes to set off sweet tubby scallops. I hear chatter of local bass over fresh spinach pasta that I hope appears on my next visit.
Hand-crimped beef tortellini is a rare detour from the Carolinas, perfectly cooked and so satisfying under a gremolata of chard, roasted mushrooms, and aged Parmesan. Creamless creamed corn is a terrific crowd pleaser (substituting cleverness for cream) but will disappear once the season is over. Delectable potato gratin is a year-round winner by virtue of potato availability but also its deceptively labor-intensive recipe few should attempt at home. Don’t bother, it will always be better here.
Desserts are in-house productions; expect a fleeting selection. Perhaps a bread pudding or chocolate budino. An Instagram post starring just-fried beignets is dangerously distracting.
What a relief to see Porch & Swing attract its full, permissible ration of customers. Diners are beyond ready for a promising newcomer. We all deserve a win in this arena. Consider this an optimum choice for a taste of better days.
Porch & Swing
2010 Main St., Irvine,
5 BEST DISHES
Skillet cornbread with honey butter
Creamless creamed corn
Roasted pork jowl
Imperial Farms wagyu flank steak
Starters and sides, $10 to $16; entrees, $16 to $36; cocktails, $13 to $15
FYI The affable chef often displays his comedic flair in chats with guests.