Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Irenia - 07/13/2016

400 N Broadway
Santa Ana, CA 92701
(657) 245-3466

I've always wondered why there aren't more standout Filipino restaurants in Southern California. Every time I posed this question to a Filipino friend I got a variation on the same theme: nothing beats mom's home cooking. Unfortunately having never had the opportunity to taste home cooked Filipino food my understanding of the cuisine is restricted to casual restaurant fare (which I find overly heavy) or Jollybee (which is naturally delicious because its fried chicken). When I heard Irenia was offering contemporary Filipino influenced cuisine I jumped at the chance to try it.

DILIS - Fried anchovies, sukang sili, herbs
This reminded me of the anchovy and almond sliver snack that I used to love as a kid. The anchovies are fried to a nice crisp and deliver a fish oil laced saltiness while the spiced vinegar adds a sharp tangy bite.

SINIGANG - Tamarind dashi, braised daikon, sitaw
Sinigang refers to a variety of sour and savory soups and stews and Irenia's preparation has both of those in spades despite being a thin elegant dashi-based broth.

MANI - Peanuts roasted shell on, muscavado vinegar, Philippine sea salt, harissa
Though I enjoyed the smoky sour seasoning on the shell, the mechanics of orally breaking the shell and extracting the peanuts was a bit tedious. The actual nuts were relatively bland with a disconcerting texture reminiscent of boiling rather than roasting.

THE SUPPER CLUB - lambanog, jasmine, calamansi, ginger beer
24 KARAT MULE - barbados rum, lime, carrot, 5 spice bitters, ginger beer
BOTTLE ROCKET - mezcal, mango, ancho, tamarind, bergamot
The first round of cocktails was a pleasant surprise with each being stronger than the last. The Supper Club was a delicate effervescent libation with plenty of citrus and spice. Despite its unconventional mixture, the Baguio Old Fashioned had plenty of boozy citrus and cherry similar to the original. The 24 Karat had underlying bite of ginger and citrus of a classic Mule overlayed with an subtle hint of exotic spice. The Bottle Rocket was the most elaborate cocktail with a tropical mango attack, boozy petrol mid-palate and spicy herbaceous finish.

CHARRED LITTLE GEM SALAD - Charred little gem salad, milkfish tonnato, cherry tomato, anchovy crumble
This was a thoroughly enjoyable salad. The crisp greens have a touch of smoky heft augmented by the savory twang of the tonnato and anchovies while the tomatoes add a burst of contrasting sweetness.

GINATAAN CORN - Roasted sweet corn, corn ginataan, Hope Ranch mussels, lime, chili oil
I thought the coconut milk was going to be overbearing when coupled with the corn but the citrus and heat were equally forceful making for a very well balanced dish.

KULIPLOR - Roasted cauliflower, bagoong "moleXO", mango, toasted sunflower seeds
This was my favorite of the vegetable courses. Dense stalks of delicately roasted cauliflower were imbued with an unexpectedly bold savor thanks to the bagoong (fish sauce) while the mango added a deft sweet-sour lift to the vegetables.

PANCIT - Santa Barbara ridegeback prawns & prawn head sauce, canton noodles, blue lake beans, heirloom carrots, dried shrimp powder
This was probably the most disappointing course of the night. The prawns were overcooked while the thick buttery noodles coupled with the sauce tasted eerily like Fritos.

SAN MIGUEL SLING - ginebra, pineapple, cherry heering, calamansi, angostura bitters
PETITE COLADA - corn whiskey, madeira, toasted cocnut, pineapple, pandan, nutmeg
HURRICANE FIGHTER PLANE - bourbon, jamaican rum, lime passionfruit, maraschino, charcoal 151
NEGRONI TROPIKAL - pineapple rum, campari, hibiscus, falernum bitters
This round of cocktails was much more challenging thanks to an array of bolder flavors that either ran too bitter or too sweet. The sling was probably the best of the bunch with vivid tropical fruit upfront and a dry citrus-y finish. The Colada was pretty classic that is to say thick sweet and full of coconut with a woody booziness on the finish.

ADOBO Slow roasted pork belly w/ adobo jus, ginasang mung beans, braised mustard, spring onion
No Filipino meal would be complete without a rendition of that country's unofficial national dish. Irenia's preparation comes off a little more Chinese than most preparations with a sweet chashu-like flavor overlaid with char. The mung beans were in keeping with that theme though I much preferred this savory rendition to the sweeter preparations seen in Chinese food. The braised greens and onion provide differing contrasting flavors that temper the fatty pork Adobo.

CHICKEN INASAL - Pan roasted Jidori chicken thighs, "Chicken Joy" gravy, gailan, summer squash
The chicken thighs were another particularly strong dish. For me the flavors of five spice, ginger, and scallion were reminiscent of my parent's barbecue marinade. The subtle vegetable accompaniments of gailan and squash were a hearty yet succulent compliment to the flavor of the chicken.

INIHAW NA PALTAT - Passmore Ranch catfish, roasted japanese eggplant & heirloom tomato, bokchoy, patis vinaigrette
This was the weakest of the three mains for me. The catfish had a delicate flaky texture and slight butteriness complimented by nicely crisped skin, but the vegetables were just a bit too astringent for the mild flavor of the fish.

Ube Brown Sugar Pie
Traditional Ube pie is made with purple yam or sweet potato giving it an arresting violet hue. This was a much tamer looking dessert with a flavor that reminded me of moon cake. Having never eaten a traditional ube pie I don't have a frame of reference to make comparisons but I quite enjoyed this preparation.

MAIZ CON HIELO - Roasted corn caramel, panna cotta, sweet corn, frozen peaches, ice
I though this was going to be a no brainer and it was delicious with a heavy dose of sweetness shaded with a touch of savor from the bits of puffed corn. The fruit had an unexpectedly

Given my relative inexperience with Filipino food I tried to get a couple experts to come with me but they were all turned off by the idea of upscale (read: expensive) Filipino food. I imagine they looked at Irenia with the same suspicion that I feel for "modern Chinese-inspired cooking" overpriced crap to trick gweilo. But if you can put aside that bias built up from a lifetime of eating inexpensive traditional cooking and approach Irenia with an open mind I think you'll be richly rewarded for the experience. For my part this was hands down the best Filipino cooking I've had and my new go to place next time the craving for Adobo hits.
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