Gracie’s Creek beef tortellini, stir-fry cornbread, and Girl & Dug heirloom tomatoes; Photo by Emily J. Davis
P.orch & Swing is likely Irvine’s first restaurant to debut on the troubled days of the first lockdown in March – a pathetic time to start. Chef Justin Werner and partner Andrew Parish had to be content with improvised take-out specials – and sell them to customers who were still months away from experiencing the “taste of Charleston” planned by the founders.
Now that Porch & Swing is open for meals on the terrace, it is finding its people. Eager guests finally bask in the purple twilight and drink fine drinks in the hall of this still sleepy office tower. The expansive terrace reaches maximum beauty after the barricades are torn down and open lines of sight reveal a rippling fountain.
The community’s sophisticated cocktails are a crucial force here as, like good southerners, they rely heavily on bourbon and whiskey libations. Try the Whilsner, a sophisticated sipper with whiskey, amaro and beer poured over a large sexy ice cube. Crushed ice and a frosty silver mug aside, the Mint Julep was missing the gum, but oh, that old buddy, a real and proper version of the bold, boozy classic. Draft beers are more numerous than wines. I long for the day when I can linger in this open air bar with 21 stools.
Fried scallops with barley, summer squash and canned lemons; Photo by Emily J. Davis
A choice of three homemade breads opens the compact menu and suggests good things waiting for those who are carbohydrate-prone. Cornbread from iron pans drizzled with honey butter is hyper-rich, soft and so sweet and salty that it could be a dessert. One bite and you’ll forget the dry, crumbly squares that are too often served with Mediterranean grilled dishes. Werner swirls over his sourdough for 36 hours before each strong, rugged dome is baked golden and served with silky, pale butter that has been grown in-house. It is sold by the half loaf and earns its main bill. Spread the butter all over and see why cream from spoiled cows makes all the difference. There are biscuits too, although ours had burned bottoms from the gratin and couldn’t complement the yuzu peach jam.
Gorgeous salads show imagination and attention to season, sourcing and balance. Ride or Die Salad seems to be a trademark. It’s unique and easy to share. Pretty fresh greens, crispy apples and pickled cranberry quarrel with crispy quinoa and roasted hazelnuts. The sourcing really shines with heirloom tomatoes grown by celebrity grower Girl & Dug in San Marcos. Find them in a salad with white barbecue sauce, pickled jalepenos, and freshly fried cornbread croutons. The apple sangria vinaigrette shines with pickled watermelon peel and jewel-colored baby beets for a bold beet salad.
I think it’s great that Werner doesn’t repeat any ingredients. There’s no profitable mutual exploitation here, folks. The dishes stand on their own, free of scratches or abbreviations. This approach mirrors the path of Playground, its final OC appearance. Before that, he worked in bold New York City kitchens such as Tom Colicchios Craft, Thomas Kellers Per Se and even Michelin favorite Noma in Copenhagen. Here he applies rigorous technique to the mostly classic regional dishes, chosen for their “American flavor,” as he puts it. No wonder his first gamble in April was a righteous fried chicken sandwich.
Peach infused whiskey cocktail; Photo by Emily J. Davis
The sandwich is not on the evening menu. Sometimes there is fried chicken, though not always. The menu changes daily and alternates several tempting protein main courses and super seasonal vegetables. Hyper-tender sakura pork cheek is moaning – its precious marbling is soaked in confit before skillfully roasting. It comes with perfect grains coated in pepper jelly. Imperial Farms Wagyu Flank Steak receives the straightforward treatment required to bring out its naturally deep flavors. Also on the plate is an inspired hash made from Sunchoke and dates.
There are few options for seafood, but there are choices. Canned lemon provides just the right number of flamboyant notes to bring out sweet, flabby scallops. I hear a chatter from local bass about fresh spinach noodles that I hope will show up on my next visit.
Hand-curled beef tortellini are a rare detour from the Carolinas, perfectly cooked and so satisfying under a gremolata of chard, roasted mushrooms, and ripened parmesan. Creamless creamed corn is a great crowd puller (replacing cream with cleverness) but disappears after the season is over. Delicious Potato Gratin is a year-round winner due to the availability of potatoes, but also due to its deceptively labor-intensive recipe that few should try at home. Don’t worry, it just keeps getting better here.
Desserts are in-house productions; Expect a fleeting selection. Maybe a bread pudding or a chocolate budino. An Instagram post with freshly fried fritters is a dangerous distraction.
What a relief to see Porch & Swing pulling in their full, allowable customer ration. The guests are ready for a promising newcomer. We all deserve a win in this arena. Think of this as an optimal choice for a taste of better days.
Chef Justin Werner; Photo by Emily J. Davis
2010 Main St., Irvine,
5 BEST DISHES
Pan-fried corn bread with honey butter
Roasted pork cheek
Imperial Farms Wagyu Flank Steak
Appetizers and Sides, $ 10-16; Appetizers: $ 16 to $ 36; Cocktails, $ 13-15
For your information The personable chef often shows his comedic flair in chats with guests.