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- Susan Montogomery
Irvine, California, is fast becoming an attractive destination for visitors who are looking for an exciting variety of leisure-time activities. Conveniently located in the heart of Orange County, Irvine has long been known as an easily accessible location for business meetings, but it also offers visitors many other opportunities for fun with friends and family, including top-notch hotels, an endless variety of wonderful restaurant options, beautiful parks, and many cultural events and venues.
I was fortunate to be among a group of eight travel enthusiasts from the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association who recently experienced a sampling of Irvine’s many entertainment opportunities. We enjoyed the amenities of the luxurious, AAA four-diamond Hyatt Regency Irvine and also tasted, sipped, and shopped our way through some of the best restaurants and other appealing venues Irvine has to offer. The trip was expertly arranged by Wendy Beierle Haase of Destination Irvine whose creative itinerary captured the spirit of what is happening now in the Irvine area. It was a busy and fascinating two days for all of us.
The Hyatt Regency Irvine
The Hyatt Regency Irvine is a beautiful, high-end hotel with 536 modern and attractively decorated guest rooms with very comfortable bedding and other amenities, such as special bath products and Regency level rooms, which include breakfast and a cocktail hour. The hotel also features a superb restaurant, the 6ix Park Grill, a more casual Café, and the popular bar8, a contemporary lounge that is a congenial gathering place for guests.
Mon Our group enjoyed an outstanding lunch at the Hyatt's 6ix Park Grill, which features a varied California, contemporary cuisine highlighted by fresh ingredients and innovative dishes. Our menu included a crispy California greens salad, and a choice of enticing entrees, including Skuna Bay salmon, free range chicken breast, meyer natural top sirloin, or orange Mediterranean couscous. Everyone raved about these beautifully presented and delicious entrees, which were perfectly paired with Matchbook Cabernet and Matchbook Chardonnay. The dessert was a luscious crème brulee cheesecake with pecan cookies and peaches.
We were graciously welcomed by Mark Bastis, the Hyatt’s General Manager, Don Hanson, the Director of Food and Beverage, and Executive Chef Ted Hill. The Hyatt Regency is located at 17900 Jamboree Rd. in Irvine. For reservations, call 949-975-1234 or go to www.irvine.hyatt.com.
The Wine Artist
The Wine Artist in Lake Forest was our next stop. This is a unique and welcoming event venue and winery owned by MJ Hong.
In a lovely Tuscan-styled setting, she regularly hosts groups for corporate events, private parties, charity events, and cooking classes. Her cooking classes have a range of themes from Italian, Spanish, French and even Sushi. The cooking class on this particular day was titled Taste of Thai and featured spring rolls, pad thai, chicken curry and mango sticky rice. This was a thoroughly enjoyable, hands-on, cooking class, which had all of us chopping lots of vegetables, deveining shrimp, dicing chicken, stirring sauces, rolling spring rolls, and adding spices.
MJ Hong is a gifted cooking teacher for both her experienced and inexperienced guests. She teaches with a gentle, encouraging approach but also makes sure to include the specifics so guests can recreate these recipes on their own, using printed recipes that she provides.
She also makes her own wine and we enjoyed her Wine Artist Gewurztraminer and her Wine Artist Tesoro Bianca (both $18). Both wines enhanced the Thai dishes. Our final dish of the class, a delicious mango sticky rice, was nicely accompanied by a mellow orange chocolate port ($15). As an added bonus, we were able to bottle our own wine with a personalized label as a reminder of this unique and tasty experience at The Wine Artist.
The Wine Artist cooking classes typically run from $75 to $95 and include eating, not just cooking. Call 949-297-3656 to discuss reservations or go to www.TheWineArtist.com to learn more.
Our next stop was Pizzeria Ortica located at Irvine’s luxurious South Coast Plaza shopping center. The setting was modern, nicely lit, with a soothing hum of satisfied guests enjoying not just the food but the relaxed ambiance of the setting.
After a day of eating, we were not ready to stop. Our dedicated group actually took a deep breath and rallied, thoroughly enjoying yet one more wonderful meal of the day. (There is a reason these people write about food. They love to eat.) And Pizzeria Ortica offered an authentic Italian feast served by congenial Kyle who just kept the food coming. Chef Justin Miller, who planned and created our evening’s feast, also introduced himself during a busy night at this popular restaurant.
Our first dish was antipasti, which included sliced prosciutto de Parma, Castelvetrano olives, fresh burrata cheese, thinly sliced zucchini, cippolini and crostini. We savored this tantalizing presentation of both traditional and unique antipasti items. Next came a wonderful Puglia-style bread salad with baby heirloom tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, red onions, stale bread, basil and olive oil. It was lovely to behold and also to eat.
Then we were amazed by three scrumptious pasta dishes, each a bit unique and definitely delicious: an English pea, mint and Italian bacon risotto; a ricotta gnocchi with butter and asparagus; and also a papparedelle pasta with lamb ragu mixed with ricotta cream. Needless to say, we happily devoured these dishes.
The four pizzas that followed were equally unique and savored by the group: a Margarita pizza with crushed tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil; another Margarita pizza with fresh arugula and prosciutto de Parma; a Milanesa pizza featuring fontina, asparagus, and a surprising but tasty fried egg; and a Salsiccia pizza with house-made sausage, caramelized fennel, red onion and pecorino.
Our tasting feast concluded with a brioche bread pudding topped by a rhubarb and strawberry jam. We all finally admitted to being pleasantly full after this bountiful and delicious tasting experience at Pizzeria Ortica.
These dishes were all accompanied by some beautiful wines, including a 2010 Falaghina Feudi di San Gregorio, a full-bodied and flavorful white wine that enhanced the antipasto and salad. Later we enjoyed a 2009 Frappato di Vittoria from Sicily which, with its rich aromatic berry and floral flavors, paired well with the pastas and pizzas.
Reservations are recommended at Pizzeria Ortica, especially on weekends. Call 714-445-4900. For more information go tohttp://www.pizzeriaortica.com. There are more than 30 other wonderful restaurants and 250 boutiques at South Coast Plaza. For more information, go towww.southcoastplaza.com/traveler.
It was then back to bed at the beautiful Hyatt. Those beds looked good after a busy day of eating and eating and more eating. The Hyatt does have a heated outdoor pool, a whirlpool, and a state-of-the-art fitness center for those who want to work off a bit of the calories consumed at Irvine’s great restaurants.
Qzina Institute of Chocolate
After a nice breakfast at the Hyatt in the morning, we headed to the most unique stop on our Irvine tour, the Qzina Institute of Chocolate and Pastry, for a Bean to Bar Experience, where the group learned about all the steps intrinsic to creating high-end chocolate. Qzina, which is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, is the premiere distributor of chocolate, pastry, and dessert ingredients across North America. Research, development, demonstrations, and special events all take place in Qzina's spacious, modern setting. The main demonstration room was originally a luxury luggage store and is dramatically highlighted by a centerpiece that replicates an airport control tower.
During the tour of Qzina’s production line and lab, we observed and learned about the many steps in creating chocolate from the cacao bean—including roasting, winnowing, grinding, refining and conching chocolate. (Conching is when the chocolate’s distinct characteristics of taste, smell, and texture develop through time and movement.) We were rewarded at the end of our tour with a tasting of some incredible chocolate.
An amazing highlight of our tour was seeing Qzina’s record-breaking, chocolate replica of a Mayan temple, the Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, which was painstakingly constructed at Qzina with 18,239 pounds of chocolate. The Mayan theme was chosen because of the crucial role the early Mayan civilization had in the production of chocolate from cacao trees. This impressive sculpture captures the most minute details of the actual temple and will be on display throughout this year. The lead architect of this sculpture was Qzina’s Corporate Pastry Chef, Francois Mellet, who also led our group on its tour.
Tours are available to groups by appointment. Call 954-590-4000 or for more information go to www.qzina.com.
SWSH Shabu Shabu
The final stop in our Irvine food marathon was at SWSH Shabu Shabu in the Diamond Jamboree Plaza with its dazzling array of multicultural and international dining and shopping experiences. Shabu Shabu offers guests a traditional Japanese cuisine and eating experience found only occasionally in the United States. We each sat at a bar with boiling kelp water in front of us. We were also presented with an array of gorgeous fresh vegetables, and thinly sliced meats, chicken and fish. With expert advice from the helpful staff, we swished these ingredients around in the water until they were lightly cooked.
We chose from a variety of condiments (such as minced garlic, radish or chili oil) and sauces so we could create our own individual dishes according to our personal tastes. This is a one-of-a-kind, very healthy and unique dining experience in an inspiring modern setting. Meals are available either at a bar or at tables. Swsh Shabu Shabu is open for lunch and dinner. Reservations are recommended, particularly for dinner. Phone is 949-474-0888. For more information, go towww.swshshabu.com.
After lunch, many of us enjoyed walking around the fascinating Diamond Jamboree Plaza. For a while we were transported to a beautiful Asian country with all kinds of special foods and lovely items beckoning us to buy them.
This sampling of Irvine dining and sightseeing experiences only scratches the surface of what Irvine has to offer. Destination Irvine's website, at www.destinationirvine.com, describes a plethora of opportunities for a trip to the Irvine area. Irvine is conveniently located for a day or weekend trip from many destinations. It is about 40 miles from either Los Angeles or Riverside, 85 miles from San Diego, or 65 miles from Temecula. There is so much to do perhaps you will decide to spend several days—and then come back again and again.
Photos: Roger Paige and Susan Montgomery