By Rich Manning
What’s in a name?
Ever since William Shakespeare thrust that phrase into common vernacular through the lips of his character Juliet some four hundred years ago, it has been variously infused with meanings far more fascinating than whether or not someone was a Capulet or a Montague. In these modern times of commerce, a business can harness the unique power of a moniker as a touchstone to tie into their community connections, mission statement, and even their personal history.
At Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine and Kitchen in Irvine, the name covers all three of these principles in a way that lets you know instantly that you are dealing with a most special venue. As one may guess from studying the name, Andrei’s is a champion of the farm-to-table movement, in which ideals such as bonds with local food purveyors and an emphasis on eliminating any kitchen element that remotely comes close to looking like a shortcut reigns supreme. However, the name also lends itself to a deeply personal, touching, and uplifting element. Owned by Igor Oliencoff and his daughter Natalia Oliencoff, Andrei’s is named after Natalia’s late brother Andrei, who was afflicted in this life by a degenerative eye disease known as retinitis pigmentosa; a terrible affliction that causes serious vision impairment or vision loss. The tribute to this beloved family member does not stop at the name, as a portion of all of the restaurant’s profits goes directly to The Andrei Foundation, a charity set up in Andrei’s name to provide aid to people suffering from vision-ravaging diseases with the ultimate goal of finding cures. When I had heard about the latter piece of the restaurant’s story, I was not only eager to try it, but I went in praying the cuisine would match the level of care and integrity that the story behind Andrei’s contains. Words cannot adequately surmise how pleased I am to report that Andrei’s does the both the mission statement and the memory of the late brother and son quite proud.
The first thing that struck my wife and me when we walked into Andrei’s was its décor. As anyone who loves dining in this area knows, Orange County knows how to do the waterfront/beachside motif and the bistro style venue like a computer knows how to process long division. However, the OC is considerably lacking in places that carry a metropolitan vibe; that is, a place where you can look out a window and reminded that you live in a pretty large, powerful, and influential market. Andrei’s does its part to shore up this oversight with great aplomb. First off, when you enter Andrei’s, you come through an impressive lobby complete with an absolutely gorgeous waterfall that undulates down a wall of light brown marble. It is almost as if you stumbled into a Voit office building instead of a restaurant. This setup exists because Andrei’s dining area is located on the second floor, where it opens up to a brightly spacious room, complete with a lively bar at its center, chic lounge furniture, and strategically secluded banquettes, all made common by a killer view of the skyline that makes up the original Irvine business district. This awesome aspect alone sets Andrei’s apart from the vast majority of Orange County’s fine dining establishments.
As we settled into our table, it became obvious with each course that Executive Chef Yves Fournier has a gift in creating well-rounded dishes out of flavors that may otherwise be a little dominant in their yin without the perfect yang that he provides. This uncanny knack of balance equips him with the license to stretch out in some really intriguing culinary choices that could quickly go awry in the hands of a lesser skilled craftsman. However, Chef Yves has the chops to make disparate ingredients seemingly cater to his every whim.
Take the duck confit flatbread we sampled at the outset of our meal, for example. The tang of the goat cheese and truffle oil could have easily interfered with the flavor of the duck, yet the accompanying Swiss chard acted as the perfect grounding on each bite (which proved to be a recurring theme as you will discover later). This enabled the perfectly tender, flavorful meat to take its place as the rightful star. This was also the case with the deep-fried rice, lamb and cheese balls we enjoyed, otherwise known as their lamb arancini. Without the presence of the lamb, the mozzarella and parmesan infused spheres would have been overtly rich. However, the lamb gave each bite-sized morsel the right kind of savory center. The side of tzatziki sauce gave the appetizers an appropriate dab of zing.
We completed our well-rounded round of appetizers with quite possibly the best item we had all evening: The octopus salad, served with crispy chorizo and fingerling potatoes. Now, I know that last sentence probably led a few of you to either make a sour face or assume that I lost my mind. Not that I can’t see the reasons for such a reaction – I will readily admit that octopus is one of the most intimidating items in the food world to try. You are undoubtedly familiar with all of its knocks: It is rubbery, has weird texture, and not all that flavorful. These presupposed conditions have caused the seafaring critter to strike fear in many a person’s untested palate. Well, none of these stereotypes are remotely true here. The slowly braised octopus is melt-in-your mouth tender and succulent with just the ever-so-slightest twinge of brininess at the finish of each bite. Add the smoky goodness brought about by the chorizo and the surprising heartiness of the fingerlings, and you have a plate filled with a symphonic flourish of flavor that will convert even the toughest cynics. Believe me, the salad serves as the perfect indoctrination point for those who may be scared to try octopus; after one bite, they will want to immediately take back all of their misguided preconceptions.
The cephalopod goodness was followed by a more traditional baby beet salad. I’ll be honest with you – this intimidated me more than the octopus salad, simply because beets were one of those unfortunate vegetables that caused my childhood palate trauma, much like the spinach of my youth. However, this creation won me over with the first bite, as the dish’s combination of blood oranges, watercress, crispy feta and hazelnuts blended with the beets to give each bite smoothly sweet notes with a distinctive terroir finish. The fact that I could enjoy the undeniably fresh earthiness of the main ingredient while the other components danced with my taste buds made the salad the happiest surprise of my evening.
Before we dove into our main course, Chef Yves presented us with a lovely sampling of baby smoked scallops, served with baby zucchini large enough to masquerade as cuts of asparagus and served on a bed of potato and sunchoke. The scallops were beautifully prepared; not too sweet, not too smoky. The puree was a little bland on its own, but it added nice balanced depth when scooped up with the dish’s other elements. This appetizer is currently off the menu, but it has gained a nice bit of popularity when it is featured. Seeing as how the flavor of the scallops would land right in the wheelhouse of any seafood aficionado, I can see why this is the case.
The theme of great balance fully manifested itself with the main course, in the form of the rib-eye steak I devoured along with a side of insanely delicious pommes frites which were dusted with truffle salt. The cut of meat was the stuff of dreams: A whopping 14 ounces; a lusciously pink interior; impossibly succulent. On its own, the steak would have been an epic feat of dinnertime bliss. However, the steak was given immense depth with the sandwiched pairing of the spicy and tart goat cheese sauce at its surface and the bed of Swiss chard underneath the hunk. And just like the other unique flavor combinations in his other dishes, one served without the other would have been overkill – the sauce too bold, the veggie too somber. However, they work in perfect concert with each other here, giving the rib-eye a subtle kick that enhanced the overall flavor rather than distract. The Swiss chard also proved to be the ideal grounding agent in my wife’s fantastic pan-roasted mahi-mahi entrée, served with a sharp cilantro, avocado, and lime relish. The fish was terrifically tender, to the point where my wife’s knife was a decorative item rather than a necessary utensil. However, the show-stopper of the entrée was the aforementioned relish, which was so tangy and zesty, you could whip it into a crust, call it key lime pie, and most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The aggressive bite was a spectacular point to the Swiss chard’s counterpoint, and added an amazing dimension to the plate when combined with the main piece of the dish.
The dessert was the only place where the meal’s hallmark balance was partially abandoned. However, seeing as how one of the treats was a lemon meringue tart, such an omission was welcome – after all, it is called a lemon tart for a reason. And it certainly lived up to its billing, as the naturally sour notes of the fruit shone through the treat, dented only slightly by the heavenly cloud of meringue fitted at its peak. The crust was not as flaky as it could have been, but that’s a minor quibble compared to the fruity delight involved here. The other desert we had brought back the balance in a lovely way, in the form of a quartet of mini-ice cream cones that ran the flavor gamut from strong French espresso to silky smooth chocolate. The foursome was a sweet denouement for a meal so memorable, it has made us look forward to returning and making new memories.
One thing that stood out to us other than the tremendous cuisine was the fact that the ideals behind Andrei’s conscious philosophy plainly extend to the floor. Our server Colleen was quick to constantly give shout outs to her teammates at every turn, from the bartender that poured us our delectable cocktails to the multiple kitchen staffers that worked on each part of the meal. Additionally, Chef Yves gave copious shout outs to the purveyors that give him the tools needed to create his art when we spoke to him. The conversations served as testament to the secret of why Andrei’s is so good, in that everyone involved in the restaurant has bought into the ideals that lurk behind the name, resulting in a place that functions as an intricate community instead of a business on a certain level. It may not equate to what Shakespeare was getting at when he wrote his famous quote, but in this case, such mismatch is indeed a wonderful occurrence.