Irvine’s patio dining scene is among SoCal’s best, with globally inspired cuisine. Restaurant writer Benjamin Epstein offers his picks.
Rooted in classic Japanese design elements, the space at Robata Wasa is inspired by the concept of engawa, “edge side,” which brings together the inside and outside of the restaurant.
Contemporary and traditional Japanese art completes the inviting ambiance. New chef Jin Kim has a background in sushi. Presentation is paramount at Robata Wasa, where the menu has evolved from skewered meats to dishes that are more composed and refined.
Which of your dishes best suits outdoor dining?
There is a lightly seared sea bream in a light yuzu ponzu with a very delicate presentation – technically seared, but I consider it sushi. New Zealand green mussels in a white miso butter sauce with kurobuta pork sausage and garlic is also wonderful for spring. Panko-crusted brie cheese with blueberries and honey brings a different kind of pleasure.
What are your goals at Robata Wasa?
The fish here is very high quality. My main focus is that our seafood sourcing remains second to none. Making that work takes daily effort. I’m going after the best-quality fish consistently available to us in our markets.
How important is plating to you?
Everything must have an elegance to it without being fussy or complicated. These are the principles of Japanese cuisine. Nothing overstated, everything well-balanced. Craftsmanship. Fish-cutting skills. Symmetry as a guide. Embellishments that complement and not overpower. And all of it is very approachable.
Irvine Grill is the brainchild of sisters Mahta and Ana Aria, whose father for decades owned the Super Irvine market, a local landmark destination for international and domestic groceries. In fact, their idea grew out of the success of the Irvine Café inside Super Irvine, where they used generational recipes passed down from their grandmother. The large space at Quail Hill offers diners the option of two patios, one covered, and one that looks onto a fountain.
Patio dining seems unusual for Persian restaurants.
Mahta: Most Persian restaurants have banquets inside the restaurant, not too much patio dining. We do a lot of parties on our patios – we can do 80 people by the fountain, very festive, and 50 on the covered patio. We set up buffet-style and bring in pastries from our bakery.
What dishes do you suggest for spring?
Ana: The whitefish with sabzi polo is seasonal. Alongside comes basmati rice – with fresh garlic from our family farm plus chopped parsley, cilantro and dill – and shirazi salad – cucumbers and tomatoes in olive oil and lemon juice – very bright! Spring lamb? We have boneless or New Zealand rack of lamb. We get a lot of orders for that.
A new happy hour menu features … tacos and margaritas?
Mahta: These are Mexican-Mediterranean fusion – our Persian boneless chicken or filet mignon on soft tacos. We’ve just launched happy hour and set up our bar. Half a dozen margaritas include a Persian one, the Anar with pomegranate, and there’s a Pomegranate Rose cocktail made with rose water and gin.
Ivan Calderón has been setting standards for Mexico City cuisine in Orange County for three decades, based not only on quality but on authenticity and sustainability. Calderón is founder-chef of six mindfully sourced restaurants in OC. Top of the line is the full-service Taco Rosa at The Market Place. Calderón is especially proud of its canopied patio, which he calls “the Cadillac” of dining patios.
You love your patio!
It’s the best patio and one of the city’s first outdoor bars – it’s been extremely successful. On one hand, the ambience makes it feel like you’re at home, a place for friends and family to gather. On the other, it feels like you’re on the coast of Mexico, lush and tropical – but without flying 200 miles to get there.
Which dishes get you away faster?
I always feel like eating tacos on the patio, especially blackened tacos – blackened calamari, blackened chicken … blackened lobster! Last spring, we did a special Cinco de Mayo popup where we served barbacoa tacos – they take two days to make and 12 hours to cook. Now we offer them every Tuesday. The coconut margarita makes it a party.
Behind the scenes, you’re very conscientious.
We make the tortillas for all our restaurants ourselves using only artesian water and non-GMO corn, and an ancient process called nixtamalization to remove toxins. We’re committed to recycling, composting and biodegradable products. We use organic local produce, humanely raised meats and wild-caught seafood.
3 more patios worth checking out
1. Little Sister
Little Sister’s green papaya salad, left, – with Viet beef jerky, grilled prawns, peanuts and chili-lime vinaigrette – amid the patio’s fronds and ceiling fans transports diners from Irvine Spectrum Center to Hanoi.
The trellis-and-column patio at Mexico City-inspired Puesto Los Olivos has a bar where you can simultaneously enjoy gorgeous design, superb cocktails, fresh spring air and evenings beside an agave-plant fire pit.
3. The Cut
The handsome, wood-lined front patio at The Cut, Westpark Plaza’s elevated burger destination, may be modest in size, but its impact is huge, making the entire restaurant feel light and airy.