The Beijing-style lamb skewers disappear in a flash. The meat is cut from the belly of the lamb, a thick tangle of flesh and fat that turns crispy and musky when grilled, carrying with it the heady scent of cumin and char.
“Should we order more of these?” asks one of my guests as she helps herself to the last skewer.
I’m tempted to say yes, but we’ve already ordered too much. “Would you pass the noodles, please?”
The hand-cut noodles are stained with jet-black squid ink and topped with two large lobes of sea urchin, which dissolve into a velvety swirl that coats each strand like butter. It’s a matter of seconds before the serving bowl is emptied, but not before a few noodles manage to escape the grip of someone’s chopsticks and end up splattered across the white tablecloth.
“Hey, who did that?” I ask. But I’m not yelling loudly enough to get anyone’s attention. The wedding band is singing enthusiastically over amplified speakers, making it impossible to have a conversation. The band segues from Adele to Miley Cyrus, determined to be heard for miles.
Twenty Eight Restaurant and Lounge is a posh Chinese restaurant opened by chef Shirley Chung and restaurateur Stacie Tran. Chung’s résumé is impressive. While living in Las Vegas, she worked for world famous chefs Guy Savoy, Thomas Keller, Mario Batali and José Andrés and appeared on Bravo’s cooking competition show “Top Chef,” making her somewhat of a celebrity herself. Tran owns another, more casual restaurant in Garden Grove called Furiwa Chinese Seafood Restaurant. This new joint venture in Irvine bridges the glitz and glam of Vegas with the slapdash, one-step-above-fast-food service style that defines most restaurants in Little Saigon.
There’s a private party on the balloon-filled patio tonight, for which someone has hired the wedding singers. The band needs electrical outlets, which are located inside the dining room, thus the gig is set up indoors. The patio doors are pushed open to let the music blare across the threshold.
But the dining room is packed with diners who weren’t invited to the party, and we’re paying through the nose for a fancy meal in a restaurant where the signature chicken dish costs $28 and a pot of jasmine tea goes for $18. The dining room really shouldn’t be reverberating with thunderous bass or a screeching rendition of “Wrecking Ball.”
The signature dish is called Fire Phoenix, which is Jidori chicken infused with smoke from smoldering tea leaves, something Chung created on “Top Chef.”
I watch this dish being served several times before ordering it. The chicken is sealed beneath a glass dome that’s lifted at the table to release a plume of smoke. On the night I try it, our waiter is too busy for theatrics, so he removes the dome en route to the table, still several feet away. When the chicken touches down, the wow factor is already gone.
I take a bite of the chicken, and I’m stunned. It tastes as if I’ve just kissed a chain-smoker, sloppily. I don’t taste chicken. My mouth and sinuses are consumed with smoker’s breath. I run my tongue around the inside of my teeth, wondering how long this is going to last.
In all fairness, my other visits to Twenty Eight haven’t involved a band, and I have enjoyed much of what I’ve eaten, especially the Peking duck and oxtail fried rice. But every visit over the past three months has had one thing in common: The chef’s upscale riff on Chinese cuisine always gets overshadowed by the restaurant’s shockingly amateurish service.
“Hi, my name is (redacted), and I’ll be your server tonight,” our doe-eyed waitress says, which seems standard until she follows with, “And what are your names?” We all turn to each other in disbelief. Does she really expect us to go around the table and introduce ourselves?
Another day we watch in dismay as a manager tries in vain to set a table. He repositions the tablecloth a half dozen times before stepping back to admire his handiwork, oblivious that the cloth hangs so drastically askew that it touches the ground on one side, one corner is turned inside-out, and the top is completely rippled with wrinkles.
At lunch once, it takes eons before a waiter acknowledges us, and when she finally does, she greets us with two armfuls of dirty dishes, which she holds in front of our faces — an empty lobster shell, chicken bones, something that smells like fish and ketchup — while she tells us about her favorite cocktails.
Remember those noodles? Before we can do anything about it, a waiter arrives with two more plates, one of which he plops directly on top of the runaway pasta. He then takes that same plate and slides it to the other side of the table, smearing the noodles underneath. When the empty plate is eventually taken away, a noodle clings to the bottom as long as it can, ultimately losing its grip halfway to the kitchen.
Then there’s the night when a dozen waiters are on duty, yet we can’t get one to service our table because they’re all obsessing over a VIP on the other side of the room.
“Who is that?” I ask a busboy who finally notices our long-empty glasses.
“That’s the owner,” he says.
Waiters encourage guests to order family-style, and the kitchen does a nice job of divvying everything into courses. Sadly, waiters don’t bring fresh plates unless you ask several times. And they won’t replace silverware.
At one point when a waiter is changing our plates (finally), she takes the fork of one of my guests, bangs it against a dirty plate to dislodge a few morsels of uneaten food, then places the soiled utensil back on the table for her. I could go on and on.
I think a lot of people – including food writers who have raved about this place – have been so starstruck that the chef was on TV that they’re willing to turn a blind eye to the restaurant’s utterly incomprehensible service standards, as if it doesn’t matter.
But it does. I simply can’t recommend this place without a huge caveat. The food is mostly good. But if you’re only interested in solid Chinese food, lots of places provide that at a fraction of the price.
What separates Twenty Eight from everywhere else is its attempt to elevate Chinese cuisine to fine-dining status. And that’s where this place fails epically.
Rating: 1 star
Where: 19530 Jamboree Road, Irvine
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5 p.m. -10 p.m. Sundays – Thursdays ; 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Don’t miss: Squid-ink noodles with urchin, Peking duck, chicken shao mai, oxtail fried rice
Skip: Hamachi spring rolls, Fire Phoenix chicken, all desserts
Best place to sit: Sofa tables in the dining room
About the noise: Sometimes eerily quiet, sometimes rock-arena loud
About the wine: Several great wineries included, but vintages not listed
County health inspection: Cited for major violation for improper holding temperatures
Cost: Small plates, $6 – $20; large plates, $16 – $68; desserts, $10; signature cocktails, $12 – $24. Free valet parking on the sidewalk and lawn. (Yes, they really want you to drive onto the sidewalk.)
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambiance and service
This article originally appeared in The Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.