O.C. Review: Irenia, Santa Ana

Still tightly encased in their shells, the peanuts are soft and wet. They taste vaguely like boiled peanuts from the Deep South, but these are clearly not the familiar made-in-America type. Roasted in strong vinegar with red chili sauce and sea salt, these are spicier, funkier, lip-puckeringly exotic. They are a riff on a popular Filipino street-vendor snack, but they are not exactly like that, either.

The first time I take a bite of the creamed corn, my eyes pop open, my sinuses suddenly clear. Fresh summer corn is sliced off the cob and mounded atop a thick, velvety cream made from coconut milk and lime — lots and lots of lime — with a hint of chile oil announcing itself every few bites or so.

A salad of little gem lettuce looks innocent enough. Compact packages of leaves are charred on the grill and drizzled with something that looks like buttermilk dressing. Some sort of spice mixture is scattered over the top. I take a bite and discover something fishy. Where’s that coming from? I scroll through the pictures on my phone and bring up an of the menu. I reread the description and notice “milkfish tonnato” and “anchovy crumble.”

Ah, that makes sense. Tonnato is a classic cream sauce made with tuna. And what I originally thought were spices is actually crumbled dried anchovies. I recalibrate my expectations and try again. The fishiness isn’t going away, but it doesn’t offend me anymore. I eat the whole thing.

Dining at Irenia is like watching a magic show. Every dish reveals a surprise. Flavors are new and intriguing. This is Filipino food put together like nobody has ever done before.

The kitchen is run by Ryan Garlitos, a young chef who previously spent time in the kitchen at Taco Maria. His girlfriend, Sarah Mosqueda, manages the dining room and greets you at the front door with a smile. Before Irenia emerged as a full-fledged restaurant in May, it enjoyed brief success last year as a pop-up called Irenia Supper Club.

Given the restaurant’s no-frills, pop-up-like atmosphere, I wasn’t expecting the service to be as smart as it is. But then I notice a waiter who also works at Taco Maria. A lot of those same ultra-posh service standards are replicated here: the way the servers wait to set the table until after you have ordered; the gentle manner in which they carry the silverware; the elegance of movement when clearing dirty dishes; the polite interruptions to ask if you are enjoying everything.

I survey the dining room and wonder if these millennials who make up the majority of Irenia’s clientele appreciate these extra details. I hope they do.

I’ve never seen the restaurant full. At lunch one day, I was the only diner. At dinner another time, my party was one of only two or three tables. On a Friday night, finally, I catch the restaurant half full.

Everything that I’ve tasted at Irenia is good. There’s just not much of it to sample. The menu is extremely limited, as if they are still in incubator mode. There are four small plates and merely three entrees. After I’ve dined once with a date, I’ve already sampled 90 percent of the menu. So the question becomes how many times can I come back for these same few dishes?

The menu is slightly different at lunch. Those same foods have simply been piled into bowls over broken rice. The slow-roasted pork belly adobo is particularly versatile this way. The pork is decadent. It is insanely rich but the adobo in which it is marinated is ripe with vinegar, which actually makes it intriguingly desirable. But the recipes are exactly the same as dinner.

Garlitos does not lack skill and vision. And that’s what makes this place such a quandary. The chef’s instincts and culinary techniques are unimpeachable. His prawns are cooked to perfection. The chicken is incredibly juicy and tender, with perfectly crispy skin. Presentations are very pretty.

But it’s like watching a magic trick that you’ve seen before. Sure, it’s still a good trick the second and third time you see it, but with each show it becomes less thrilling. I guess some diners might find comfort in that. But to me it feels like the chef has already run out of ideas, like maybe he’s been so busy running a restaurant that he hasn’t had time to think up new recipes.

Pastry chef Ashley Guzman, on the other hand, has surprises galore up her sleeves, whether it’s a fluffy deconstruction of lemon meringue pie made with calamansi citrus or a delightfully dense tart made with purple yams. Every day it’s something new.

Sometimes her ideas go haywire, like the time she served a bowl of corn mixed with popcorn and blueberries, which was unappetizing. Her halo-halos are stunningly beautiful. These are a sort of Filipino parfait made with ice, plus colorful custards, fruits and gelee. Problem is, I’ve never been one of those people who likes to munch on rock-hard ice, so I’ve not yet found one of these that I fully enjoy.

Irenia has the potential to do for Filipino cuisine what Taco Maria has done for Mexican food. But this place has a long way to go before such a comparison can be earned.

For now, Irenia still feels too much like a pop-up. What makes pop-ups so fun is not knowing what to expect, a curiosity about the location, the mystery of the menu. After one visit to Irenia, the mystery is solved. If this place is going to stick around, it needs another dish or two, and fast.

Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Where: 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana
When: Lunch, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; Dinner, 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Don’t miss: Peanuts, corn, adobo pork belly, ube tart
County health inspection: Several minor but no major violations.
Cost: Small plates, $5 – $15; entrees, $28 – $31; desserts, $9.
Phone: 657 245-3466
Online: ireniarestaurant.com

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, ambience and service

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

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