Bacchus Bar & Bistro Buffs Up Irvine Wine Scene

[Giveaway details at the bottom of this post] In the quiet of the Quail Hill Shopping Center in Irvine, there is a spot that contains within its walls the community buzz that has been steadily growing for wine and dining. The former Bacchus Secret Cellar wine bar that was in the back corner of the center refreshed itself and relaunched as a more formidable Bacchus Bar & Bistro at the start of the year, resulting in an impressive accolade - the 2014 Wine Spectator Award Of Excellence. Equipped now with a kitchen (albeit modest with only a convection oven and small refrigerator), the establishment can now put forth thoughtfully complementary foods. As a wine bar foremost, Bacchus has extended its hospitality in a way counter-intuitive in the restaurant world by pairing its food to the existing wines whereas most places look for wines to pair with the food. It is a unique stance, and one that we happily experienced upon invitation one early evening when we came in to see what Executive Chef Charity Smith had up her sleeve in her humble kitchen.

The exterior of Bacchus is deceiving because it sits in a shopping center but once you step inside, you are in a charming spacious area with a wine bar on one side and a retail space on the other. The back wall features several displays of wines as well as the locked wine cellar with more coveted bottles. The intimate mood inside is achieved through the soft lighting of small chandeliers and strung bistro lighting. It nearly felt like being out on a patio with all of the decor and furniture; what a neat place to meet with friends or even take a date. I was specifically impressed by the wall made of wine box panels and how the wine bar was serviced through the Enomatic system which not only is able to pour portion-controlled glasses of wine but also keeps them preserved for several weeks (though they rarely have an issue getting rid of wine here). With more than 350 selections of wine to offer and 60 of which are available by the glass, Bacchus surely has what your palate would like. If beer is more of your thing though, there are even several on tap with more in bottles, all craft.

We browsed through their wine and beer selections and found the choices to be encompassing over many palates but as Duc put it, "definitely for someone looking to enjoy wine and not just to get drunk from it." The beers themselves tended to be Belgians or lean in that style, likely because of the ease of that style to pair with food. The wines did not hit on all of the heavily marketed brands which sometimes are not true wines in the eyes of oenophiles (don't expect a Stella Rosa here, folks). Rather, the list was California-oriented but also had a strong representation from France, Italy, and Spain. The wines are chosen by Wine Director and Manager Deb Willems who caters the menu towards the community in the area - typically men and women in their 30s and 40s who would benefit from this type of regular hangout spot and appreciate both good food and wine. With few locations in Orange County that serve such a focus on wine save for South Orange County, it is not a surprise that Bacchus has already accumulated a regular crowd. Some come in for Happy Hour and even stay until closing; the live music on Thursdays through Saturdays helps.

Our observations on the wine list was its influence of New World, specifically California, wines which is fitting for the area. Their strong Cabernet list included options from the well-known and well-made Duckhorn, Orin Swift, Silver Oak, Shafer Hillside, and others. Red blends have a good portion of the menu as well and included the likes of Cain Cuvee, Orin Swift, Dominus, and Continuum. For those who cannot decide what to choose, there are several options for wine flights that are separated by type, region, and even part of meal (there is a dessert wine flight). If for some reason you'd like to smoke a cigar, they have those available as well.

So why the news about Bacchus? With the introduction of its bistro came the incentive to stay longer there, and it doesn't hurt that the food is done well either. Executive Chef Charity Smith, previously of the Patina Group and Sapphire in Laguna Beach, puts together a menu built around the small plate and sharing idea while keeping the wine and beers in mind for flavor profiles. We see plenty of international influence in the menu so it gives a good spread of styles for any eater. The wines we chose that evening were the Stonestreet "Monument Ridge" Cabernet Sauvignon ($18/$70) and Orin Swift Saldo Zinfandel ($14/$52) before we tackled their cheeseboard list.

The cheeseboard selections are 3 for $11 or 5 for $16 with options of more add-ons for extra costs. We opted for a Beemster Goat Gouda, Saint Andre Triple Creme from France, and the Barely Buzzed Espresso & Lavender matched with Speck Americana and Bresaola Piccola (charcuterie items are an extra $4 each). Olive bread was our palette ($2) and condiments were cornichon and guava paste. All in all, a lovely board came out with plenty to keep us busy and with generous portions for just two people.

Then out came their most popular starter, the Lobster and Spanish Chorizo Fondue ($10 - Manchego cheese, smoked peppers, cream cheese, and French baguette). Bubbling on a hot skillet, the cheese convinced us upon first scent that it would be loved. With the amount of umami in every bite from the cheese, it was a miracle that we still psychologically felt ready for more food. The oozing, spicy mixture worked well with the baguette that was purposefully not toasted. The lobster did not come through very much in taste because of the strong chorizo but one could certainly smell it. Share this with plenty of others if you opt to order it.

We attempted to touch on every section of the menu but didn't manage to tackle the flatbreads. For the salad, I went for their Heirloom Tomato Salad ($10 - burrata, hearts of palm, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic glaze) which came out bright and fresh. The ingredients were certainly at a good ripeness though the tomatoes did not carry as much flavor as I expected from heirlooms. However, we dined toward the end of the season so perhaps that was a large factor for the tomatoes. The use of oil and balsamic was balanced, and I loved the pops that each small leaf of basil gave. This was a good start to the more savory items next.

The popular Bacchus Burger ($12 - Bleu cheese, roasted tomato, caramelized onions, soy aioli, and a brioche bun) is an option for those who love Bleu cheese. The pungent cheese was certainly the star here as it smashed into the patty with each bite. This tall burger was cooked well and the pairing of soy aioli with the cheese made for a very savory entree. The other popular item there was the order of Glazed Pork Belly Tacos ($11 - cabbage, corn tortillas, kimchi salsa, spicy sweet soy reduction, and cilantro) which reminded us heavily of a Vietnamese dish the way the pork belly was handled. It was sweet with a slight crispness from the glaze and the taste of char came through a little as well. Paired with such crunchy ingredients, the pork's texture made sense though we were caught off-guard by how wet the tacos were; beware how much the sauciness drips off the side.

To finish off was the Pumpkin Cheesecake ($6 - ginger snap crust and whipped cream), a surprising presentation when it arrived. In a short glass jar, the cheesecake came out to be the right portion to be shared between us after such a large meal. Fluffy and full of the iconic cinnamon-clove-nutmeg flavors of a pumpkin pie, the dessert was satisfying and the ginger snap crust was a pleasant deviation from the typical graham cracker - it left just a little more sweetness in each spoonful. Overall, we had a brilliant time there and were impressed with what all could be accomplished with such a modest kitchen. It is certainly a restaurant to return to often.

If you are interested in visiting Bacchus, you can locate it at 6735 Quail Hill Pkwy, Irvine, CA 92603 and consider joining their monthly wine club which grants you dine-in bottles at take-out prices and discounts off nearly everything. If you do drop by, let us know what you think!

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.

Bacchus Bar & Bistro has generously gifted readers of Much Ado About Fooding the chance to win a night out with two glasses of wine and choice of one appetizer or dessert! Details on how to enter below - tell your friends!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The giveaway will run until 11/03/14 at 11:59pm PST. Winner will be contacted upon winning and has 48 hours to respond before runner-up winner is drawn.

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