Chef Shirley Chung Scales Chinese into Fine Dining with TWENTY EIGHT

Chinese fine dining - it's not a phrase you hear too often or if ever. The term "Chinese food" has been thrust into a connotation of greasy chow mein and ubiquitous fried rice in the American context for the most part, save for areas with significant Chinese background. To lay the ethnic adjective before the phrase "fine dining" is a tad irregular but it has happened in Orange County recently. With the arrival of Top Chef finalist Shirley Chung and her partnership with restaurateur Stacie Tran, Irvine is now home to TWENTY EIGHT, a foray into the world of modern Chinese cuisine. Opened in late December, the restaurant has gotten buzz from those curious as to how the chef would fuse her culinary background in French and Italian cuisines with her own heritage and nostalgic dishes. We were invited in one late afternoon to experience what the chef is proud to deem her first restaurant.

The entrance to TWENTY EIGHT can be difficult to find because the restaurant itself is nestled next to Google's Irvine office and requires a bit of maneuvering to get to. Luckily, signs direct you toward the valet easily if you pay attention, and then you will find yourself in front of a clean-cut building. Inside, the design is very open and welcoming with beautiful natural lighting and a palette of white, light browns, and black accents. It felt like hushed excitement, invoking a sense of anticipation but in a relaxed environment. I can easily see this place becoming a prime candidate for special events. The restaurant's design also possessed a feminine touch which is all too appropriate considering the chef. What a lovely build-out. Chef Shirley herself pointed out that it had been guided by the principles of feng shui as well.

To keep ourselves in the calm mood, we started on two of their craft cocktails - the Re-Birth ($14 - Hendricks gin, burnt lemongrass ginger syrup, citrus, soda, and kaffir lime leaf - Top Chef Duel winning cocktail) and Vintage TWENTY EIGHT ($24 - Remy 1738, gum syrup, housemade blood orange bitters, and herbsaint). Both were extremely well-balanced and incorporated, allowing all of the flavors to be tasted but not combative with one another. The first was cool and refreshing while the second was a steady sipper. The cocktail menu itself ran the gamut of moods so you'll easily find one you'll like there.

We had arrived in time for their Social Hour which runs 3PM-7PM every day and all day on Sundays. With that, you can snag select $5 appetizers such as the Spicy Sticky Wings, Flat Iron Pancakes, or Pork Belly Buns; $5 draft beer; $7 wine by the glass; and $7 cocktails. To see those offerings, we went for the Beef Shao Mai ($5 - beef, coriander, garlic chips - 4 pieces) from the Social Hour menu and then proceeded to get Crispy Hamachi Rolls ($11 - filled with confit hamachi, hard-boiled farm eggs, and caramelized onions with garlic chive salsa verde for dipping) and Chef Shirley's favorite, the Beijing Street Style Grilled Lamb Belly Skewers ($12 - chargrilled spicy cumin rubbed Colorado lamb belly, shishito peppers, and red onions), from the regular appetizer menu.

The beef shao mai was fairly simple but had much more of a soup-y innard than past ones we've had at other restaurants. This gave it a pleasant additional burst of flavor but also meant that they had to be eaten in one go instead of being bitten. At $5 for the lot of four though, they certainly are the most expensive ones I've had considering that dim sum joints will serve you up a round of five for under $3. However, do they taste as clean as TWENTY EIGHT's? Not really. These were solid.

When we moved onto the hamachi rolls, their lean stature on first sight had me wondering just how much hamachi could fit inside. The confit was moist though and so there was a good balance between crunchy and soft. It was the first time I've had cooked hamachi however and was not so fond of how alike to tuna it had become; raw, it is certainly different. One would have to like cooked hamachi for this one. The street-style grilled lamb belly skewers were pointed out as Chef Shirley's favorite and in terms of seasoning, with justified reason. However, they were a tad overdone inside and thus chewy. The charred parts, though, added good flavor and went well with the accompanying grilled red onions.

Main dishes time - what could push Chinese cuisine into fine dining from this part of the menu? We just had to try out the Beijing Zha Jiang Mian ($14 - hand-cut noodles, minced pork with fermented black bean sauce, watermelon radish, and cucumbers) because the menu indicated it was Shirley's Beijing godmother's recipe. Also, the note about it being the Top Chef winning dish convinced us to get ahold of the Fire Phoenix ($28 - Jasmine tea-smoked Mary's organic chicken with Sichuan peppercorn ash) though other entrees tempted us such as the Caramel Lace Prawns, Singapore Style Chili Lobster, Oxtail Fried Rice, and Day Boat Scallops.

For the noodle dish, I would advise that you have experience eating fermented black bean sauce before or at least be accustomed to its level of saltiness. The entire dish reminded me strongly of another black bean stir-fry I've had in the past. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed it. Once I got a few mouthfuls in, however, it did start to taste salty so I moved onto the chicken. What piqued my interest here was the idea of smoking meat with tea. The Jasmine tea really did impose its flavor profile onto the chicken somehow. The additional of Sichuan peppercorn ash was a smart part of the dish's name but also a welcomed element in enjoying the chicken. It brought a dimension of smokiness and interaction for the dippers. The skin was superbly crisped on the meat itself though the meat inside had parts a little too dry for my liking. With our plate came a side salad of watercress that I was accustomed to; for those unaware of the vegetable's bitterness, it might be negatively striking on the tongue.

By this point, we had probably put on a few pounds each. That did not stop a parade of desserts from marching onto our table. There was the Rum Roasted Green Apple Tapioca ($8 - coconut tapioca, brown sugar, five-spice granitas, and Thai basil), an almost-too-pretty-to-eat spread that was icy, sweet, and chill; the Tofu Panna Cotta ($10 - house-pressed soymilk, red bean ice cream, ginger espuma, and roasted salty peanut crumble) which tasted just like the Chinese hot tofu treat kept in ginger syrup broth; Black Sesame Ice Cream (menu listing for $9 is a selection of housemade sorbet and ice cream); and the Good Fortune Dessert ($12 - dark chocolate mousse, coconut gelee, chocolate water, curry croquant, and edible fortune).

It has been a long, long while since any dessert had wowed any of us but TWENTY EIGHT's were impressive. The particular item that caught everyone's eye (ours plus those around us) was the Good Fortune dessert. Housed in a glass goblet on a plot of edible "land" floating in a viscous "sea," this fortune has to be collected by the diner after smashing through the top. One crack and a loud popping noise akin to a champagne bottle's improper opening sounds off, leaving you with access to the treasure within. It's fun and delicious. It also gives a chance to the dinner guests to order ahead of time with custom requests for messages to display. Otherwise, predetermined motivational and happy sayings display in beet juice ink on the edible scrap of "paper." Duc was also partial to the tofu panna cotta and I to the black sesame ice cream.

Overall, this is not a restaurant for you if you want homestyle Chinese food. It veers towards the fine dining bracket of cuisine and offers Chinese dishes that have been given a culinary professional's touch rather than a grandma's. Chef Shirley's background in French and Italian cooking expresses itself onto the choices of ingredients as well as the plating. While the flavors may be distinctively Chinese, the techniques and handling show themselves not to be as much so. Thus, don't expect some authentic street-style plates here. You'll find yourself at 19530 Jamboree Rd. Irvine, CA 92612 with something more modern, more American. I would also like to note that the price point is not inexpensive so have that in mind too before you sit down with your cloth napkin and chopsticks at the ready.

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

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