Eureka! the American restaurant dedicated to local produce and meats as well as small batch whiskey and beer, has been quite successful in its concept for choosing locations. When they opened their first OC spot, in the Bella Terra Shopping area in Huntington Beach, they opened at the foot of a residential building, creating a place for residential neighbors as well as shoppers and just people going out. With the Grand Opening of their new Irvine location, they have taken the concept even further, opening in the University Center. There, within walking distance of the University of California, Irvine, Eureka! again shows its desire to be a neighborhood place and not just a stopover for shoppers.
The Examiner spoke yesterday with AJ McCloud, Eureka’s Culinary Director, who really likes this particular location. He said, “I really like the location with its large student population. So, far, we’ve had great success with large student populations. This is the only place that I know of that you can get this level of food, and we are doing some incredible things with food, at the price point. So that’s attractive to students, because so many young people are getting into food earlier and earlier. Look at the show Master Chef Junior, it’s amazing how young kids are getting into food. When you’re in college, you can’t afford a lot, but you can come here and get a bone marrow burger that has porcini, garlic, bone marrow and it’s beautiful, for $16.00. There used to be a time when porcini, bone marrow and things like that were only for fine dining. I don’t know any other place where you can get all those things together at the price point they offer”, AJ said, continuing, “So Eureka! is an attractive place to young people, especially those into food. But Eureka! Appeals to businessmen too, come here at lunch time and you’ll see a sea of neckties”.
With the moderate climate in Irvine, the first thing people notice is that Eureka! Has embraced the outdoors. There is a large patio, in fact the largest of Eureka’s thirteen locations, seating anywhere from couples to large groups surrounding an impressive water and fire fountain. For colder evenings there are also heaters to warm everyone. In addition, the low wall makes this patio an ideal place to people watch. AJ said, “we are getting a nighttime clientele here that’s a great mix”. Alexia Penna, PR and Marketing Manager for Eureka!, added that “We also have two great Happy Hours daily, from 2pm to 6pm and 9pm to 12am. Plus, our full kitchen is open until midnight”.
Off to the side, is a unique feature of this location, overseen by AJ McCloud. There, in addition to some picnic table dining, is a real garden for Eureka’s use. As AJ said, “This is our first store that we had a little extra space, so I said ‘let’s put in a small garden’. We’ve got a citrus grove outside that has lemon, orange, grapefruit and lime trees, we also have the herb garden with mint, basil, rosemary; and then we have did a real interesting thing. We put out some aromatics like lemongrass, bay leaf and a couple other plants. Some of the aromatics are mosquito repellent too, so in the summer that’s an advantage too!”. AJ even pointed out that while some exotic dishes in restaurants use dried Kaffir lime leaves, that all he has to do is go out and pick a fresh lime leaf off of the tree and it just really ups the flavor because of the freshness.
The first area that herbs, fresh fruit and aromatics make an appearance is at the cocktail bar. Rosemary’s Ruby Red uses a squeeze of fresh grapefruit juice along with some craft gin and adds a rosemary spear for an aromatic as well as a decorative garnish. The Moscow Mule uses fresh citrus along with the vodka and ginger beer. A few good old fashioned (some in every sense of the word) drinks appear on the bar menu too. The Mint Julep uses fresh-picked mint in this Bourbon drink that is very refreshing and not only for those Kentucky Derby times. The house Old Fashioned was a scrumptious version of this drink, using Old Overholt Rye whiskey, bitters, fresh orange zest and a single block of ice. It is one of the best versions of this drink that the Examiner has had.
Appetizers at Eureka! In Irvine are both whimsical and delicious. Lollipop Corn Dogs bring out the kid in anyone, but appeal to grown up tastes with sweet-corn battered Polish sausage bites served with a trio consisting of house-made ketchup, spicy porter mustard and a ranch dressing. My Osso Buco Riblets were tender little pork riblets with a slightly spicy Firecracker Aioli. My favorite, though, was the Shishito Peppers, those Japanese peppers that grill up just right. Topped with flying fish roe and a touch of lemon, they are superb. So far, I was very much enjoying the dinner Eureka! had generously planned for the Examiner.
For a main course, it seemed like a vegetarian one might be good and it was. The Marinated Grilled Portobello was a hearty, flavorful mushroom, practically hidden under a huge slightly wilted kale salad and served with handcut fries. Onion ring fanatics, though we also got some of those, several huge, thick rings nicely breaded and fried. Three of those could be a dinner for some people! The other signature Course is one that AJ is particularly proud of, having spent plenty of time in New Orleans. It is a wonderful Short Rib Ragu, topping some excellent stone-ground grits. The ragu is topped with fresh shaved horseradish. For those who have only had horseradish out of a jar, this is a whole new ballgame. The horseradish has a clean bite to it and complements the ragu perfectly. In addition, the grits are a good thick consistency that would make even Emeril proud. It will be interesting to see what other treats AJ will come up to serve those grits with.
Eureka! built their reputation on burgers and they have again raised the bar with one of their new creations. A 7.5 oz. Angus beef patty is grilled up and served on a fresh-baked bun. In the meantime, the chef prepares a topping made of charbroiled onion, an oven roasted tomato and a mustard aioli to top it with. That done, a cold roll of compound butter is heated with bone marrow and porcini mushrooms and then the burger is topped off to serve. This may well be the King of Burgers, with the richness of the bone marrow and the earthiness of the porcini butter working perfectly on a sandwich that is still able to be held in your hands. For any one who likes marrow, this is an item to add to your bucket list. There is only a limited amount available each day, so order yours quickly! It really is an incredible combination and one of the most unique and delicious burgers I have had in a long time.
For dessert, the Butterscotch Rum Pudding was an excellent choice. Topped with a caramel sauce and some flaky sea salt, it was the perfect way to end the meal. The dollop of whipped cream was just enough to slightly cut the richness of the sauce. With the meal at Eureka! at an end, it was now a good time to enjoy a walk around University Center, window-shopping and people watching.
4143 Campus Center Drive
Irvine, CA 92612