I love Top Chef. I love watching the food, the drama, the judges and contestants talking smack. Unlike many of the other reality shows that churn out winners that don’t amount to much after the ephemeral hoopla of the win passes through the minds of fans and viewers, many Top Chef winners have gone on to establish a strong presence in the culinary world, opening their own restaurants and garnering many awards. Shirley Chung did not win this last season of Top Chef, though many, including myself, thought she was a very strong contender and maybe should have won. She herself even admitted that she “messed up” in the finale, but overall she was very thankful for the experience on the show because it really helped her “find herself.”
In any case, it set her down a path to opening her own restaurant in little ole Irvine, California called “Twenty Eight” (the age she started cooking). Why Irvine? I wouldn’t really call this city an up and coming foodie town, so I’m just as confused as you. It would have been a good question to ask Shirley, but between showing up late (like 5-10 minutes, apparently the rest of the diners who were white and had at least 20-30 years+ on me, didn’t get the memo about Asian time) and Shirley’s effusive excitement, it was just a flurry of eating, snapping pictures, and trying to catch every word of her explanations and background stories for each dish.
For the whopping price of $200, we were offered a 9 course tasting menu paired with drinks and inclusive of tip. The hefty price tag might explain why the crowd was a bit more geriatric than one would expect for such a foodie event. Really, who could throw down that kinda change? Apparently Teety, myself, and 15 other old people! Soprano Man had to work, *tear face*
So we didn’t get the prime seats in the middle of the counter, but we still got plenty of love and attention from Shirley and and Jason Quinn (far right, chef/owner of The Playground).
Crispy Chicken Skin + Knee devil egg aioli
I’m not a huge fan of eggs, usually in breakfast format, and I’m gonna have to throw deviled eggs in that bag too. Cooked egg yolks has such an unpalatable flavor to me since childhood. I’ll eat deviled eggs but I’ll never fully love them. Surprisingly this wasn’t too yolky and was a nice complement to the crispy skin and cartilaginous knee. A solid way to start, even for the anti-eggies.
Trio of 28’s Veggies
grilled asparagus, mushroom, fried quail egg
charred corn, garlic, chive, puffed wild rice
baby kale wit preserved shrimp
So with Teety and me being big Top Chef fans, we were playfully pretending to be Padma and Tom judging the food. While this dish was beautifully presented and tasty, it would have been an automatic fail because they miscounted and plated 1 dish short so I didn’t get to have one. Teety, being the consummate gentleman that he is, chowed down on his course ooo-ing and aah-ing with every bite as I sullenly looked on and waited for them to hurriedly plate me my first course. The highlights of the dish were the mushrooms and the bits of preserved shrimp which were packed with flavor. I think there might have been something missing in my corn because it was lacking a bit of punch.
Santa Barbara Spot Prawn glass noodles, shirley’s favorite herbs, crustacean consomme
So it’s going to be interesting to see what the judges actually say about this dish, which Shirley made in an episode of “Top Chef Duels” premiering in August. She competed against Brooke Williamson with this dish. Sadly, this was the weakest dish of the night. It is her play on pho apparently, but instead of a beef broth with raw thin slices of beef, she went the seafood route. The broth definitely had seafood flavor but the flavors felt murky and muddled. I prefer glass noodles that are slippery, but these felt underdone. The herbs were pho-like, and the spot prawn was sweet and delicious. The table side service was a nice touch.
Roasted Day Boat Scallop peas, lee’s xo sauce
Shirley made her own XO sauce which was pretty money. All the umami notes were spot on, and you could really get the strong flavor of dried scallops. Is it redundant to serve XO on a scallop? No way! Bring on the scallops please! The pea puree was flavor was a nice contrast but I was distracted by its lumpy texture. When I think of a pea puree I think of something really smooth. Teety thought it was more like a “pea mash.”
Chef Quinn felt bad that I got jipped on the first course, probably because I wouldn’t let him forget it. He asked, “Did you take a picture yet?” and after I nodded, he plopped this bad boy on my plate. He acted all sneaky about it, but the diner next to us was an obvious witness to the extra attention. I wonder if she was bitter she didn’t get an extra scallop too. It was almost better than the one with the XO sauce because it was pretty hot. Being the kind friend that I am, I gave Teety half the extra scallop.
Steamed Local Sable Fish in banana leaf
This was a pretty simple straight forward preparation of a really delicious Chinese steamed fish. The banana leaf didn’t impart any flavor I could notice but it was a pretty presentation. The fish was super fresh, caught just that morning, so it was so moist and tender. It was served with a simple salad of fennel and cilantro and some sort of citrusy dressing.
Squid Ink Hand Cut Noodle jalapeño, ginger, scallion pesto, california uni
Shirley really wanted to make an uni pasta that had a lot of uni flavors and she was successful. She really turned up the Asian-ness by incorporating ginger and scallion into a sort of pesto. First of all the noodles were amazing. Soft, yet chewy, and with a good amount of texture to carry the sauce. The sauce was luscious without being greasy or overwhelming. My only complaint was that the ginger was a bit too overpowering and distracting. I’d still put this on the top of my short uni pasta list.
Beijing Style Zha Jiang Mian hand cut noodle, pork belly ragu, fermented bean paste
I do love a good zha jiang mian and this certainly hit the spot. Again, the noodles had that same wonderful chewiness. Traditionally, ground pork is used, but here she used pork belly so there was definitely added meatiness and fattiness her way. And normally the dish is garnished with cucumbers, while here she used radishes which though bitter on its own, brought some nice brightness. Super tasty.
Lamb Belly Skewers cumin spiced, black vinegar, maltose reduction Shirley did an excellent job with the skewers which tasted pretty darn authentic in every way here. I guess I’ve only had these types of skewers once before, but at that time I was in the company of a true Beijing-er, The Pouter. And she thought Feng Mao was pretty good. The lamb has a good amount of fat in it making it even tastier than the stuff I had at Feng Mao. The caramelized onion with the notes of black vinegar made the whole bite really balanced.
Oxtail shaoxing wine braised, 8 treasure rice
Shirley asked if anyone has had or made oxtail. Yes, I have and I think mine is pretty good, but of course hers was better. I think its hard to go wrong here though. I’m not sure what the 8 treasures were in that rice. It just tasted like healthy rice with different grains. I’d prefer white rice as usual.
Intermezzo tapioca with melon granita
I wasn’t a fan of this palate cleanser. It wasn’t very sweet bordering on flavorless.
Shirley kept making a huge deal about her 20 year aged puh-er tea. It was good, but I’m no tea connoisseur. I couldn’t appreciate the deliciousness 20 years was supposed to bring. It was definitely the right way to end the meal after all that alcohol.
Tofu Panna Cotta ginger syrup, salty peanut crumble, red bean ice cream
My one recommendation to Shirley for her restaurant is to hire a pastry chef! This was one of the saddest desserts I’ve had. The flavors were all very Chinese. The tofu panna cotta tasted very much like the tofu pudding you get at dim sum, but it was frozen in the middle so the texture was off. The red bean ice cream was grainy which I think is to be expected with red bean anything. But, the number one thing I look for in ice cream is smoothness. The salty peanut crumble was an excellent addition.
So she missed the “-ed” on “overworked.” I was too shy to correct her, but she was so gracious to even autograph my menu and take pictures with me. She really is as bubbly and energetic as she is on TV. You can tell she has great passion for her cooking and is really working hard to make 28 a successful reality. I plan on supporting her in her endeavor to elevate the food scene in Orange County and to be an independent chef executing her own vision finally. God knows we need it down here! Overall the food was really delicious and super solid, though I’m not sure it warranted the gaga-like reactions that the Top Chef judges gave her for her cooking on the show. Though, I wish I could try her “Vietnamese Barbecue Shrimp with Creole Spice Butter” that she made on episode 4. I go gaga for shrimp. The noodles for sure were my favorite dishes. I think with time and tweaking, Shirley Chung will be churning out pretty amazing food. I’m excited to say the least!