Stopped by the new Philipino restaurant Irenia last month and of course, had to bring along a Philipina friend to give me her opinion on the authenticity of the flavors. Admittedly, most of my previous experience with Philipino food was at the chicken adobo level. That, and the occasional lumpia that co-workers have brought into the office throughout the years. Both of which I really liked and helped to nudge me to want to try Irenia - which bills itself as 'soulful Philipino cooking'.
In case you don't know the backstory of Irenia, it started as a Pop-Up concept in early 2015 - several highly regarded dinners were held which led to earning a 9th spot on Eater LA’s 21 Hottest Restaurants in Orange County in summer of 2015. Eventually, in early 2016 Irenia, the permanent restaurant was born!
Our first surprise of the evening came with of all things the cocktails! We were presented with a really unique and well thought out menu of amazing sounding cocktails. Not sure what I was expecting but just didn't think a Philipino restaurant would have such modern unique cocktails. We wasted no time in ordering several and I have to say each one we tried was almost better than the last -- all very refreshing and well put together with just the right combination of flavors. My favorite ended up being the Supper Club and the Bottle Rocket but I don't think you can wrong with any of them here folks!
The menu here is small but pretty comprehensive - separating menu dishes into snacks (i.e. appetizers), small plates and entrees. Myself and my two friends opted to share and pretty much ordered almost everything on the menu. Be aware though that the menu does change as often as daily so it may be different when you visit but from my obsessive monitoring of the menu it appears some of the more popular dishes make constant appearances on the menu. ;)
We started with the infamous dilis - which I had never had before. Dilis are basically fried whole tiny anchovies that you dip into a vinegar spiced with chiles. I quickly learned that you want this vinegar to be ultra-spicey for optimum flavor - as my friend pointed out. They were delicious and while I know some people will be put off by the 'whole fish' notice you really should try one before you write 'em off. Close your eyes if you MUST folks cuz the taste will be worth it, and you most likely won't be able to eat just one!
|Ginataan Corn - YUM!|
earthy flavor most likely coming from the tiny mussels studded throughout. Somewhat reminiscent of the Mexican corn on the cob with the lime/chile taste but with a distinct flavor and creamy texture that was all it's own. It was divine and we ate it down to the last kernel!
|Kuliplor - roasted cauliflower|
The second small plate we tried was the Kuliplor - which is a roasted cauliflower with a special bagoong mole sauce, mango and toasted sunflower seeds. This was good but actually one of my least favorite dishes. The tastes were very subtle and the cauliflower itself was over cooked and a tad mushy for my tastes. I did like the brightness of the mango and the crunch of the sunflower seeds - both nice additions to an otherwise dull dish.
topped with a luscious prawn head sauce and speckled with crunchy blue lake green beans & slightly cooked carrots. Drizzled lightly on top almost like a Philipino version of Parmesan cheese was a savory shrimp powder. We shared this dish but it could easily be an entree for someone but just be warned it is a tad rich.
After the two small plates, the entrees made their way to our table. First up was the Pork Belly adobo. Now - this is where my friend & I diverged a tad. ;)
|Pork Belly Adobo|
eaten less of the prior dishes! Pan roasted chicken thighs with 'chicken joy' gravy served over summer squash and gailan greens. I have no idea what is in the chicken joy gravy (family secret apparently!) but it's very true to it's name and just lends a warm comfort food taste to this dish that isn't apparently in anything else we were served. This was my favorite dish here and I highly recommend that you order it if it's on the menu the night you are there.
As full we were, there was no way we weren't going to order dessert here. Irenia has snagged one of the top pastry Chefs in the area - the highly revered Ashley Guzman. Knowing this, we decided to share the Turanodo. Holy smokes... basically dessert lumpias, these were insane! I could eat a plate of these for dinner and be happy. ;) Fried crispy and stuffed with banana semi-freddo and coconut jam (*sigh*), and topped with a crumbled peanut brittle floating in a sea of champuraddo chocolate-corn sauce. Crazy delicious and the PERFECT way to end our Philipino food adventure at Irenia.
|The Turonado - dessert lumpia (sinful!)|
All in all our experience at Irenia did not disappoint and we all agreed we would definitely come back. The service also deserves a mention as it was top notch - attentive, prompt and more than patient with us as we had a lot of questions with it being our first time here and me only being somewhat familiar with Philipino food. Our waitress was extremely well versed on not just the ingredients of the menu items but the actual flavors of each dish. She really helped steer us in the right direction for a fabulous meal.
Irenia is located at 400 N. Broadway in Santa Ana - it is a tad bit hard to find as the signage is small. For reference, it is one block north of the Santara Arts Building. Two storefronts up from the Starbucks on the corner. Reservations are HIGHLY recommended (especially for Friday or Saturday night) and can be made by calling 657/245-3466. Dinner is available Tuesday - Saturday. Lunch is also served Tuesday - Saturday but only from 11-2pm.