Since 2014, Twenty Eight Restaurant and Bar has quietly occupied a sleek space near the corner of MacArthur Blvd. and Jamboree, on the border of Irvine and Newport Beach.
With a robust wine list, a stellar whisky flight program, and a signature oak wood-fire grill, Irvine’s Twenty Eight has flown under the radar for too long.
If you happen to overlook the char siu glazed Heritage Pork Shoulder, Twenty Eight’s asian inspired dish served with fried bao buns, be sure not to miss the two beautiful cuts of Japanese and American Wagyu at the very top of the steak menu.
While guests may lose themselves in the mouth-watering awe of a sizzling slice of Japanese A5 Wagyu Ribeye “Snow Beef,” Kevin Ho, General Manager and Sommelier of Twenty Eight OC, said this meat-forward menu is meant to entice.
“We have been driving a meat-centric menu – a global menu – primarily focusing on different cuts of steak, coming from different purveyors and different farms,” Ho said in an interview with Irvine Weekly.
But the effort spearheaded by Ho and Twenty Eight’s Executive Chef Jay Lacuesta is more than just meat.
“Beyond the steaks, we are most famous for our heritage pork shoulder. Chef Jay is big on texture, so usually when you have pork shoulder, it’s really cooked all the way so it’s falling apart – think like Carnitas, barbecued pulled pork. Chef Jay wanted it extremely tender so it still eats like a steak – it has a little bit of integrity still.”
Aside from the real-world culinary splendor of its fare, Twenty Eight offers a collection of rare Napa Valley wine labels, along with an emphasis on the education of both American and Japanese whiskey/whisky spirits, paired with one of the strongest, high-quality whiskey collections in Orange County.
Twenty Eight also provides custom whiskey experiences, in the form of whiskey flights. These flights give guests a small taste of the spirit in order to contrast different flavors and styles of whiskey, bourbon and scotch from around the world.
While some may view the aspect of the whiskey spirit hard to swallow, with nearly a decade of experience as a sommelier, Ho explained that he often offers advice to novice whiskey drinkers.
In fact, one fun fact about the whiskey spirit is that it is spelled differently depending on the country of origin. The European and Japanese versions omit the “e”, spelling it “whisky.” Only the American spirit is spelled “whiskey.”
“I look at whiskey drinkers two different ways. One is if you’re totally new, if you don’t know too much, I recommend starting off with a light whiskey cocktail – more like a sour. We have a cocktail called ‘Do the Hokey Toki’ made with Japanese style whisky called Suntory Toki whisky, St. Germain, Yuzu essence and orange bitters,” he explained. “If you don’t drink whiskey this is a great cocktail to start with. And as you’re working your way up to an intermediate, then to kind of move into a spirit-forward cocktail, which would be like our Central Park, and that’s what we like to call a woodsy Manhattan.”
Twenty Eight curates its in-house wine and whiskey collection with a high level of care, which consists of rare bottles of whiskey including the highly sought-after Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, which is produced by the popular Buffalo Trace Whiskey facility.
Ho explained that the Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon has become a hot commodity considering the small amount the distillery produces, paired with increases in whiskey enthusiasm, nationally.
“But, beyond the rarity, they do get award after award, from being one of the top bourbons,” Ho explained.
Yet, despite Twenty Eight’s ability to curate some of the most rare spirits, nothing could have prepared the Irvine-based eatery for the challenges spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, thanks to a commitment to maintaining a flexible to-go menu, along with fun community events like a virtual happy hour, the Twenty Eight community together was still able to gather over drinks.
“About a year ago, the first time around, we had to rethink our menu, especially for to-go, because what our menu currently was, was not geared for takeout,” Ho explained. “We had a lot of raw product – crudos and things like that – so we did have to change our menu a little bit.”
In fact, Ho explained that by building off Twenty Eight’s concept of whiskey flights, and whiskey tasting nights, the restaurant created to-go style whiskey tasting kits that have instantly become a go-to for any lover of whiskey.
“We want to continue that during the pandemic, but we did it as a tasting kit,” he explained. “We started doing these whiskey kits with distilleries – we did it with Buffalo Trace, we did it with High West – we still continued doing our whiskey motif, even though we couldn’t have guests in the restaurant.”
While things seem to be moving in the right direction for California in terms of reopening, Twenty Eight deserves to see glasses raised high, as the team worked diligently to preserve a culinary community in Irvine – thanks the help of wine, wagyu and incredible whiskey.
Cheers, Twenty Eight.
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