New Beginnings

Twenty Eight Restaurant and Bar’s executive chef Jay Lacuesta has big changes in mind

Crunch! The grilled bread crackles between my teeth. The toast’s charred exterior gives way to a springy sourdough center. Served beside it are succulent pieces of uni bursting with the essence of Santa Barbara’s salty ocean waters. For this starter, each diner is in charge of constructing his or her perfect bite. We take turns slathering the scorching hot bone marrow on top of the charred sourdough. Let me not forget to mention that we crowned the bites with whole pieces of uni. The chilled seafood component dances with the marrow’s unctuous fatty flavor. It tastes like beef-flavored butter punctuated with briny bursts from the cold uni. Following that savory dish is the homemade angolotti pasta with rich brown butter and salty Parmesan cheese. The delicate pockets encase a smooth, creamy squash filling. It is apparent that Twenty Eight no longer serves just Chinese food. There’s a new chef at the helm and the menu reflects his love for simplicity.

When Twenty Eight opened in 2014, the restaurant drew much attention, thanks to its executive chef, reality TV personality Shirley Chung. As her sous chef, Jay Lacuesta balanced out Chung’s boisterous energy. He is noticeably reserved and soft-spoken, where Chung is known for her booming voice and frenetic presence. From the beginning, Lacuesta was the yin to her yang. Then, Chung decided to return for a second run on Bravo’s Emmy-winning television show “Top Chef.” Lacuesta stepped in and kept the kitchen flames ablaze at Twenty Eight. The only time he left his post was to surprise Chung on the final episode of “Top Chef.” Just as he did at Twenty Eight, Lacuesta stood by her side and cooked his heart out. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Chung lost and returned to Orange County as runner-up.

While most of us were rooting for Chung on TV, the chef had quietly left the kitchen. When she amicably moved on, Twenty Eight’s owner Stacie Tran knew that Lacuesta would take the reins. Under his guise, the menu transformed from a mishmash of Chinese food to large platters of wood-grilled meats with comfort food-inspired side dishes. Lacuesta, who spent years cooking with acclaimed chef José Andrés, created a menu intended for family-style feasts.

The Kurobuta pork shoulder arrives with an assortment of edible garnishes. Similar to a Peking duck platter served at a Chinese banquet, Lacuesta’s dish is served with steamed buns. Three ramekins of charred scallions, citrus-tomato relish and fresh herbs enable each diner to assemble the buns to their liking. The pork dish echoes the same family-style plating that we all enjoyed with the uni and bone marrow toast starter.

The definitive showstopper is the lamb shoulder chop. Lacuesta sources the tender American lamb from a small purveyor called Superior Farms. Crusted with fresh mint, basil and grilled fennel, the lamb is glazed with a rich black vinegar reduction. Do not forget to order the potato purée. The creamy potatoes are topped with a layer of crunchy panko breadcrumbs and fresh chives.

Lacuesta may dictate the new menu; however, he still answers to one woman, the restaurant’s owner Stacie Tran. One of Tran’s favorite desserts is fried bananas.

“I told him, trust me, we just need to try it,” says Tran. “Then Jay created a dessert that takes all the best elements of a fried banana.”

The crispy jackfruit cannoli shell encases the sweet fried fruit drizzled with coconut caramel. The crunchy bananas are served with cold, creamy coconut ice cream. Every bite reminds me of the fried bananas that my husband and I shared at a small café in Southeast Asia. Tran and Lacuesta would agree. When they first tasted the fried banana dessert, they knew it was a winner.

Twenty Eight Restaurant and Bar, 19530 Jamboree Road, Irvine :: TwentyEightOC.com