Editor’s note: Instead of our usual star system for restaurant reviews, we have instituted a temporary COVID Comfort Rating of restaurants to accompany our traditional criticism of the food, service and ambiance.
“That’s too much butter, don’t you think?” my mother used to say whenever I slathered warm butter on my cornbread and waited for it to absorb. I applied so much butter that the cornbread turned soft, almost like pudding.
“That’s not too much butter,” I would say. I liked eating it with a spoon.
Apparently I’m not the only one who likes his cornbread this way. Chef Justin Werner’s cornbread at Porch & Swing in Irvine reminds me of being a kid. It comes in a cast iron pan, still warm from the oven, topped with a scoop of butter that almost looks like ice cream. If you can muster the patience to let it sit for a few minutes, the butter seeps deeply into the bread. Werner’s butter is sweet, heavily infused with honey. It’s more like dessert than an appetizer, and I’m perfectly OK with that.
Werner cooked for several years at Playground in Santa Ana, and before that he trained in New York with chefs Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio and Paul Liebrandt.
Porch & Swing opened during the lockdown. At first, they delivered and offered takeout. The menu was short, just a few items, a couple of sandwiches plus a an entree or two. Opening a restaurant is always hard. Opening a restaurant at the height of a pandemic takes an extra sort of crazy.
It’s located at Centerview, hidden between Main Street and the 405 in the Irvine business district in a revamped space that previously housed a little hamburger joint. Centerview has undertaken a massive overhaul to eliminate the old quirks and bring this multi-tower complex into a new era of luxury. Cranes and dump trucks still populate much of the street-facing portion of the site, but the interior courtyard is slowly being unveiled, with Porch & Swing being the first big reveal.
The concept is meant as an homage to the Lowcountry cooking of South Carolina. Hence the cornbread. The Lowcountry theme is a loose thread that neatly weaves together bits and pieces of the menu. There’s a salad of bite-sized green tomatoes that are paired with sour, pickled jalapeños, fried breadcrumbs and a tangy, uniquely Southern white barbecue sauce. Creamy, slow-simmered grits accompany a flap of roasted pork jowl, along with a sweet-hot relish that reminds me of something my deep-rooted Southern relatives call chow chow.
I tasted both of these dishes for the first time via delivery. The packaging and presentation of Porch & Swing’s takeout was as professional as anything I discovered in recent months. Werner’s food isn’t simple. Every dish is a mandate of contrasting textures and flavors, and to that end many of those components needed to be combined at the very last minute. Thus, each dish came presented as a puzzle to be assembled at home. It was great fun.
Sadly, when Orange County restaurants were given the chance to use their outdoor seating areas, Porch & Swing immediately opened its wrap-around porch and stopped selling its food to-go. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that with the patio now in full swing, the menu has expanded. Werner doesn’t hit us over the head with Southern stereotypes but rather lets us search each dish for a clue as to how it’s connected. Other than a few requisite colloquialisms, the accent is barely perceptible.
Barley gets turned into risotto and used as a base for perfectly seared scallops and crisp asparagus. Braised short ribs rest in a puddle of creamed sweet potato, garnished with puffed buckwheat. At lunchtime, remnants of that beef short rib show up in a spectacular sandwich.
The chef is clearly fascinated not just with texture but with the interplay of sweet, spicy and sour. Most of the time, this proves interesting. But it’s a crutch that has limits. Peaches, for example, don’t get better by submerging them in sour yogurt and showering them with a confetti of nuts and chilies and shockingly strong mint. Sometimes perfection already exists in nature and needs only introspection rather than overthinking.
As for the Southern connection, there is an actual link here. Werner’s partner in Porch & Swing is Charleston native Andrew Parish, a bartender who previously ran the short-lived Dry Society in Mission Viejo and Central Bar at The District in Tustin. His mixology is superb.
Now for the burning question: Does this restaurant feel safe right now?
It’s complicated. Some staff clearly don’t know the difference between a face mask and a chin guard. One waiter takes it seriously while another does not. A hostess always covers her mouth with a bandana whenever she comes by the table, but she refuses to cover her nose. The chef and the bartenders wear theirs properly, though, as do 99% of the customers. Tables are generously spaced on the patio, which is lovely. However, they do allow people to sit and eat at the bar, which seems to go against recommended guidelines of keeping customers at least six feet away from where food or drinks are prepared.
Porch & Swing
Where: 2010 Main St., Irvine
When: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Cost: Appetizers, $10-$16, entrees, $16-$36,
COVID Comfort Rating: C
Temperature checks at door: No
Masks enforced for customers: No
Masks worn by staff: Yes, but not all in compliance
Gloves worn by staff: No
Hand sanitizer available: Not apparent
Outside dining: Yes
Inside dining: Yes, just inside the entry with doors open; also a large private indoor room with the sliding door opened.
Dining at the bar: Yes, but on the outside only
Tables sanitized: Yes
Chairs sanitized: No
Social distancing: Yes, mostly
Touchless menus: No
Restroom cleanliness: Good
What the COVID comfort ratings mean: A/Excellent, B/Good, C/Moderate, D/Poor, F/Don’t even think about it. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s impression based on personal observations of state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe dining during the pandemic.