25250 La Paz Road
Laguna Hills, CA 92653
I used to have a pretty strict rule of not reviewing a restaurant before its first anniversary of being in business. I had read some stat that 80 percent of restaurants that open for business, fail before they hit the one year mark. I have since learned that this untrue, and that the actual stat is that new restaurants have a sixty percent chance of closing within the first three years of being in business. It still doesn't make me feel like going into the restaurant business anytime soon.
The reason I had this personal rule was that I did not want to have a restaurant review blog filled with a bunch of places that were already closed. My thinking was that if a place lasted a year, at least it had a pretty good chance of being around when you wanted to look for a review. I now feel that people want to try the new place that opened up down the street from them. Yes I know that it sometimes takes restaurants awhile to get into the groove, and get everything running smoothly, but I decided to squash my rule, and open up my reviews to all restaurants. One restaurant I had eagerly anticipated trying was Ironwood in Laguna Hills.
To be honest, I had no doubts that Ironwood was going to run like a fine tuned machine from day one. How could I be so sure? Well, because the same guys that run one of my favorite restaurants, Vine in San Clemente, also opened this place. The same lineup is here. Russ Bendel, formerly of Flemings is the head man, along with his lifelong friends as Partners, Kyle Simpson, Gabe Whorley, and new to the mix, Kevin Franke, who also did some time at Flemings. Heading the kitchen is Chef/Partner, Jared Cook, who has an on site garden at Vine, and is working on doing the same at Ironwood.
We were here celebrating my birthday with my in-laws, who had never been to Vine, but have heard Katie and I rave about it for years. They are not ones to range too far from home for dinner, so they were pretty excited that Ironwood opened up so close to their house. Ironwood describes their food as, "an all encompassing wine country experience," which really is just another way to say that the produce used here is locally grown, while the meats at Ironwood are sustainable and prepared simply.
Ironwood is located in the same shopping center as Villa Roma and Hot Off the Grill, right at the corner of McIntyre and La Paz Road, a few blocks west of the 5 Freeway. If you remember where the old Elephant Bar was in Laguna Hills, you will know the spot. This place was torn down and redone since the Elephant Bar days. Now the space is wood dominated with dark wooden floors, lighter wood used for the ceilings, and a wonderful patio towards the back, which allows some unexpected views of Saddleback Mountain. This L-shaped restaurant has enough room for about twenty tables inside, and about half that many out on the patio, most of which were full on this particular Friday evening about a month after they had opened. People have definitely found out about this place, so we were excited to see if the magic of Vine would play out up the freeway in Laguna Hills.
Before we get to the food at Ironwood, the craft cocktails are worth noting here. It was my birthday, so I indulged in this Nutmeg Ryan ($12). This rum based beverage included both white and dark rum, Campari, lemon, Chinese five spice, and pineapple. I usually am a big fan of the cocktails at Vine, but this one was a miss for me. The Campari's bitterness kind of overshadowed this drink. It was not awful, but I'd probably try another one off of Gabe Whorley's cocktail list on my next visit.
Katie's parents went big here, getting two charcuterie plates to start with. The Cured Meats and Cold Cut Platter ($19) came with plenty of meats, toast points, olives, and whole grain mustard. Being a meat eater, I enjoyed this charcuterie immensely. Good variety of meats, some were even a little on the spicy side, which went well with the provided mustard. The Artisan Cheese Platter ($19) was favored by the rest of the table. Katie's mom Lynn, is kind of a cheese snob, and she gave a ringing endorsement of the cheeses made available to us on this evening. This platter was garnished with grapes, golden raisins, and thinly sliced apple. A great start to our meal.
There are plenty of items that appear on both the Vine and Ironwood menus, but I was most excited to see these Crispy Meyer Lemon and Honey Duck Wings ($12) make the transition up the north side of the 5 Freeway. Not something you find on many menus I have seen, these huge duck wings are pretty rare, and if you come later in the evening they may have run out. Prepared so the skin is crispy like a chicken wing, the inside has plenty of the smoky duck meat that I'm crazy for, along with a hint of citrus from the sauce. If these are available when you are here, even non-duck lovers should order them, you won't be sorry.
Entrees made there way out for us next and my wonderful father-in-law made the wise decision to try the House Made Giant Meatball ($22). This one pound meatball, served on top of a scratch made herb pappardelle, with assorted veggies, a spicy pomodoro sauce, and finished with a sprinkling of ricotta salata, has gotten a lot of love on Yelp, and it's well deserved. The meatball, even though it's one pound is wonderfully tender throughout, which is not an easy trick to muster when it is as big as a water logged baseball. The homemade pappardelle is excellent, and even though I'm not big on veggies mixed in with the sauce and noodles, it works here. The only complaint I have is that the sauce is not spicy, but it's solid none the less, and provides a sweeter, rather than spicy flavor profile to this dish. Maybe this teams next restaurant should be an Italian venture.
I went rather big here, since it was my birthday, and at the urging of my in-laws ordered the Grilled Bone-In Ribeye ($36). This huge slab of steak came covered in a Bearnaise sauce, which I would have liked to have been a little thicker, but it still really added to the beef. The steak was cooked to a wonderful medium rare, and was one of the better steaks I've had this year. Not sure on the size of this, but it definitely filled me up. This was served with blue cheese mashed potatoes, roasted cauliflower, mushrooms, English peas, and asparagus. The veggies were good, but not enough of them to make a big impression. The blue cheese mashed potatoes were fine, but a little too subtle with the blue cheese flavor on these, but good consistency to them. A very worthy birthday meal, which I hope to relive before I turn another year older.
Like mother, like daughter, both Katie and Lynn got the Jidori Chicken Schnitzel ($19). This is similar to the version served at Vine, but there they use pork to make this dish, with a few variations. This came with herb spaettzle, squash, golden wax beans, beech mushrooms, and a basil-lemon emulsion used for a sauce. The chicken was lightly breaded and not as heavy as you would imagine. Inside the breading was a very tender, yet flavorful piece of chicken breast. The sauce played nicely with the chicken and veggies, and did not try to steal the show. The veggies were fresh, and balanced this meal out nicely. Katie would get this again for sure.
Since there were four of us, we decided that we'd split two desserts, the first of which was this Meyer Lemon and Tahitian Vanilla Creme Brulee ($8). This was a pretty good, not great version of this classic dessert. It was smaller than I imagined it would be, but topped with plenty of fresh fruit, which I scooted aside, so I could get to the sweet creme brulee beneath. The top layer was not as caramelized as others we have had, but the bottom layer was sweet and creamy. I didn't get a lot of lemon here, but that's fine with me, as I'm not really a big fan of citrus.
I was a little more excited by this Warm Fromage Blanc Brownie ($9). I'm guessing that this brownie is made with the French white cheese that has the consistency of cream cheese, but I'm not one hundred percent sure. I do know that this was a lighter brownie than we are used to, with a muted chocolate flavor. This was accented with a scoop of Nutella ice cream and filbert praline, both of which were good, but I was hoping for a little more ice cream on this, but I always like extra ice cream.
Being a month old, I was still pretty impressed with Ironwood. I felt that being as busy as they were, they had things running smoothly, which is not really a shock when you consider the management team running this place. The menu at Ironwood is a little on the dainty side, so if you are here with some picky eaters, you may want to choose another spot. They have nine entrees to choose from, with two specials offered every night. More than enough choices for me, who can find something on almost any menu to eat, and I feel with a smaller list of choices, the attention to detail is that much greater. I had no major problems with anything we ate on this evening. The appetizers and entrees were all top notch. I felt the desserts were a weak spot, but after meals like these, a lot of people would not even have room for dessert. More of a date night place than a family restaurant, this is exactly the kind of chef driven restaurant that this area of South OC so desperately needs. Glad I waved my one year rule of eating in a restaurant, but I have a feeling this restaurant will be around long past that mark anyways.
Out of five eagles, (not only because the Philadelphia Eagles are Russ's favorite team, but also because the mascot of Ironwood High School in Glendale, Arizona is also named the Eagles), five being best to zero being worst, Ironwood gets 4 eagles.
For more information about Ironwood, head to their website here: http://www.ironwoodlagunahills.com/home.html