Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Playground - 07/13/2012

220 E 4th St
Santa Ana, CA 92701
(714) 560-4444

Despite having only been open for eight months, former Lime Truck co-founder Jason Quinn has made quite a name for himself at his inaugural restaurant, The Playground. After participating in and winning Season 2 of The Great Food Truck Race, Quinn sold his stake in the The Lime Truck in favor of a brick and mortar outpost. Originally envisioned as a gourmet burger joint, the restaurant has evolved to an ingredient-driven small-plates concept that also features an extensive beer lists with 120+ bottles.

Hanger 24 Essence Bootlegger's Old World Hefeweizen Bootlegger's Black Phoenix (nitro) We started out with a round of draft beers. The Old World Hef was pretty prototypical with gentle sweetness and subtle hops. The Essence was a tasty double IPA that came brimming with refreshing citrus notes and a growing bitterness on the finish. The third beer was easily the most interesting the delicate nitrogen effervescence gives the beer a thick creamy feel while the flavor came with loads of coffee and a subtle tinge of smoky spice.

Buy the Kitchen Staff a Round of After-Service Beers - Foie Gras Torchon
I hadn't expected to have foie gras again so soon but apparently after consulting with his attorney father, Jason figured out a way around the ban on foie gras: give it away for free. Personally I would have been happy to buy the staff a round of beers regardless, but I wasn't about to turn down the restaurant's quid pro quo of free foie gras. The first of three foie gras courses consisted of a torchon infused with sauternes. The classic pairing made even better with the application of a maple blackberry jam and the crumbled pistachios added for texture. The resulting mixture was delicious on its own or spread over thin slices of crisp buttery toast.

Iberico De Bellota
The Iberico De Bellota was an impulse buy of sorts that Chef Jason Quinn made during a foie gras supply run. I've always loved Spanish ham, bold oily flavor with a porcine gaminess. The thin slivers that we were given left me hankering for more.

Halibut Cheeks
A good kitchen never wastes anything, and having ordered only a single halibut there weren't enough halibut cheeks to make a menu item, but it did make a delicious gift. The cheeks are lightly seasoned preserving the integrity of the mild fish with an overarching essence of butter.

Ballast Point Dorado Ballast Point Sculpin Our draft beers dispensed with we moved onto bottles. The Sculpin is one of my favorite IPAs, with bold citrus and tropical fruits and gentle but apparent pine astringency. By comparison, the Dorado is bolder and more robust, with spicy fruit and a harsher hoppy bitterness.

Halibut Collar - Chimichurri
Another one-off course, the Halibut cheeks turned out to be one of the night's best courses. The meat is rich and immensely tender, charring in a 1200 degree broiler give the fish a smoky vitality that was a natural pairing for the zesty spice of the chimichurri.

Help Send Ryan Carson to Rehab - Foie Gras Nigiri
I was glad that the staff at Playground kept this one on the menu. The foie gras is covered in a thin layer of bruleed sugar giving the dish a caramelized sugary attack. The vinegared rice and rock salt keep both the sweetness and foie in check. The result is a straightforward but absolutely intoxicating flavor.

Half Dozen Hama Hama Oysters - Nitro Lime-Aid Mignonette
These Hama Hamas were some of the largest oysters that I'd ever eaten. Their large size belies their gentle salinity and milky texture. The mignonette has a noticeably sweeter flavor well suited to the Hama Hamas, but would have been disconcerting on a more aggressive oyster.

Pan Roasted Wild Mushrooms with Slow Egg
Mushrooms and runny egg sounds like a winning combination. The earthy sapor of the mushrooms is complimented with an intense flavor of garlic and the sensual slickness of the egg. I had no issue with the design of the course, but unfortunately it was just too salty.

Canary Island 15 Minute Octopus - Mache, Blumenthal Potatoes, Aji Amarillo
This was another contender for strongest dish of the night. The octopus itself was dense and toothsome with a subtle salinity but it was arguably outshone by the potatoes. Based on a recipe from Heston Blumenthal, the potatoes were simply superb with a dense starchy core surrounded by a crisp sapid exterior. The mache adds a pepper vegetal accent and the entire mixture is enlivened by the bright citrus & spice of the chili paste.

IDB Lardo-Truffle Scrambled Egg
Lardo is one of those things that always sounds appealing but the flavor invariably ends up being overwhelming. Quinn shows some real finesse here, using sparing amounts of the pork fat in place of oil or butter. The egg is then imbued with a porcine richness while the scallion provides a countervailing freshness.

3 Year Aged Tuna Belly Ensalata Rusa
Another treasure from Quinn's trip to Vegas was a tuna belly aged for three years. The fish itself has a rich flavor somewhere between classic tuna and a deeper meaty savor. Coupled with the "Russian" salad, the mixture tasted like a classic tuna salad but with a weightier intensity.

Frank's Death Row Meal Course 6: Butterfish Tataki
Unlike most restaurants, Quinn doesn't maintain dictatorial control over the menu. One idea he came up with was letting his crew each come up with 10 courses that they would eat for a last meal. For his sixth dish, Frank Deloach opted for a butterfish tataki. The preparation demonstrated the best traits of both cooked and raw preparations of the fish while the sauce gives the dish a distinctly Japanese flavor.

Buy Jarred Dooley a Haircut - Foie Gras PB&J
The last of the foie gras courses looked more like a dessert, but the expected sweetness felt quite natural. Despite being a seared preparation the liver didn't feel overly heavy with the bold sweet flavors equally matched to the liver

Chipotle Corn - Lime Butter, Queso Oaxaca
We debated a long while before deciding to skip this course, but I was certainly glad the kitchen corrected that oversight. The fresh corn is immensely sweet. The sweet spicy accents are the model compliments, while the Oaxacan cheese provides a savory twang that makes this arguably the best corn that I've ever eaten.

Dragon Roasted Asparagus
The tender baby asparagus was roasted over high heat giving it a vibrant vegetal char. A palpable heat and the heady aroma of garlic accompany the delicate sprigs providing depth and character but leaving the asparagus as the star.

Upright Four With Saison, I always think funky and complex but this was surprisingly light. There are notes of grass a tinge of flowers and a wild effervescence that makes this wonderfully refreshing.

Pan Roasted Quail - Wilted Spinach
The quail signaled a shift to a heavier phase of the meal. The bird was tender and flavorful quite nice with the mustard and spinach if a touch salty.

Corned & Smoked Veal Heart Reubenish
I was expecting more of a Reuben-esque dish rather than an actual reuben. The sandwich was everything one would expect, tender well seasoned meat, tangy sauce (housemade of course), plenty of pickled pungency and melted cheese all stuffed between lightly toasted bread. The flavors are faithful to the original and quite satisfying.

I Heart Lamb Vermicelli Noodles
This dish was a nice change of pace from the heavy meat dishes preceeding and following it. A very faithful Vietnamese bun or noodle salad, the lamb heart plays second fiddle to the robust sauce, the aromatic basil and the delightful snap of the cold vermicelli.

Iberio De Bellota Secreto - Romesco, Bleumenthal Potatoes
The immense slab of IDB Secreto was everything one could want from the most prized cut of the most prized breed of pig. The each bite causes a wickedly porcine oil to gush forth that seems completely at odds with the firm supple texture. A sauce Romesco compliments the meat with a smoky rusticity. More of those delicious Bleumenthal potatoes dot the plate and while they aren't strictly integral to the dish they do provide a nice sponge for all that oil.

Maple Glazed Pork Chop
A collective groan erupted from our table when we saw this slab of pork. Apparently our serving was par for the course, but they can get even larger. The meat is utterly juicy and tender with a thin ring of fat around the succulent chop. A straightforward but fulfilling dish that any pork lover should try.

Pan Roasted Hand Diver Scallops - Ranchero, Charred Corn
This was another course that we considered but ended up not ordering. The scallops are faultless beautiful coloring on the exterior with a tender even texture. The earthy spice of the Ranchero felt a bit heavy yet but still paired nicely with the shellfish.

Wagyu Ribeye Lomo Saltado
By this point I was so full, but this was well worth the extra agony. The meat is absolutely stellar tender and slick with an apparent fattiness from the Wagyu's renowned marbling. The cilantro chili sauce worked wonders, both cutting through all that meaty richness and countering the starchy heft of the fries.

Bruery BA Smoking Wood Mikkeller Sorachi Ace Haandbryggeriet Sweet & Sour Our server Ryan recommended the smoking wood to pair with our final savories, but the smoked beer aged in rye barrels had enough sweet and chocolate notes to pair with the desserts as well. After the savories were cleared from the table, Chef Quinn brought by an armload of beers. We ended up trying the Sorachi Ace and a sour ale brewed in Norway. The former was a single hop IPA that exuded overwhelming aromas of herbal hops befitting its single hop nature. The sour ale had a musky nose interlaced with fruit and a tannic funk on the palate.

Finca Pascualete Queso De Torta - Blackberry-Maple Jam, Crushed Pistachios
I thought this was going to be a cheesecake, but it was actually a round of semi-liquid sheep's milk cheese, creamy and pungent the core reminded me of Époisse de Bourgone, my favorite cheese. The jam and pistachios are a nice touch but I preferred to enjoy the cheese in all its stinky glory.

Sticky Toffee Pudding
This straightforward dessert delivers exactly what it promises. The chewy bread pudding is soaked in a sweet toffee sauce while the bottom has a delightfully sticky texture.

Serious Business Summer Fruit Cobbler
Made from hybrid fruits, this exhibits all the candied sweetness and tenderness of ripe fruit. The scoop of ice cream had a denser chewy texture reminiscent of caramel.

Mikkeller Beer Geek Cognac Deschutes Brewery The Abyss Though we finished dinner we decided to keep ordering beer as various members of the staff came by to chat with us. First up was a special edition Mikkeller's Beer Geek Brunch, made with Civet coffee, the brew is then aged in congnac casks. The rich notes of coffee and chocolate are complimented by an oaky weight with subtle notes of dark ripe fruit. The second beer, The Abyss, was a gift from Jason Quinn's brother, Brandon. The vintage Imperial Stout has loads of coffee, rich malt, and caramelized sweetness with a nuanced tinge of black licorice.

Albacore Belly Conserva
We wanted to try this course but somehow it never arrived so we decided to go back. The albacore belly is surprisingly lean with a light fishiness. The bitter vegetables and piquant dressing provide a contrasting levity to the fish. An interesting course but one that I was too full to enjoy properly.

Playground Burger
The kitchen staff took this opportunity to send us more food that we didn't need. The burger is an absolute beast, the thick patty is served rare with a mild cheese, sweet caramelized onion and a light tangy mustard making it easy to appreciate the burger's rich bovine sapor.

Jolly Pumpkin iO Saison Our last wine was another saison brewed with rose hips. The color was fittingly pink with loads of soft rose notes on the nose and palate. A little bit of citrus and tart fruit round out the flavors, almost more like a wine than a beer.

The playground certainly lives up to its name. The food is creative and whimsical, befitting the youthful exuberance of its staff. The culinary team clearly loves what they do and it shows in the food they produce. The intense attention to detail and relentless pursuit of the freshest products coupled with talent and passion result in food that is not only fun but delicious as well. I suspect Jason et al would do well in Los Angeles, despite its glut of gastropubs, but in Orange County there is absolutely nothing else like it.


sygyzy said...

Wow this place looks amazing. What I love about it is the chef obviously knows what appeals to diners at a very basic level. You can look at any of his dishes and you know it'll taste good. I would say it's a less refined than the other places you go but I bet it's just as satisfying. Thanks for the heads up.

Epicuryan said...

You hit the nail on the head. Playground isn't about refinement, just good food.

James said...

That's quite the write up, all of that food looks amazing. May I ask how many people were at your table? With that much food I'm assuming four or more.

Epicuryan said...

We had four but we wished it was more as we were giving food away near the end.