Playground is well equipped
If you're a Lime Truck groupie, you've probably already made a pilgrimage to Playground. And if you're not a follower of the food truck scene, but are a follower of interesting food, you should check out this new restaurant in the bustling East End of downtown Santa Ana.
Jason Quinn has left behind The Lime Truck, winner of the Food Network's "Great Food Truck Race" last year, and used some of the $100,000 prize money to open a brick and mortar spot, but he hasn't left behind his food truck roots, keeping menu items chef driven and spontaneous.
Sous chef Frank DeLoach fires up the wok. The chef's playful creations are reflected in dish menu names such as "Quest For the World's Greatest Chicken Wings, Attempt Number Seven."
ANA VENEGAS, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Every Tuesday (when the restaurant is closed) he and his collection of young chefs gather to debate what groceries to buy for the week, based on what's available, what's fresh and what everyone is feeling. Different menus are then drawn up for Wednesday through Saturday. Sunday Supper is a sort of leftover night; they use whatever is left to make a multi-course dinner ($30 a person).
Playground is casual hip with a few communal tables and picture windows for people watching. A chalkboard on the wall over the bar lists a rotating selection of 15 craft beers on tap ($5) and twitter handles for everyone in the kitchen so you can tweet them while you're eating and tell them if you like what you're eating, or not.
I asked the manager if he was sure about this. Quinn recently made headlines after a Yelper bashed him for refusing to cook burgers past medium rare and building a 3 percent gratuity into the prices for the kitchen staff. Quinn launched a blistering counterattack, naming a dish after the Yelper: Burn in Hell Shrimp ($10). But the manager told me he got fired up only because the Yelper's review included a personal attack on his parents.
Both nights I was there the service was outstanding.
One night I asked my waiter if he recommended the homemade lamb bacon carbonara ($8). He told me it was super smoky, and flavorful, almost too flavorful, but so good that he reallywanted me to try it and he would take it back if I didn't like it.
A small nest of creamy spaghettini arrived. I've never tasted a dish so intensely smoky. The sauce was infused with the rendered down lamb bacon fat. It was delicious, but so rich, that if you are lucky enough to see it on your menu you should share it.
I also tried the Pork Chop ($25). It was a monster, about 3 inches thick. It was prepared sous vide, locked into a baggie and cooked in hot water, and then finished with a quick pan sear in a butter and maple syrup. It was one of the juiciest chops I've ever tasted.
Hand-cut fries appear on the menu in various incarnations (I was sad to hear I just missed the blood orange and serrano aioli). The night I was there I had a batch with "Not Ketchup" ($5); nothing crazy, just a fresher homemade version of your Heinz 57.
The Playground gets its produce from Melissa's in Los Angeles. The roasted corn with fresh bay leaf butter ($7) was crunchy and sweet. If you see Pan Rustico With San Marzano and Goat Cheese Butter ($4) on the menu, get it. The bread was warm and yeasty, so doughy that if you grabbed a handful out of the middle you could squeeze it into a ball. The butter was whipped for easy melting.
The crab, avocado and pink grapefruit ($16) had lumps of fresh, sweet crab tossed with slivers of avocado and pink grapefruit and then splashed with a grapefruit vinaigrette.
For dessert I tried the Peanut Butter Chocolate Thing ($7), a thick curl of chocolate ganache, a dab of peanut butter mousse and a sprinkling of peanut butter cookie brittle.
I went back on a Sunday night. It wasn't until I got there that I learned it was Sunday Supper, a set menu for $30 a person. The manager told me that it was their fault for not telling me on the phone: My husband and I could stay and eat for the price of one since it was their mistake.
Dish after dish arrived at our table: spicy Romanesco-style roasted corn, flash-fried broccolini with a sweet agave lime syrup, cubed Okinawa sweet potatoes in a chipotle sauce, a fresh kale and Parmesan salad. The only thing I didn't enjoy was the tiki masala chicken drumettes.
Dessert was mini fresh-baked cookies, a rather dry bread pudding with an orange glaze, and a fudgy chocolate tart with a crushed pretzel and coco crust. I swooned to my server and the next thing I knew, April the pastry chef was at my table giving me the recipe.
You & Me & All Our Friends is the Playground's motto (some of the staff has it tattooed on their arms). They seem to be taking it seriously.
/ THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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