This Santa Ana gastropub-style restaurant brings some fun to Orange County cuisine.
Roundabout two years ago, when Orange County jumped on the food truck bandwagon, the transformations taking place in the local food scene were a caviar sprinkling on top of a freshly shucked oyster – that is to say, they were small, but important. The couple of years since have seen an explosion of food trucks roaming the OC streets that offer everything from sliders to waffles to cookie ice cream sandwiches and barbecue, and that foster a good amount of experimentation, creativity and downright ingenuity. None, however, has experienced more success and acclaim than The Lime Truck, an American cuisine-focused truck originally founded by Daniel Shemtob, Jason Quinn and Jesse Brockman – a trio of enthusiastic foodies who began their rise to food truck fame in June 2010, gaining accolades and recognition along the way (The Lime Truck won The Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” in 2011). But then things changed: Jason Quinn went out on his own to open The Playground, a forward-thinking gastropub-style restaurant in downtown Santa Ana. It’s a true American truck-to-mortar story – one that we hope will bring Orange County cuisine to its next level.
The mission goes something like this: The Playground is an American small plate restaurant with a focus on interesting flavor combinations, communal dining and a team-inspired menu. And then there’s the beer: all rare finds, all food pairing-friendly and all five bucks (on draft). There’s a signature burger, but The Playground isn’t a burger restaurant – far from it. It is, for lack of a better term, a chef’s playground – a place where the best culinary OC minds gather and let their imaginations run wild. Only after ideas are refined do the chefs track down the requisite fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and transform their visions into reality. It’s really what every foodie could ever want: A truly chef-driven restaurant, with a staff that works around the clock and tells you up front that you will pay more for their (and your) commitment to good food, not their exorbitant rent costs. And the clincher: The menu is overhauled on a weekly basis. In fact, if there’s one thing we’re worried about, it’s that The Playground is too ambitious. Evidence of this could be seen the night we were there, when two of the four main dishes were sold out (the burger being one of them), causing us to put in our dessert order immediately, lest it get 86’d as well.
We began our experience at The Playground in the only way possible: with beer. Being one of the only restaurants in Orange County to have a Certified Cicerone (in lay speak, a beer expert who can advise you on all things beer) on staff, and have all their wait staff certified as beer servers, you can expect a thorough soliloquy on the merits of each of the restaurant’s chosen brews before deciding to commit (or just ask for tasters, which they are happy to give). We went with a local beer, The Bruery’s Saison de Lente, a blonde with unusually complex character, and a Hangar 24 Double IPA, made in Redlands and overflowing with assertive flavors of hops and wildness, derived from the use of local orange blossom honey. Both of these paired well with a whole fried quail served with Szechuan dipping sauce. Notably made to order, the quail was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, without an ounce of extra grease to be found. The addition of the dipping sauce was akin to dipping into a cool pool on a hot day – just the right balance, with salty-sweet-tanginess mingling with meaty goodness on every bite. On the vegetable side (not to be confused with “vegetarian,” a food philosophy to which The Playground clearly does not subscribe) the Brussels sprouts are spectacular, having been prepared with Benton’s bacon, bacon hash and grey mustard vinaigrette. Every bit of toastiness on the outer leaves of the sprouts added depth of flavor, and as far as we’re concerned, we could eat these all day, every day.
A bit of an exuberance slow-down came in the next round with the pan-roasted halibut served with autumn succotash and Dijon cream. The fish, cream and vegetables seemed haphazardly thrown on the plate, and the halibut was on the dry side, with little help from the bed of anemic-looking vegetables underneath. The Dijon cream added little, but didn’t take away, which caused the whole effect to register as flatly unmemorable. The wagyu beef tri-tip, on the other hand, was thick and juicy, in part thanks to the fact that it was cooked to a delicious medium rare (nota bene: The Playground will not cook your meat well-done) and in other part thanks to the melted leeks and garlic butter that accompanied it.
Dessert, a passion fruit panna cotta, was cool and creamy, with a lacerating fruitiness asserting itself, not so subtly, towards the end of every bite. It was a microcosm of The Playground – a little bit sophisticated, a little bit unexpected, and a lot full of life.
It’s all play, all the time at The Playground – a way of life we couldn’t encourage more.