A question that seems to constantly come up in our lives as food bloggers is where to take guests. Because of our food-loving hobby, our non-food obsessed family and friends often expect that we will take the to only the very best places. Given these high expectations, deciding on a place to eat can sometime devolve into stressing and second-guessing. Over the past weekend, Mark and I spent a considerable amount of time agonizing over where to take my parents and my little brother out to eat. Trying to select places that really represented L.A.'s food scene, we scored a home run on Saturday night with a trip to Oo-Kook Korean BBQ. Our next meal was enjoyed by all as well, with a brunch-time trip to Playa, a restaurant devoted to "urban Latin cuisine" and L.A.'s "open-air, laid-back, coastal lifestyle."
It's clear from the first step through the doors of chef/owner John Rivera Sedlar's second Latin establishment (he is also the brain behind Rivera downtown) that he has continued in his commitment to modernizing more traditional themes. In his own words, the decor is influenced both by his history with Santa Fe and his present in southern California, and the effect is casual, yet stunning, elegant, yet whimsical. And Playa's staff is equally pleasing - our server was not only very knowledgeable about the food, but game to engage in some playful banter with our table.
Also impressive was the beautiful, well-stocked floor-to-ceiling bar. It figures - when you've got Julian Cox, one of the hottest mixologists around, crafting your cocktail menu, it's only right that you devote some time, space and energy to making your bar a focal point. Mark found a great summer sipper in Cox's Beer and Ball, a refreshing mixture of Campari, grapefruit, lime juice and Miller High Life. My parents and brother, not being big cocktail people, enjoyed Mexican Diet Coke, the only soda stocked at Playa.
The first thing to hit our palates was the Jewish version of the chef's made-to-order maize cakes, topped with smoked salmon, creme fraiche, caperberries, and crispy strands of fried red onion. I don't know that I've ever had Latin-Jewish fusion before, but the clean-tasting combination of flavors was delicious, with the mild briny tartness of the caperberries and the smoky saltiness of the salmon balanced by the creme fraiche.
As tasty as the first version was, the salsa semilla version was just as good, topped with rich and creamy burrata, arugula salad, and salsa verde. The flavors here were more subtle, but that just allowed the flavors of the maize cake (like the best tortilla you've ever had) shine.
We each got a bite of a couple of the crispy thick-cut Niman Ranch applewood-smoked bacon, which was very good. But in a menu full of unique and delectable creations, it wasn't particularly noteworthy.
Right before our main dishes arrived, our server gifted us with a complimentary order of the wonderfully moist blue corn muffins, made with Anson Farms organic cornmeal and perfectly completed by some whipped sweet almond butter. This is going to sound silly, but the corn muffins may have been my favorite part of the meal (and I really liked everything). A definite must-order on any future visit to Playa.
My dad and brother order the tamal, cracked corn masa filled with pulled pork and topped with two sunnyside-up eggs. I didn't get a chance to taste this dish, but I liked (though was a bit perplexed) that it was served on a colorful plate depicting a scene from Clockwork Orange.
Mark ordered the huevos polenta, with lardons, rajas (strips of chiles), calabacitas (mixture of summer squash, onions and peppers) and queso cotija, a luxurious and hearty dish, if just a little bit too much on the salty side.
My mom and I opted for the duck hash, with Weiser Farm fingerling potatoes, peppers and a 630 egg. Mom thought the duck was a little too salty, but I really, really enjoyed it, especially once I broke into the slow-cooked eggs and mixed all the ingredients with the rich yolks.
We hadn't quite managed to stuff ourselves silly yet, so we moved onto the sweets portion of the meal, always a favorite with the men in my life. The azul, a blue corn gateau, almondine ice cream, Tahitian vanilla bean sorbet, and apple potpourri was more of a me dessert than a Mark dessert - all of the flavors were really subtle and thanks to the blue corn cake, almost savory rather than sweet. I particularly liked the almondine ice cream, especially in contrast to the vanilla bean sorbet, which was just a touch on the bland side and had an odd texture. Nevertheless, I appreciated the overall effect of the dish.
Playa's version of the ice cream sundae, with a soft, warm cornmeal cookie, a mild goat's milk ice cream and a side of hot chocolate sauce, was more of a hit with Mark.
I'm not usually a big brunch person, but Playa manages to elevate the meal to something special. I was so pleased that I was able to share with my mom, dad and brother an excellent meal that really expresses some of the best elements of the southern California lifestyle. I cannot wait to visit again for dinner, and I'm definitely putting Playa in the go-to roster for future guest visits.