It's not often I'm in Orange County. The very thought of the hour-plus commute down I-5 sends shudders down my spine. But a recent visit behind the Orange Curtain had me in downtown Santa Ana with time and an appetite to kill. I was lucky enough to stumble into The Playground for lunch to have my expectations exceeded in every possible way.
25 year-old Chef Jason Quinn was the winner of The Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race and has since translated his modicum of stardom into a brick & mortar. House rules like 'If you want your meat well done, feel free to bring your own,' are written on the wall in chalk and Quinn and his ultra-young staff adhere to them without exception. You want ketchup on your burger? Quinn doesn't believe in it. You'll see the likes of bone marrow, sweetbreads and jidori liver mousse coming out of the kitchen - artful dishes created by thoughtful, passionate chefs - so the logic goes, why would you serve those alongside a manufactured concoction of high fructose syrup that comes from a can?
These brash tactics might be less startling if the restaurant were in Silverlake. But here in Santa Ana the restaurant has found its share of detractors. And Quinn has met those detractors with a message of his own: "Burn in hell." That's exactly how he responded to a particularly critical Yelp review that didn't like the way he was running his business. Quinn may be brash, a little immature even, but hearing this makes the former restaurant employee in me squeal with delight. I'll never forget explaining to one diner that we didn't serve ranch dressing because we made all of our dressings in house. She looked me in the eye and said, "what kind of a restaurant is this?" Let's face it, the customer is not always right.
Quinn's point is simple: if you don't like what happens here you don't have to come. Rather, he's created a haven for people who do care about the food they're eating, and more importantly, he's attempted to start a conversation about it - even all the way down in Santa Ana. It might just be working. The businessman at the bar next to me was caught off guard when told he couldn't have ketchup with the burger, but the bartender talked him into giving it a try the way it was. Twenty minutes later that same gentleman wouldn't leave the restaurant until he'd told the chef in person that, even without ketchup, it was the best burger he'd ever had.
Once you're past the initial 'rules' of the restaurant, the staff is actually incredibly friendly and accommodating. I lingered long after my lunch was finished talking beer with my young bartender who was enthusiastic about what was on tap and what the restaurant was doing. The night before, Playground had hosted a 'tap take-over' for Ballast Point Brewing and all 15 taps were solely devoted to $5 pours of Ballast Point brews. I sampled some great beers like the Sea Monster and Victory at Sea, but my easy favorite was a special Habanero infused Sculpin IPA. I'd already list the Sculpin as a favorite, but the habanero gives it a brilliant spicy finish that quite possibly makes it one of my most favorite favorite beers ever.
For lunch, Quinn and company serve an abbreviated menu so that their focus can remain on dinner preparation. When I saw the Foie Gras PB&J (below) on the menu, I felt kind of obligated to order it. How could I not? While foie can often be a magical ingredient choice, it can also make for a pretty expensive failed gimmick. Foie gras and peanut butter and jelly sounded like an odd-pairing but I was curious to test out the ambition of the kitchen.
Two ounces of 'Grade A' Hudson-Valley foie gras come served open-face over brioche. Globs of creamy house-made peanut butter ooze over the edges while grape jelly tops it all off. Foie gras and peanut butter have a lot in common and here the combination of the rich, fatty entities soars harmoniously. The grape jelly is not unlike the fruits and jellies that you'll find commonly paired with the duck liver. It was a total success - one part Thomas Keller, one part Mom - and I savored every bite.
Many might misinterpret the policies as hostile, but what they fail to see is that it just means the people here actually care. They care about the food they're making and they care enough about their guests that they don't want to serve them crap. Quinn's mandatory 3% 'kitchen gratuity' will certainly rile some feathers, but it's all semantics. The charge could just as easily be added into the cost of the food, but this way you're reminded that behind the wall, there's a whole hidden set of people busting their asses to knock your socks off. Set aside your preconceptions and let them.