First Look: Playground in Santa Ana

Playground's duck rillettes
Playground's duck rillettes

Jason Quinn's new restaurant, Playground, opened a couple of weeks ago on la Cuatro, near the Yost Theatre. Originally conceived as a high-end burger-and-beer bar à la Burger Parlor, Quinn revamped the concept to allow him and his staff a little more creativity in the kitchen. It's a good thing: As the chef of the Lime Truck, Quinn was known for the intricate dishes he sent out from a lonchera, not necessarily for a burger.

The menu is divided into small, medium and large plates, though the sizes are open to interpretation. It changes frequently, keeping true to the idea of the kitchen as Quinn's playground for interesting ingredients. There's no point in detailed descriptions of the dishes I ate because they've since rotated off the menu. Forget weekly updates; these guys must go through printer toner like car washes go through water.

Oh, let's detail them anyway:

We started with duck rillettes with yam-white chocolate sourdough and bourbon-cherry compote ($9). Rillettes are a cross between pâté, carnitas and confit; seasoned duck is simmered in its own fat, then shredded and mixed with enough of the fat to make it hold together. The results are a slightly stringy paste. The rillettes at Playground were slightly more uniform, more pâté-like, but a good guilty pleasure. The circles of sourdough, which sounded awful when read on the menu, actually accentuated the duck's sweetness, though a firmer crumb, more akin to the traditional pain de campagne, would go better with pâté.

From the small-plates menu, we chose Brussels sprouts with grain mustard and roasted cipollini ($7). I admire a chef who is willing to cook vegetables and can do so without resorting to such cheap tricks as adding pork. The brussels sprouts were a work of art -- really -- with crispy edges, soft outside leaves and an al dente core. Bacon? Who needs bacon?

First Look: Playground in Santa Ana

The best dish of the night was cured arctic char with lemon-horseradish-dill potato salad ($12). It was several pieces of shaved fish -- char is a cousin to salmon, but not nearly as oily -- that were neither too salty nor too sweet, with a pungent potato salad on top of it. Russ and Daughters could put that fish in their appetizing shop on New York's Lower East Side, and it would sell like hotcakes. It was a popular item; by the time we left, it had sold out.

The house specialty is a burger with tomme de Savoie, maple-bourbon onions, arugula and French vin ($14). Let's just get it out of the way: Yes, this is a very like the Father's Office burger. It is also substantially better than the Father's Office burger. Honestly, Playground could serve the painstakingly hand-ground beef raw, like kitfo, and it would be good, but it was very good as a burger cooked rare; the tomme de Savoie is nicely buttery, the onions replace ketchup for sweetness (though I didn't notice the bourbon flavor with all the other things going on), and the arugula and sauce are the bitter and tart counterpoints. It's a hefty price for a burger, to be sure, but think of it as well-done steak tartare if it makes you feel better. But that, too, has changed; currently, there's fontina and gruyère on it, iceberg lettuce instead of arugula (really?), and double-strength mayonnaise.

My daughter ordered the chicken and waffles ($10); the chicken was fantastic, well-seasoned and cooked just to the point of done while still remaining juicy. I can't say anything about the waffles because there was a sudden sucking sound and all four pieces were gone. I'll take that as a recommendation.

First Look: Playground in Santa Ana

Fries with green Tabasco aïoli and bacon-fat powder ($4), piping-hot from the fryer, were a revelation. Why did fries like this never come off the truck? Skip the aïoli and just eat the fries by themselves. These may be the best fries in Orange County -- sorry, Side Door -- and, like everything else that comes out of Quinn's kitchen, they're ridiculously finicky and labor-intensive to make. They're crispy yet fluffy, just salty enough, and we never once thought of ketchup. In the week since I ate there, the description has changed to "hand-cut fries and contraband." Let's hope that the fries persist on that ever-changing menu, regardless of what they're served with.
 
The only miss of the evening was the wagyu hanger steak with heirloom-tomato salad and blue cheese ($19). The beef was tender and, despite being a traditionally tougher piece of meat, cut easily with just a fork. The problem was the seasoning: Every chef knows beef requires salt to taste like itself, but there was far too much salt on the beef, and it was too coarse. Add to this that blue cheese is a moderately salty cheese, and it was overwhelming. Less salt, a finer grind (use the fancy Malden gros sel on those fries), lose the cheese, and serve it as a $23 steak with frites alongside maybe a bordelaise sauce, and it'll be a winner.

First Look: Playground in Santa Ana

I wasn't sure what to expect from the banana cake with peanut-butter frosting ($7); whatever I'd imagined, I wasn't expecting a mesa of cake with visible pieces of banana and a very restrained amount of frosting. It was a good marriage; the cake would have been overwhelming without the frosting, and the frosting would have been cloying without the cake.

The Nutella-chocolate parfait with hazelnut crumbs ($7) was a huge portion, a water glass filled with a slightly heavy mousse (or an ethereally light pudding, your choice) and crumbled-up hazelnut cookies. It was served with the chocolate on the bottom and a huge spoon, which made me think of Jordan Kahn's interview with our sister blog, Squid Ink, or possibly the hapless guy from the first part of Don Hertzfeldt's Rejected. The mousse wasn't overly sweet, but the chocolate at the bottom was hard to get to; it'd do better as an actual layered parfait. Both desserts have been booted into the ether; currently, the house is serving fried Manchego and panna cotta for dessert.

There's a very well-curated beer list, both taps and bottles, presided over by Jarred Dooley, formerly of the Bruery. It's not overloaded with IPAs (can we be done with the IPA-to-the-exclusion-of-all-else thing going on, please?), with the taps almost exclusively from Orange and San Diego counties; at this writing, there were a couple of Sierra Nevadas and a Firestone Walker on tap. There are a few dozen bottles as well, in case the draft selections don't satisfy. Draft beer is $5 per serving, any time, and serving size depends on the beer.

The wine list is short -- just four bottles long, two at $20 and two at $45 -- and not really the focus of the restaurant; those who just don't want beer should bring their own bottles and take advantage of the free corkage. There was a very light, refreshing "sangría" -- the quotation marks are there because it's made with beer, not wine -- with grapefruit, orange and wild flower.

The service is still maturing; Playground opened with the idea that people would stroll up to the bar and order, then have the food run out to the tables, and the layout doesn't encourage that at all. After some feedback from two weeks' worth of customers, it has switched to a more traditional table-service model, albeit an informal one: You'll likely have multiple staff members stop by, and ask absolutely anyone for anything and they'll get it for you. Everyone's excited and knowledgeable and can talk about how each dish is made.

Is it as daring and as crazy as some of the stuff Quinn put out from the Lime Truck's minuscule kitchen? Not yet; he's still getting settled in. Give him a couple of months, and we'll all be shaking our heads again at the food he dreams up -- and happy to head to downtown Santa Ana, hang out and eat.

Playground, 220 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 560-4444; playgrounddtsa.com. Open Tues.-Sat., noon to close (generally from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.); currently open informally on Sundays for beer and football. No reservations. Credit cards accepted.

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