The first time I went to Dough Exchange, the Playground-affiliated bakery in Santa Ana's East End Marketplace, was a week or so after it opened, and it was absolutely execrable. Jason Quinn had contacted me asking me to let him know when I came in, and being the contrary bastard I am, I snuck in without telling him. I went with a friend who is extremely knowledgeable about food, and we sat down with the four items we purchased.
It was as though the basic concept of gluten formation had escaped the bakers. The cinnamon roll was bread; the empanada was bread; the doughnut was bread; the croissant was bread. All four were tough and chewy, obviously overworked.
There were other issues, too; literally everything we ate had a white film of salt crust across that top of that. It's one thing to have that on something like a meat pie, but there's no need for it on a doughnut, or on a bacon-stuffed croissant. And some of the flavor combinations were bizarre even for a restaurant empire known for its experimental nature: apricot curry empanadas had chewy, over-reduced filling, and four or five times the amount of vadouvan necessary. I tasted curry in everything I ate for the next two meals.
Having dropped quite a bit of dough (ha!) on this unsatisfying breakfast, we left and swore not to return. We weren't the only ones, obviously: last week, Quinn and his team announced that you could come to Dough Exchange and get free items as long as you left feedback. Well, okay.
Here's how it works: you get to pick two items from the list of things they're working on. Not everything is free, but the things that are for purchase are clearly marked on the display case. The items are written on a card, and you take a pen along with your food. You're to eat the items on the patio, then write your (completely anonymous) commentary on the card, which you leave in a take-out box near the cash register. You're asked how much a fair price would be for the item.
This isn't new for Quinn & Co. They went through something like eighty variations on ramen before they settled on their ramen recipe; when they were developing the khao soi for Noodle Tramp, they put it on the menu at Playground. The burger, too, went through a very public development cycle. The idea is that if it sucks, you send it back, nobody's a jerk about it, and they take it off your bill. I suspect fewer and fewer items are being sent back these days as they settle into their groove.
I showed up to Dough Exchange bright and early on Saturday morning, expecting the same experience and having fortified myself with coffee. Gone, however, were the bizarre flavor combinations; the items looked normal. I ordered a lime curd doughnut with vanilla icing and a rhubarb oat bar. I also ordered (and paid for) a croissant with Benton's country ham and cheddar cheese in it.
The rhubarb oat bar had all the flavors on point--and, notably, was not salty--but the construction needed a little help. The rhubarb filling was a little bit loose, and so the streusel slid off the top and the construction dribbled all over my fingers. A little more reduction of the filling, or a little more pectin added any which way they care to, and the streusel would have "stuck" to the top and crisped a little more. A buck and a half, maybe.
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The croissant was leagues, leagues better than the first example. You could see where the dough had been laminated (folded over butter and re-rolled to create flaky layers that separate when the water in the butter turns to steam in the oven), something that seemed missing in the earlier croissant. The Benton's ham was, of course, amazing. I tasted the cheddar, but it appeared to have disappeared into the croissant, where it fused some of the light layers together. I would have liked to have a warm blob of cheddar every now and then. Still, though, a much better product, and I'd like one of those croissants without any filling.
Then there was the doughnut. Absent was the glutinous, bready, tough texture that had required the serrated blade on my pocketknife to cut; gone was the weird layer of salt that overwhelmed the old doughnut. The texture was soft, almost as soft as the white milk breads sold at Asian bakeries. The lime curd was the perfect texture, the perfect balance of tart and sweet, and the perfect thickness so it didn't soak into the doughnut. If you had served me this doughnut blind, I'd've bet money it had come from Sidecar. I meant to eat only a bite or two (for science!), but before I knew it I had crammed the entire doughnut into my mouth and was engaged in a disgusting and public exhibition of "chubby bunny" that would have made my grandmother turn over in her grave as my phone rang. It was glorious. I'd pay 'bout tree-fitty for one of those.
I left a fiver in the "food cost" jar and walked out. Time will tell whether Dough Exchange will survive, but the Playground group is well known for their willingness to listen and admit it when they screw up, and they've always come up roses before. In the meantime, I'm going to go think about lime-curd doughnuts.