Well it’s just about less than 18 hours to the official grand opening of Jason Quinn’s Playground in Downtown Santa Ana. I stopped by for a quick look inside his playground and I found an enthusiastic staff, a proud father and a very focused Jason Quinn. Jason Quinn was one of the co-founders and chef of the The Lime Truck.
Playground will officially open to the public at 6:00pm on Friday, November 18th.
But if you happen to be walking by Playground for the last two nights, you would know that Chef Jason and his staff have been doing a few “rehearsals”. Tonight was the last rehearsal before opening night – so I came to taste the food – more on that later…
I was in Downtown Santa Ana hoping to take some pictures of the place and as I was walking up I noticed that the front door was open. I popped my head in and asked if I could snap a few pictures. I was greeted by Jarred Dooley who is the Director of Libations for Playground. Jarred shows me around the place and Jason Quinn pops over and I introduce myself to him. He looks like a father in the waiting room waiting for a new baby to arrive! He introduces me to his father, Bob Quinn, who is co-owner of Playground. He is so proud of the accomplishments of his son Jason and the opening of their first restaurant.
The place a nice vibe to it. Dark colors with a wall of red to break things up. Most of the tables are communal/family style and there is also seating along the windows. The other walls are in chalkboard black and you can see today’s menu as well as a list of beers, twitter information as well as a large drawing of Melissa’s who provides some of the fresh vegetables along with some local purveyors. As you look towards the bar, you see a row of chrome taps. Here is where some locally crafted beers will be served. There is quite an extensive list of bottled beers and beers on tap. As you walk up to the restaurant from the outside you can see prep work being done in a window to the left. This afternoon, we see the bread being prepared as well as pasta and some aioli. Later in the evening, this will also be a prep area for the assembling of the desserts which are made by none other than Rachel Klemek from the Blackmarket Bakery.
After clicking a few pictures in Playground, I leave and return at 6pm where the doors are now open and the music is playing. The staff is in black while Jason is in his chef whites and red/orange pants sporting a bright cyan watchband. He is both in the kitchen and on the floor tonight. He has a big smile on his face and is happy to see the customers in his place.
I chose to sit at the bar and sat towards the right end of the bar. The setup is a bit different. You order your food and drinks at the bar and then your order is brought to your table. A line was now forming as happy patrons placed their orders and then sat down. I was listening to every order that was coming in and people were trying all sorts of items from the menu this evening. The person behind the bar even offered small samples to the customers trying to make a decision from the list of beers on the wall. A popular beer tonight was the Saison CismonTap a locally co-crafted brew by Cismontane in Rancho Santa Margarita and Taps Fish House and Brewery in Brea.
So tonight I decided to try the Our Bread, Your Butter; Kurobuta Pork Belly Slider; Handmade Gnocchi; Chicken & Egg; Playground Burger and the Handmade Pasta. I finish it off with a sampling of the Farmers Daughter Pudding.
Our Bread/Your Butter
The bread is made fresh everyday and so is the butter. The butter is served to you in a mini-mason jar and has a slight hint of truffle. The bread is soft and pillowy with a nice outer crust with a small sprinkling of sea salt on top. Don’t forget to shake/churn the mason jar before you open it!
Kurobota Pork Belly Slider served in an Individual Steamed Bun with Pickle and Salsa Tigre
This to me was a perfect starter. Truth be known, I probably could have eaten a few more of these! Tender pork belly served in an Asian Steamed Bun. I think that was sirracha and hoisin sauce on the plate, smear your slider into both!
Handmade Gnocchi made with Lemon Ricotta, Sage and Candied Pistachios
The slightest hint of lemon in this Gnocchi dish. In my opinion could have been a bit more pillowy and light. I really wanted to slide the gnocchi thru some sauce. The candied pistachios were a nice touch.
Chicken & Egg with Okinawa Sweet Hash and 62 Degree Poached Egg
Hands down my favorite dish of the night. Jason was so excited about this dish he brought it out himself to me at the bar. A bowl with perfectly sous vide chicken in a broth with scallions topped with a 62 degree poached egg. Underneath it all is an Okinawa Hash. An Okinawa potato is light in color on the outside, but once you slice into it, its a nice rich purple. You break the egg and the yolk just oozes over the chicken and into the broth. I ate everything in the bowl. Get this dish, you won’t be disappointed. The only that could have brought this dish over the top would have been a nicely rendered piece of crispy chicken skin to give you a surprise crunch!
Handmade Pasta with San Marzano Tomatoes and Parmesan
I watched Jason and one of his chefs roll out handmade pasta this afternoon. Jason took long flat pieces of pasta from the pasta machine, cut them and roll them into something between handmade bucatini and maccheroni inferrati. Regardless of the shape, the pasta was cooked al dente (as always) and served with freshest sauce of San Marzano tomatoes seasoned perfectly with a slight hint of heat. Freshly grated Parmesan tops this dish.
Jason knows how to make a burger. This burger was juicy, tender and flavorful. Jason’s dad was explaining to me how they make the burgers. A combination of properly manipulating the fresh ground meat as it comes out of the grinder, wrapping it in log form, chilling it then slicing “against” the grain of the meat. The meat is ground from three different cuts of beef daily. Ingenious actually. The burger is always cooked medium rare to medium (as it should be) and paired with a great bun baked by the OC Baking Company. Pair it with Maple Bourbon caramelized onions, rocket (arugula) and a semi-firm cow’s milk called Tomme de Savoie from the French Alps.
Farmers Daughter Pudding
Last but not least was the Farmers Daughter Pudding served with a smear of caramel on the inner wall of the bowl with pudding, whip cream and caramel popcorn. In addition came two chocolate cookies. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the taste of the actual pudding, as the caramel made for a butterscotch taste in my mouth. The caramel corn was a nice contrast to the pudding and whip cream. Here’s the best part tho. Remember those cookies? I bit into them thinking those were chunks of white chocolate (the expectation) but what I got instead was a corn nut! Brilliant, absolutely brilliant! A nice hit of salt in a sweet dish. All the desserts are made by Rachel Klemek over at the BlackMarket Bakery in Irvine.
For a pre-opening night rehearsal I say Jason and this crew did a great job. I think they are still sorting out issues with how to handle orders, but the food is good, the music is good and they have an endless list of beer to choose from. The prices might seem a bit high for some of the items, but I personally felt it was worth it. There are plenty of other choices on the menu to enjoy and as I was by myself, what I ordered was way over my daily limit – but it was sooo good! The menu will be changing daily according to Jason as it will be driven by what he finds at the market that day. The kitchen seems to have a good handle on things. I’m sure Jason doesn’t let anything go thru the kitchen doors without it matching his standards. However it is safe to say that his chefs feel the same pride in the food they prepare as Jason does and would take it to heart if a dish was sub-par. The front of the house needs some fine tuning but I think they know that and will figure that out over the next little while.
Jason has a good thing going here. They are in a part of Santa Ana that is experiencing new growth and with the patronage of folks from the nearby Yost Theatre and the bars in the nearby Artists’ Village, he won’t have a problem with filling the place up. Don’t get discouraged with the parking, there is plenty of parking in nearby lots and surrounding side streets.
Congratulations Jason on the opening of Playground – I will be back to try more of your great food over the next few weeks!
For more pictures, visit: More Pics from Chef Jason’s Playground
220 E. Fourth Street (4th and Spurgeon)
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30am to close