First Look: Playground in Santa Ana
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.
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.