When I spent a day with The Playground gang a couple months ago for my cover story on chef Jason Quinn
, I was in awe of the ideas that kept spewing out of the mouth of sous chef Frank DeLoach. He came up with a brilliant soft-shell crab and waffles dish, and later proposed they do something with a Doritos consommé (a broth made with the famous tortilla chips), but Quinn thought it was too weird. "I'm a looney," DeLoach confesses.
Last night, DeLoach got to go buck wild at Bites: A Raw Bar, an omakase-style pop-up dinner he hosted at the restaurant. These intimate, often one-night-only events are always treat in Orange County; diners get to interact with the chefs on a personal level and hear how each dish was conceptualized. The restaurant experience feels like a dinner party.
DeLoach was joined by sous chef Kevin Bui and Jarred Dooley
, The Playground's director of libations who brought in special Japanese brews such as Hitachino Nest Real Ginger Brew and Yoho Yona Yona Pale Ale. The group of diners clinked glasses with a cheerful "kanpai!" and the meal began.
For this event, the fish had been flown in from Japan early that morning, and what DeLoach did with it had people across the bar moaning, "Oh my God."
The first bite was Tai, known as the most kingly fish in Japan. It was served with "sand," a crumbly mixture that had the sweetness and grittiness of a graham cracker crust. With a sliver of an ocean-carried sea bean on top, it tasted like summer at the beach.
Next there was albacore topped with pixie tangerines and a house-made fish sauce. Tangy, minty, a little bit sweet and wildly refreshing.
The mackerel was topped with yuzu and fried buckwheat strips, which DeLoach snacked on while he prepared the bites. Sprinkled on top were marigold and chai blossoms.
While not raw, pork belly was on the menu simply because who doesn't love pork belly? The fatty chunk with a root beer glaze sat atop a heavy smear of carrot sauce and a Turkish coffee mixture that tasted vaguely like an Oreo dessert. I was desperate to soak up every last morsel with my glorious slab of meat.
Skip Jack, a fish that DeLoach says "gets no love in the States," was accompanied by a creamy tomago (sweet egg omelet) sauce.
Lastly before dessert, the octopus, torched just before serving, came in a puddle of the Doritos broth that DeLoach had been envisioning. Surprisingly, the broth wasn't overpowering--instead, it had a subtle ranchero flavor that worked insanely well with the crispy granny smith apples and cubes of fresh avocado.
A cube of watermelon came out for dessert, one that was so vibrant, sweet, and when topped with condensed milk shavings and Pop Rocks (yes, Pop Rocks), explosive
. Carbonated pineberries added a tingly sensation.
It was a thrilling meal that left me hungry for more from this looney, truly talented chef.
220 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, CA