Over the past month, the contributors of I Heart OC have been dining at Playground in Downtown Santa Ana. Our excitement had been building since the restaurant opened its doors in late December 2011. According to Jarred Dooley, Playground crew member and Certified Cicerone, we couldn’t have come at a better time! Playground has ironed out all those new-restaurant-kinks and is serving up a menu that pushes the Orange County envelope.
One of the restaurants most notable “kinks” came in January when restaurant owner, Jason Quinn went head-to-head with a bad customer and negative Yelp reviewer. The negative review and Quinn’s aggressive response have been removed from Yelp, but you can see a screen shot of the review and response at the Food Beast blog.
This online incident was immediately picked up by blogs and publications such as the OC and LA Weekly who, thankfully, did not subscribe to the typical adage “the customer is always right.” Instead they applauded Quinn for standing up for his menu and method. Jonathan Gould, the popular food writer of the LA weekly, stated that he and his fellow foodies admire Quinn and his role in the beer pub renaissance.
Truthfully, I question whether negative Orange County reviewers would simply rather dine at a predictable and large portioned chain restaurant than be exposed to innovative menus made with thought, passion and high quality ingredients.
More importantly, did Playground live up to the hype? – Yes and YES!
The restaurant’s smaller size and communal dining options create a neighborhood-y vibe that reminds customers that dining is an event best shared. “You, me & all our friends” is an adage they display prominently and with pride. The modern-industrial décor is balanced by a large, whimsical chalkboard wall where the staff promotes their local produce supplier and remind customers what they can do with their “well done” meat requests.
The menu here changes weekly and sometimes daily. So, if you study the menu (like we OC geeks do) you might be surprised upon your arrival. This also means that our food review below is probably already out dated, but we accept that and will be back to Playground, without hesitation, for something new.
On the night our carnivore contributor visited, she indulged in the Black Molasses and Cofee Rubbed Full Rack of Prime Rib. Her comment? “Can I get a O-M-G!?!”
“First of all the came out on rack; the kind you have in your oven. Second, they were a FULL RACK, really gigantic! Third, the dark, sweet molasses flavor was incredible. This was an excellent value. Plus they must have been tender because the only utensils I saw used were fingers and a fork – knife stayed clean!”
I had heard that Playground does their meat right so, as a vegetarian, I was a little anxious. Would I love my food as much? Again, the answer was yes! I won’t go into all the delicious details except to say that I was very impressed by the combination of food and flavors in every dish I tried (and we had four that night, plus dessert!). The most indulgent was the grilled asparagus topped with burrata and truffle vinaigrette but the most unique was a farro salad with carrots, blood oranges, avocado and spicy chickpeas.
Playground also wants to be Orange County’s premier destination for craft beers and they are well on their way. They’ve got 15 rotating beers on draft and 60 in the bottle. Great selection, lots of variety and every beer on draft was only $5.00. All of their staff are certified beer servers, the first level of certification on the path to becoming a Master Cicerone. If you’re wondering what a Cicerone is (I was!) check out cicerone.org. It looks impressive!
We also had a ton of fun! The Playground Staff was welcoming, hospitable, funny and are currently growing some awesome mustaches for Mustache March (the gentlemen at least). You can tell they all take pride in their jobs, the food they serve and the service they provide.
We’re happy to report that Playground exceeded our expectations and we can’t wait to go back.
Featured image courtesy of Playground website