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The Playground – Leave your Food Inhibitions at the Door

The Playground – Leave your Food Inhibitions at the Door

You can order anything from The Playground’s ever-evolving ingredient-driven menu, but no modifications! If you like your meat well done, bring your own.  This is the playful and creative Chef Centric attitude you find at the Playground. The Playground is the love child of owner Jason Quinn,  who catapulted to notoriety during the Great Food Truck Race. Jason has channeled his passion and creative energy into what has become one of the hotbeds for culinary innovations in southern California, The Playground.

Edgy Summer Camp For Chefs

At its heart, this restaurant really is a summer camp for Chefs to work in an environment where they feel little restrictions to trends and whims of the general public. The Chefs only create what they think is good, even if it pushes the limits. Jason Quinn told me that each of the Chefs at The Playground is required to contribute the menu (which changes every day). One of the more interesting sagas at The Playground was their “Death Row” menu, where each of the Chefs had the opportunity to create the dishes they would like to eat if they had their last meal on death row.  This “last meal” mentality appears to be the driving force behind their menu; each of the Chefs puts their full passion into their dishes, as if it were the last meal they were ever going to eat.

If you were to ask me to describe The Playground, I would use these following descriptors: Chef Centric, New American, small plates, ingredient-driven, penchant for experimentalism, craft beer Mecca, NO MODIFICATIONS.  According to Jason, the core values of the restaurant are “Fresh, exciting ingredients prepared with skill, passion and love; a constantly changing menu; and the stubborn belief that each dish is an integrated composition that we will not alter.”  What I like about this restaurant concept is that I am educated about food every time I visit The Playground.

No Substitutions

A Unique Ingredient Driven Menu

From their chalkboard wall

The menu is very seasonal-ingredient driven and changes DAILY! On Monday the Chefs plan their menu based on what is in season that week, and then continue to modify the menu based on what shipments came in and what went well (and not so well) from early drafts of dishes. The menu they created on Monday might look completely different by Friday. The one thing I like about this approach is that you will find core ingredients that you will not find at most restaurants. For example, under “Vegetables” on their menu, you might find items like Sunchokes. Under “Meats” you will find a motley assortment of proteins from Waygu cuts to cheeks (from all sorts of animals), quail, Korbotu pork , octopus , Jidori chicken, and pig tails. They even bring in high-end items like Jamon Ibirico de Bellota at $20 an ounce.

Jamon Ibirico comes from Acorn fed black pig from Bellota, Spain. A delicacy


What makes The Playground great is their actual execution of their dishes. I visited the Playground four different times; the following are my favorite dishes from those visits. The menu does change daily, so you may not see these exact items on your next visit (. The only Burger and Pork Chop)   

Maple Glazed Pork Chop

Maple Glazed Pork Chop- Tall as a smart phone

One of the most impressive dishes I have experienced, both in terms of flavor and presentation. I had heard many positive things about this dish, so of course I had to try it! With a price tag of $24, I was really hoping it would be fantastic. The Playground  met my expectations and then gave me multiple foodgasms.  What came out was a cut of pork chop about 5 inches tall and drowning in its own juices and maple glaze. The pork is sous vided to ensure an even cook and then pan sauteed with the maple sauce. The result is a savory and sweet pork shop that has broad appeal. We had three taste testers at our table: a pork chop aficionado (Peggy), pork neutral eater (me), and a pork hater (Daniele). Peggy’s eyes rolled to the back of her head with pleasure and she was not mentally available for a few minutes after her first bite. I took a bite and was pleasantly surprised by the tenderness of the meat and sweet juiciness locked into the muscle. Daniele, the pork hater, simply said, “This is the first piece of pork that I have ever liked.” This pork chop was juicy and had a wonderful maple flavor that accentuated the natural pork flavors. I think this is one of their best items and has been on the menu since opening day.

The Playground’s Maple Glazed Pork Chop – Epic in size and flavor

Asside:What is Sous Vide? (pronounced soo-veed) means “under vacuum.” This technique involves cooking food in vacuum-sealed pouches, submerged in a water bath held at a precisely controlled temperature. The end result? Perfectly cooked food.

The Playground Burger

Epic and unconventional. This burger is massive and requires two hands to place it in your mouth . . . perhaps you will need a knife! From a flavor perspective, this ranks as one of Kris’ (self-proclaimed burger expert) “ top 3 burgers he has ever tasted, which ranks up there with Father’s Office in Santa Monica.”  So what makes a great burger? Lets deconstruct it.

Five cuts of Waygu beef are ground in-house  to make a very fatty burger patty at 40% fat. Waygu is already a fatty cow, but cherry-picking your cow parts provides the ability to control flavor, fat content and texture. The cuts include rib-eye, tri-tip, brisket, shoulder and short-rib. Patties are formed in a special technique to ensure that the patty is very fluffy. This fluffiness ensures a pleasant texture when cooked.  The burger is laid up on a freshly baked horseradish laced bun and dressed with onions stewed in maple and bourbon, shredded lettuce, house-made mayonnaise and mustard.

The patty is then cooked to medium-rare (mostly pink throughout) to ensure that the burger is juicy and that it retains its natural flavors.  No modifications allowed! You might notice that this item is not on the menu. Why? Chef Jason Quinn refuses to modify the burger . . . which is required by law if placed on the menu. Trust me — it was really good! 

Grilled Halibut Cheeks in Beef Tendon Broth

“The most tender part of the animal.” — Hannibal Lecter

This delicacy is prepared by simmering down beef tendons into a rich broth and then poaching the halibut cheeks in this sauce.  The results are lush and delicate halibut cheeks. The flavor might remind you of a very refined woman who has a slutty side. The dish was very delicate and refined, but carried extremely rich flavor and a pleasant aroma. This dish was small, but very much worth the experience.

Halibut Cheeks were tender, delicious and accentuated by the beef tendon broth. The broth made a great soup!

Lobster Roll

Pretty simple but delicious execution. Live lobster is culled and then chunks of meat are poached in butter to translucence and then dressed in mayo and a classic New England-style seasoning. It was served in a classic New England-style roll as well. This dish was really delicious, although the other dishes made it look a little standard. Offer this dish to me in another restaurant, and I would say it was rock start quality.

Fresh Shucked Lobster Roll on a very buttery roll. Yum

Grilled Waygu Tri Tip

Their Wagyu TriTip is very nicely marbled

About 6 ounces of Waygu tri tip which appeared to be seared using a pan sautée baste, leaving the exterior 1/8 inch dark drown and saturated in a juicy flavor. The rest of the cut was left rare. My guess is that it was cooked to about 135 degrees (130 is very rare and very bloody and 140 and rare and red throughout and just dripping some blood). A tad under cooked for my taste, although the flavor of the tri tip was spot-on  with natural beef flavors taking center stage.  The tri tip was served atop a chanterelle mushroom risotto. The rice in the risotto was cooked perfectly with a very subtle resistance and creamy flavor or the chanterelle broth imparting a lasting impression. I appreciated the pairing of the Waygu and the risotto; very complimentary flavors.

Grilled Quails with Bacon Lentil Stew

An assortment of grilled quail thighs served with lentils and bacon. This pleasantly gammy meat  has a more assertive flavor than chicken thighs and a texture that is closer to duck. No more meat on these quails than a large chicken wing, but they made up for it in flavor. If you have never tried quail, give it a shot. I really enjoyed the lentils with bacon; great balance of earthy flavors that were amped up with the more aggressive flavors of fatty meat. The lentils paired nicely, because by themselves lentils can have a flat earthly flavor, although when accentuated with gammy quail meet and fatty bacon, it makes for a nice combo.

Hand Cut Fries

The fries are hand-cut and tasty – sorry, but it’s hard to get too excited over French fries. Great for a side dish, but fries are fries. But the house-made ketchup rocked the mike.

Hand Cut Fries with house made sauce of the moment

Buffalo Pig Tails

The Playground’s version of chicken wings. Pig tails are actually about the size of chicken wings and remind me of a combination of pig’s feet, chicken feet and a subtle nod to chicken wings. The pig tails appeared to have been crisped in a fryer and then leathered in a house made hot-sauce and Maytag blue Cheese combination. The wings were placed in a bowl in puddles of the hot sauce and house-made ranch dressing. This dish was both meaty and fatty and it pushed the envelope. I liked it!

Just like a chicken wing, but made from piggy tails

Brussels Sprouts

In 2011 I became a convert of the cult of Brussels sprouts, and since then they have peaked in popularity to the point that they have almost become uncool. Well, fuck that!  I am not in high school and Brussels sprouts are here to stay. I eat them whenever I get a chance and have grown to really become a snob of these leafy green balls of crack. The Playground did not disappoint, and they even inspired me with their take on Brussels sprouts. The Brussels Sprouts were toasted (roasted or fried . . .I couldn’t tell) and tossed together with some baby dutch potatoes in a “mustard vin” sauce.  The result was the nutty flavor of the Brussels sprouts being accentuated and complimented by the sweet and tangy notes of the sauce. This preparation ranks in my top five Brussels  sprouts execution of all time. Sorry Mom, but your preparation did not make my top 10 list.

Awesome Brussels Sprouts

Taquitos with Mole

The Taquitos were crispy on the tongue and stuffed with a yummy pork. They were then blanketed with a smokey and rich mole. The Playground’s crew made a very respectable mole and added their own little twist to the recipe that I am still trying to figure out. Delicious dish.

Waygu Chili Omelet

One of the best dishes I experienced at The Playground. This dish takes a simple three egg omelet and then smothers it with a house made chili with Waygu beef. Rich, smokey and lush.

Wagyu Chili Omelette with cheese and scrambled eggs

Plate of Benton Farms Bacon

Just a plate of bacon cut straight from a slab of belly. But pretty damn good when it doesn’t come from a commercial factory.

Desserts Black Mission Fig Sticky Toffee Pudding

Dense, sweet and ever-present flavor of black figs haunt the palate. Even though you can’t see the figs, their flavor will fuck your taste buds and leave you desiring a cigarette. Best damn bread pudding I have tasted since Café Arnaud’s in New Orleans.  If you weren’t already full from dinner, this bread pudding will be a brick in your stomach. You will go to bed with a smile . . . happy endings do come true.

Red Grape Sorbet

“ Woahhh, it takes like a grape,” said my brother Mark after taking one bite. This dessert was an interesting experiment that was nicely executed. Red globe grapes are converted into a very sweet sorbet by using just grapes and water. It was topped with sweet condensed milk. A wonderfully red grape flavored sorbet that is very sweet and uses no additional sugar. The sweet condensed milk hugged the natural sugars, making the dish smooth on the taste buds. You should try this dish at least once.

Sorbet made in a “Paco Jet” machine. Made with real grapes.

My Final Thoughts

The Playground made it on my 2012 Restaurant Bucket list . After trying it several times, it is now on my  Top 3 restaurants in Orange County and ranks as my favorite on the Gastropub/New American format. It took me over ten months from their opening day to actually make it in to the Playground; although since then, I have visited three additional times. It is very obvious that Jason and his team are putting their full focus and passion into the food. As a result, The Playground has emerged as a leader in the Southern California Restaurant scene and setting new trends that other restaurants are starting to follow . The future is bright for the Playground and I really recommend that my readers try out The Playground at least once.


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About Tom Holmberg

Tom grew up in a cultural diverse neighborhood and a culturally diverse family, so he has learned to appreciate all types of food. "I am not a Chef, nor do I play one on T.V., but I have learned to appreciate food from years of eating and cooking." Tom also spent 10 years in the restaurant industry in various roles, from Prep Cook to server.