TRUST at Playground - Santa Ana, CA

Dinner - Saturday, October 12, 2013

Santa Ana always struck me as "that place between San Diego and Los Angeles". Indeed, I would've never thought about making a trip there if we hadn't been running a race in nearby Long Beach. Some restaurant hunting yielded a series of interesting blog posts about a restaurant called Playground in downtown Santa Ana. Further investigation showed that they were running a small dinner series called TRUST, a tasting menu at their chef's counter (interestingly, in a space separate from the main restaurant).

TRUST is billed as a refined experience, where the kitchen is able to perfect dishes from the more ad-lib menu in the main restaurant, while also focusing on better ingredients and a more cohesive narrative. As it turns out, it was still a huge mishmash, but our dinner was engaging and quite a lot of fun.

Baja yellowtail belly
Finger lime aioli, grated palm sugar
Caught off the Baja coast by executive chef Jason Quinn, the fish was relatively lean, with a fresh, clean taste. Very nice when paired with the tart aioli and rich palm sugar.

Parmesan churros, black pepper
Excellent texture in the hot churros. It's rather refreshing to see black pepper used so liberally - it was front and center, battling with the Parmesan. This would make a great bar snack.

Beet madeleine, Ras el hanout yogurt
Kabocha velouté
Whey panna cotta
Smoked roe, maple, lemon gel
Really fantastic - our consensus dish of the night. The panna cotta utilized the whey byproduct of their house-made goat's milk cheese (see the kale salad below) - so tangy and creamy. On top, just a dribble of maple syrup and lemon to balance the salinity of the lightly smoked nama sujiko (a sure sign of Autumn).

Carrot fritter, pistachio, caramelized honey powder
I found these strongly reminiscent of vadai, a favourite treat from my childhood. Grease-free, with a crispy exterior and soft insides - biting into these piping hot fritters was a nostalgic experience.

Kale three ways
House-made goat cheese, grapes, candied walnuts, verjus dressing
Miyazaki A5 wagyu ribeye
Horseradish, fried potatoes "a la Blumenthal", mushrooms
Miyazaki wagyu never fails to please. Here, a thin slice of ribeye was draped over horseradish cream, sauteed mushrooms and tater tots prepared using the triple-cooking method popularized by Heston Blumenthal. Hard to fault the ingredients separately, but they didn't quite mesh - the horseradish was a touch strong and dominated the dish.

Sunchoke, Parmesan, onion, sunflowers
A course from sous chef Nico Peña (formerly of Quince). Very good tortellini, filled with a sunchoke paste, and topped with sunflower leaves and shards of dehydrated caramelized onion. The pasta floated on a sea of sharp Parmesan espuma. This may be Southern California, but the dish was evocative of Fall in chillier climes.

Tonkotsu-braised pork cheek
Butternut squash, crispy brussel sprouts
Blu di Bufala, quince, hazelnuts
Burnt miso, cider, walnut
A swath of burnt miso provided a smoky, umami base for a lone stewed apple and a quenelle of cider sorbet - a nice blend of the five basic tastes. A sprinkle of walnut streusel added crunch. Slices of raw apple, dehydrated by exposure to dry ice, had a faint but lingering effervescence - unexpected and quite pleasant.

Peanut butter and jelly
What a surprise finding this place in an area I had generally considered a restaurant desert (one wonders how the local clientele have responded to their off-the-cuff cooking). The kitchen is full of young, energetic cooks from disparate backgrounds - their enthusiam is infectious (as we were the only people at the counter until dessert, the level of interaction was perhaps far greater than normal). This wasn't a dinner that delivered any revelations - rather, it coupled a very enjoyable meal with engaging conversation. These people are enthusiastic about what they're serving, as well as the food of their peers stateside and abroad.

220 East 4th Street
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Phone: (714) 560-4444