Cult of Cuisine: Jason Quinn's Playground

"The customer is not always right."   And so begins our visit with Jason Quinn, proprietor of Playground in downtown Santa Ana, California – a decidedly unorthodox opinion, from a decidedly unorthodox chef/restaurateur.    Jason continues to go about is business of blowtorching a filleted tuna, the head of the fish put off the side for the time being, its ultimate fate being the Malaysian Laksa broth that is cooking in a stainless pot behind us. What might appear to be arrogance is betrayed by his actions – this guy is clearly working hard, and we find ourselves nodding along in agreement. All the while Jason continues to engage with his kitchen staff. "Add more salt to the roti." "The noodles are just right." He is both authoritative and approachable, going about his business like a chef twice his age, yet with the congeniality of rec-center basketball teammate.   Jason's resume reads like the dream career for the thousands of teens and twenty-somethings applying to culinary school. A successful food truck business, The Lime Truck, led to a first place finish on season two of The Food Network's Great Food Truck Race, which led to him establishing his  first brick and mortar, Playground. What was originally intended to be a gourmet burger restaurant, has blossomed into so much more – an eclectic, adventurous menu that makes Playground one of Yelp's Top 100 dining destinations for 2015; He launched a sister bakery, the Dough Exchange, making pastries to order next door, in 2014; And even with all this, he still finds time for a panelist/judging gig on MTV's Snack Off. Not a bad set of accomplishments for the Southern California native who hasn't even celebrated his 30th birthday yet.   Dining at the Playground.  Source:   So what was that idiom about the customer? At Playground, it starts with the dining experience. "We work hard to make everything the best it can be. If you're coming here, why wouldn't you want to enjoy food prepared to the best of our ability?" We continued to talk about the concept of omakase, the Japanese word for trust, and a ubiquitous feature in better sushi restaurants – commonly inferred to mean "the chef is going to be serving you a course of his best offerings today." It turns out that omakase is at the heart of The Playground's Invitation Only dining events that they host regularly. "At IO [Invitation Only], you will not have any decision-making authority, so if you feel a need to request modifications, you might feel uncomfortable in that environment." It's spelled out clearly on their website.   And dining at Playground is indeed driven by a passion for fresh ingredients and inspired by cuisines from around the world. On any given night, the menu reads like a foodie's bedtime story –
  • Golden Snapper Sashimi, Smashed Kumquat & Mint Soda, Pickled Chile, Caramelized Coconut, Green Coriander;
  • Hillary’s Spaghetti, Melted Leeks, Housemade Bacon, Parmesan, House Cured Egg, Wild Mushrooms;
  • Imperial Wagyu Chuck, Steakhouse Style Creamed Chard, Blumenthals, Seared Cipollini Onions;
  • The Best Soup You’ve Never Had (this last one being the Laksa Jason was cooking up when we chatted).
Hungry?  Source:   Top ingredients, many of them locally sourced, and a menu curated with flexibility to improvise and creative flair. Why wouldn't you trust Jason and crew?   That said, while passion for great food has taken Jason very far, very fast, it hasn't always gone smoothly. He did make waves across the interwebs in 2012 when he responded to a customer review with an unambiguous "burn in hell," letting the customer know he is never welcome back in any establish he runs. But then again, this was directed at someone who was miffed by the very policies and approach that drives Jason and Playground to achieve so much.   No doubt there are many weaned on the Southern California drive-thrus and cookie cutter fast-casual concepts that surround the Playground who do not have the adventurous spirit or refined palate to enjoy Playground's offering.  But for those who share in Jason Quinn's passions, his restaurant is open and ready to serve you.

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