Sunday, January 24, 2016

Playground — Not Feeling the Love

You gotta work for my love.
If I had gone planning to write a review, I probably would have done the hipster foodie thing and shot pictures of my plates; we had plenty of lighting for it. I was there for my anniversary and didn’t feel like spending the meal shooting pictures of my food. I did shoot a picture of my menu, and I’ll get to that.

Playground is #66 in Jonathan Gold’s recent list of the 101 best restaurants in the L.A. region, and in all honesty, I can think of three restaurants in Orange County that are better than Playground that didn’t make Gold’s list (these are places that I prefer to Marché Moderne, #50 on his list). But since Jason Quinn, the head chef at Playground, has a mission statement (or something like that) that said “people only judge what we put on the plate,” I’m starting with the table.

We got seated at a sort of triangular projection from the along the window. Sort of a high formica surface with those stupid tall chairs. Sure, this is just a short guy talking, but I dislike seats that I have to hoist myself into or out of. I don’t like sitting with my feet dangling, and while there was at least a crossbar on which I could rest my feet, it’s a stupid way to be eating dinner. I want my feet on the floor, I don’t want some cheesy surface, and I would like a cloth napkin, please.

Remember the Python sketch
where the restaurant staff goes
insane over a dirty fork?
Also, I was given a menu with an ugly grease spot. I do realize that the menus, though changing every day, do get used throughout dinner service. Still, by 8:30, that was one tired looking menu. Guys, show a little more class. Take a peek at the menus and retire the ones that are poor shape. Yes, I certainly could have asked for another menu.

I wholly get the “no substitutions” thing. Really. I go to restaurants to find out what the cook wants to make, not to follow my one views. If I want to know how I would make things, I have my own kitchen. But then they set a high standard for things. They want to know if you loved it. My love doesn’t come that easy.

Let me jump to the end: we had six dishes including dessert. How many did I love? Exactly two, and one was the dessert, and there are quibbles and qualifications to that. Their menu does say that if you don’t love a dish they will take it off your bill. We did not request that (and we were comped a dessert). I didn’t dislike anything; I liked it all. But Playground wanted love. Sorry, guys.

We started off with the snap peas, which were nice and creative, but nothing to love. Nor anything to really dazzle the eyes. I’m beginning to suspect that I didn’t become an annoying foodie hipster photographing his dinner because none of it was actually all that pretty. There didn’t seem to be a lot of concern for presentation. This meant that nothing was love at first sight. The country ham on cornbread really was an ugly dish, with the little squiggly bits of country ham resembling nothing so much as the disgorged intestines of the cornbread. It tasted fine, we ate it all up, but there was nothing pretty there.

The most interesting dish was the pecorino cloud, which was fruit and jam covered with a mound of shaved cheese. It would have made a very interesting just after or between main dishes. As a cold starter, it was okay, and I liked it a lot, but that fell well short of love.

I did love the pasta and pork belly. I really liked the grilled mushroom confit. And so it went. Because of the whole thought of loving dishes, I did spend a lot of time thinking about the dishes I have loved over the years. Many of those dishes were consumed in Italy (such as tower-raised pigeon bolognese or simply lardo on toast), but there was that fish cooked in clay in France, or that haute take on sauerbraten (with rosemary and a red-wine reduction) in Germany. Cassoulet at one of those Orange County places Jonathan Gold doesn’t seem to know. There have been plenty of dishes that I have loved.

I loved the toffee pudding at first bite. It’s so easy to love a dessert. Desserts are there for you, begging for your love, asking for nothing in return. They’re the sad-eyed puppies and kittens of the dining experience. Of course you love dessert; it does all the work for you. But as I kept eating it, my love started fading. It was pure infatuation and there was some left over on the plate when we were done.

Maybe I’m just whole gastropub-and-small-plates thing. Maybe I’m the wrong audience. It’s not that I didn’t like Playground. I had a perfectly good meal, and I think the prices were perfectly fair; at no point was I saying, “twenty bucks for this? You gotta be kidding me.” But when the standard is love, you do risk falling short. Nothing was bad. There was nothing I didn’t like. But there was so little to love.

Finally, since this is the twentieth time I have used the word “love,” this is not a particularly romantic restaurant. It would have been no problem to take pictures of my food, since the lighting was perfectly adequate. You could see everything. The music was a bit loud. I understand the whole idea of making it a fun, happing place. Just be aware if you’re looking for a place for romance, this is probably not the place. And, no, I do not understand Jonathan Gold’s rating for this restaurant.
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