The Playground DTSA
by Greg Barraza | Cover Photograph by Anne Watson
There are few things better than a spontaneous invite to a tasting. So when Chef Felix Barron’s sister called me at 6:45 asking me if I would like to attend her brother’s tasting at The Playground 2.0 in Downtown Santa Ana at 7:00, I responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Since I live about 10 minutes from Downtown Santa Ana, getting to the restaurant in time would be no issue. Chef Felix Barron IV has created a powerful reputation and niche in Los Angeles’ KITCHN 105, and he brought his expertise to the emerging food capital of Orange County, Santa Ana. Unlike The Playground, Playground 2.0 features a more relaxed yet intimate setting. I entered the restaurant to genuine smiles, a small feature that allows one to know that he or she is in a welcoming and warm place. The Barron Sisters and Mama Barron were waiting with smiles and hugs. It was at that point I knew this evening was going to be special!
I noticed a small touch: a glass of Szigeti Sparkling Gruner Veltliner was waiting at my place setting. Opening a dinner with a nice glass of bubbles does wonders to not only clean the palate, but it allows one to relax before the Amuse Bouche, our first course. We were presented with an extremely interesting, but amazing, choice for the Amuse Bouche: a green chile Mexican chocolate milk with a crispy tortilla lavash topped with age cheddar cheese foam. The warm chocolate milk with a slight hint of acidity perked the taste buds, while the quesadilla soothed them, as if foreshadowing the flavors to come; at the same time, telling the taste buds, “Relax. There is plenty more where that came from.”
The second course featured a trio of oysters on a bed of sea salt. I began with the Blue Point Oysters with white wine poached quail egg, lime hollandaise, radish, and pomegranate and micro cilantro. Tasting a grain or two of sea salt, the oyster, the quail egg, and pomegranate with cilantro created a synthesis of salty followed by smooth followed by salt. An Olympia Oyster with crispy pancetta, roasted heirloom tomato, horseradish cream, and micro pepper cress followed the Blue Point. I began to notice that Chef wanted us to get a couple of grains of salt. It emphasized the oyster but also created a great contradiction to the complementary items. So with anticipation, I picked up the third oyster, a Pugwash Oyster with berry compote, white balsamic and micro basil, and foie gras (My Editor is now salivating). Yes! What an ending! I felt as if the first act of a masterful play was concluding. As if on cue, the gentleman sitting at the end of the seating arrangement almost in perfect time, made an angelic tone. Quickly, I turned to him and said, “That must be your yum-o-meter going off because this course was off the meter!”
As our plates were being removed, a glass of Mexican 75 was served; Mexican 75 is a tart, refreshing beverage created by the mixologist. It includes a blend of Oro Blanco infused Mezcal, simple syrup, lemon, and Prosecco. Although it begins tart, the drink had a purpose (as all great dining experiences should have). And it took the serving of the next course to understand the purpose because by itself, the Mexican 75 reveals it true deliciousness to certain palates; yet when it is accompanied with the hint of spice and sweet from the Guava Goat Cheese Spoon Bread Lime Vinaigrette Chayote, tomatillos, and greens the reminds me of lovers who can survive without each other but become better with each other.
The third course consisted of Duck Hash, Roasted Root Vegetables, Sous Vide Duck Egg, duck fat hollandaise, black mustard greens, puffed barley and a toasted baguette. This course was the perfect segway. The duck egg and hash reminded the diner of a hearty breakfast, but the smaller portion was just enough to get a complete understanding of Chef Felix’s mastery of the egg. Each item melded its flavor to give the course a unique and flavorful blend. This course was accompanied with a 2012 Piedrasassi Syrah; this wine “offers a purity of fruit layered with notes of blackberries, olives, underbrush, and pepper to offer a good acidic wine”.
Chef Felix added his touch to the traditional pozole to present a Swordfish Pozole with red hominy, manila clams, chipotle cabbage, fennel fronds, and lime powder. Since I grew up on pozole, I was looking forward to this course, and Chef Felix’s creation was so satisfying that it made my grandma proud. The broth, hominy, clams, and swordfish slid down the throat so easily that the main course was finished with no effort.
A kaffir lime “limoncello” shot (this actually tasted like a lemon Fruit Loop) with Dobos Tort Hazelnut cake, chocolate butter cream, hazelnut toffee, whip cream, and hazelnut cheese cake finished one of the most pleasant dining experiences I have ever had in Downtown Santa Ana. Once again, the limoncello and hazelnut cake mixed a combination of sweet and sour to give the taste buds on final message: “You are done.” There is no doubt about that Chef Felix’s success has been the result of hard work and extreme talent.
Chef Felix heads a chef culinary school in downtown Los Angeles. There he began a Sunday pop-up brunch that quickly harvested a following of food lovers. The underground flavor grew along with his followers, and this response inspired Chef Fellix to create KTCHN DTLA, a roaming brunch “popping up” in downtown Los Angeles every weekend. Currently, Chef Felix and his pop-up is featured Saturdays from 10:00am to 1:30 pm and Sundays from 10:00am to 2:00pm at The Gorbals inside The Hotel Alexandria. Also, Chef Felix will be at The Playground on December 17; reservations can be made via email firstname.lastname@example.org or calling http://playgrounddtsa.com/.
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