Reading the menu at Playground is usually accompanied by at least one quick Google search that somehow turns up with one result: a link to the menu you’re already viewing. On my latest visit, there were two instances of food bewilderment that struck, so I asked.
What the hell is a carrot urfa molly? And a 17-day, dry-aged white sea bass? Is that a thing?
Luckily, the search results for the latter brought me to the name Josh Niland, a young Australian chef that is sort of a rock star when it comes to serving fish that has been dry-aged as though it’s a prime cut of beef.
“Chef is really excited about his seafood right now, so he flew to Australia for a few weeks to work at a restaurant to learn the dry-aging technique,” notes manager and barman Brock Woolsey.
Playground chef/owner Jason Quinn worked directly with Niland. “They believe water kills a fish’s quality,” Quinn says as he giddily flips through images on his iPhone. He shows me at least 50 photos and videos of dry-aged fish porn, naming each species we can’t get in the States. “They have this huge walk-in cooler with at least 50 King George Whiting on hooks, mahi-mahi, Spanish mackerel, and trays and trays full of other fish. The selection we get here is boring in comparison.”
But what does dry-aging bring to the table? The first thing I noticed is the quality of the skin. It takes on this papier-mâché quality that, when broken, sounds as crunchy as a dry leaf. It resembles a pie crust with bits of brown sugar caramelized to a perfect crisp.
Then there’s the steamy white sea bass, dripping with juice as I take the first bite. It’s as saturated and succulent as Uncle Lou’s fried chicken (still the only menu item you can’t send back), and if there was ever such a thing as Wagyu of the sea, this is it. The unctuousness dissolves across your palate, leading you to subsequent bites of flaky, flavorful mouthfuls.
Playground’s beverage program is equally as strong as the food menu, with a trifecta of craft beer, wine and some of the best cocktails in the county. To match, I thought of something gin-based to work with the buttery legumes that came with the fish, but Woolsey offered up a light and bright Veggie Miller cocktail, with Abre Ojos Tequila, Yellow Chartreuse, house-pressed fennel, Verjus blanc and lemon. It’s sort of herbal and floral, with the kick of peppery tequila adding to the spice of the whole thing.
I still don’t know what the eff an urfa molly is.
Playground, 220 E. Fourth St., Ste. 102, Santa Ana; playgrounddtsa.com.
Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, level 1 WSET in Wine, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest happening this June!