Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
Playground in Downtown Santa Ana was one of the first restaurants in DTSA to gentrify the neighborhood, paving the way for neighboring 4th Street Market, Mix Mix Kitchen and Bar, El Mercado and other establishments. Playground’s origin story goes back to the last wave of food trucks, when the Lime Truck won “The Great Food Truck Race.” Lime Truck co-founder Daniel Shemtob kept the name and the truck, while Jason Quinn opted to branch off and open Playground 10 years ago.
A Matter of Trust
Quinn stepped away from day-to-day operations at the end of 2021. Since then, Playground evolved and its next phase was renamed Detention, launching earlier this year, and the chef’s counter (originally named Playground 2.0) is now called Trust. The 20-seat chef’s counter operates on the diner’s ability to do exactly what it says: Trust in the process that chef Justin Werner and sommelier Jason Scarborough have planned for your evening in their exhibition-style dining space. Their super-sized chef’s table, if you will, carries out themes that change as often as they feel like doing so.
Quinn is still the owner, but is not involved in any day-to-day operations. John Parker is now the chef de cuisine at Detention, with Werner focusing his efforts solely on Trust and Scarborough assisting with both operations.
Diners are in good hands. Werner was the youngest sous chef in the Tom Colicchio collective of restaurants and worked at multiple two star Michelin restaurants in New York City. He interned at Noma in Denmark at a time it was named the world’s best restaurant by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants site. Scarborough was the opening service director for Dovetail, a Michelin star restaurant on New York’s Upper West Side. He also worked at NYC’s Veritas at a time when it had one of the world’s best wine lists, according to Wine Spectator.
Trust has evolved into a very different experience from its 2.0 days. The dinners are different; the vibe is different. Werner likes to refer to it as a “Late Night” show with a different host: Same channel. Same station. Different personality.
A couple of months ago a friend invited me to join her for Trust’s Winemaker Dinner featuring Santa Barbara County’s Sanford Winery. I never had the opportunity to meet Chef Werner during his time at Porch & Swing, so I was curious about how the evening would progress. Between the lively banter, cuisine and Scarborough’s thoughtful pairings it didn’t disappoint.
ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN: What’s the secret to churning out multi-course, interactive dinners?
JUSTIN WERNER: We cook everything right in front of you. To have fresh-baked brioche out of the oven to open the meal and fresh-baked pastries to conclude is a game changer. The sous chef Chuy Mejia (@chuy_jam on Instagram) created magic with his signature kouign amann (a sweet, multi-layered French pastry possessing a caramelized crust), in addition to the breads and pastas. He has an unreal understanding of how flour, egg and water all work together. The newest member of the team Richie Lu (@RichieLuLu on Instagram) comes with a star-studded resume, leads by example and brings indescribable intangibles to the table. The team at Trust is what makes such a special interactive experience possible.
Also, acidity! It’s always lacking in amateur cooking. Acid cuts through heavy rich foods and is what allows us to do 12-14 offerings and not have you feel like you are going to die. Whether it’s citrus to pickles to aged vinegars … acid is essential on so many levels. Even just the tiniest hint here and there can make a massive difference. It brightens up the whole dish and helps your chances of making it to the finish line.
JASON SCARBOROUGH: Keep it lively. I have sat across from very talented chefs and watched as the minutes slowly died. Justin is not only an exceptionally talented chef, which is hard enough, but he is a showman. We break down the barriers between the front of the house, the back of the house and the guests almost immediately. It goes a long way to making the night an enjoyable one for all parties involved.
AMP: Where do you source ingredients from?
JW: We believe heavily in farmer’s market produce and relationships. I worked for Tom Colicchio for about six years and he would always say, “If it grows together, it goes together.” We use such fresh and outstanding upper-tier quality stuff that I believe that all we have to do is treat the ingredient with respect and cook it properly and it will shine.
We use Chino Farms in San Diego and all of our people at Santa Monica Farmer’s Market (Tutti Frutti, Windfall, Jimenez family, Weiser and many, many more). Also, our good friend Aaron Choi runs Girl and Dug Farm for our super specialty stuff. We have been very impressed by the progress of some of the local farmer’s markets, most notably the Saturday one in Irvine is definitely really good, getting better and worth checking out; same for the local Ecology Center.
JS: We cast a pretty wide net when it comes to distributors. When I was working in New York City Michelin restaurants, we avoided the large distribution houses like they were grim death. I take a more nuanced approach for Trust and Detention.
Tricia Chambers and I both share a commitment to showcase wines from California’s Central Coast. Not only is it an exceptional wine growing region, I feel much better about a wine languishing down the I-5 South as opposed to being shipped across the Atlantic.
AMP: Jason, what is your pairing philosophy?
JS: Dinner parties are always filled with more conversation and interaction than traditional multi-course meals. From a pairing perspective, we are looking to provide complementary notes more so than contrast. To be sure, there are spicy dishes that we pair alongside a Spätlese Riesling here or there, but the food is always front and center at Trust and we look to enhance flavors as opposed to the wine being front of mind.
AMP: What Trust dinners are slated for September?
JW: The most baller ones are the Ultimate Surf and Turf, and on a smaller scale we have introduced Trust Lite and Tapas that are still the same experience (in the room with the chef cooking in front of you and explaining all the dishes, the jokes and show, the wine pairing, etc.) but at a lower price point.
Also, my favorite meal always and forever is the flagship Trust Dinner Party. Every Trust party has a different menu. We take pride in being super seasonal and working almost exclusively out of the farmer’s markets. It’s always a reflection of where we are geographically, seasonally and mentally as chefs. Basically they are dinners based on what we are excited about and have been passionately working on. I always say, “If we are excited about it, you should be too.”
AMP: Where do you like to frequent locally for a meal?
JW: I like the dumplings in O.C. I’m from New York where the Mexican food is lackluster and the Asian food is quite different. Dumplings have been a revelation for me. I really like A&Js, Tasty Noodle House, Noodle Street and I don’t care what side of the fence you are on, but I really like Din Tai Fung.
Oliboli is a fresh fried donut spot in Tustin that does two kinds (yeast and cake) of donuts. I like the cake but it’s the yeast that I stand behind as the highlight. The other is Lady M’s crepe cakes; there are many locations but the one in Irvine is closest to me and they are perfection. First of all, it’s called a cake “boutique” so you know you are out a couple of bucks when you get there, but they are super decadent. I love the pistachio flavor and also the passion fruit but don’t sleep on the original sweet milk one.
JS: Just had another stellar meal at Fable and Spirit last week. The wine program Ali Coyle has put together is awesome. Her palate is impeccable and the food is comforting and elevated at the same time. Olea is a bike ride away from me as well. Love the vibe and service there.
AMP: What did you learn during your time at Porch & Swing that you took back to Trust?
JW: Porch & Swing was a hybrid between a new, exciting adventure and a never-ending nightmare. It was the first time doing it for all of the owners and leaders involved and it showed. I learned a lot about exceeding value, because at Porch & Swing, they did not and it hurt. I learned many lessons there from watching people try to cut corners and that’s not the route to success. At Trust, we operate much more generously. We are a little less concerned about making an extra dime and way more invested in creating an amazing experience and long-term guests and friends.
AMP: What themes or wineries are on your wish list for future dinners?
JW: I’m glad this came up. The winemakers dinner series has been awesome. This is the brainchild of our sommelier Jason Scarborough (a.k.a. “Dr. Sweater”) a monotone genius who’s witty sarcasm goes mostly unnoticed, mostly for the better. He has built such unreal relationships with up-and-coming winemaking rock stars of California.
“Scar” paired with his sidekick Tricia Chambers (a.k.a. “T-Bone”, a level 2 sommelier and industry veteran) have really turned this series into something special that the winemakers have loved as much as the guests. Because it involves winemakers and people associated with the wineries or work at the vineyards, it really connects the people to wine. It’s basically a Trust dinner party where the food is paired to the wine as opposed to the normal Trust which is the opposite direction.
(Our) wine program at Trust is extraordinary and has gone unnoticed. It’s always been a background singer to the whole experience despite bringing frontman wines and pairings to the table. Our favorites are Adeleida, Booker, Stolpman, Tablas Creek, Sanford, Melville, Liquid Farm, anything involving Raj Parr and Sta. Rita Hills. Some absolutely amazing stuff is coming out of Paso Robles, too many to name them all.
Links to Recent SoCal Restaurant Show Interview
Last weekend I was in-studio at Angel Stadium being interviewed on the SoCal Restaurant Show hosted by Andy Harris for two segments. We discussed my previous column as well as a very unique dining experience at Disneyland’s 21 Royal. The radio show airs every Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to noon on KLAA (830 AM). You can listen in on our conversation by following the links below.
Part one of my interview can be found by clicking here.
The second part of my interview is available here.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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