Friday, June 4, 2010

Playa Grill: Casual Play on Traditional Flavors

It's a relief to see so many new eateries opening up in San Diego these days. Yes, you've probably heard about Carl Schroeder's new Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant -- and the steady change in and around Fifth Ave. in the Bankers Hill neighborhood. But there are other places opening in other parts of town, and even if they don't command Schroeder's name power, they're worth checking out. I've got a few to talk about, starting today with Playa Grill.

Playa Grill & Margarita Bar in Mission Valley has taken over Fish Market's old spot near Costco and Ikea. It looks like it's part of a chain, which makes sense since the guy behind it, Doug Kollus, is the former CEO of Island's Restaurants. Partner John Creed is the former CEO of Chart House and menu developer Dean Betts has worked with restaurants such as The Fish Market, Pizza Nova, and the Chart House.

Fortunately, the chain mentality stops with the decor, which is casual but nothing cutting edge -- although I did like the outdoor covered patio and fire pit. Playa Grill is not part of a chain; it's one of a kind. And they tout it as "next generation" Mexican.

Where the food is concerned, Kollus and company are out to create Mexican cuisine San Diegans are oh so familiar with, using fresh farm produce and sustainably harvested meats from Niman Ranch, but they're torquing it a bit. Sure, there are slow-roasted carnitas, quesadillas, and taquitos, also "tacos al vapor," which in which the taco ingredients are steamed in corn husks for a strong flavor. 

There's the Merry Piglet, a slow-roasted pork slider with homemade barbecue sauce, jicama slaw, and caramelized apple. And, a flat iron steak served with Maytag blue cheese served on a bed of sauteed onions and chiles. Not exactly Mexican food, but assimilated Mexican? Still the flavors are winning. 

And, of course, there are fish tacos -- but at Playa Grill it's Panko-crusted Mahi Mahi with chile aioli, salsa fresca, and jicama slaw (you can also get grilled fish if you prefer). Fajitas? Of course, only with sweet filet mignon, along with juicy, delicately flavored Mexican white shrimp (a change from Tiger shrimp). And lots of grilled onions and peppers, naturally. All of these are served with pinto or black beans, rice and warm corn or flour tortillas.

The dessert menu is limited to a Valrhona chocolate martini, a scoop of ice cream, and, my favorite, a chocolate banana burrito.

I liked the freshness of the ingredients, the effort of the owners to take advantage of local agriculture for their ingredients, and the willingness to upend a cliche, like typical fish tacos and carnitas. The flavors were a little surprising. The salsas were housemade and popped with spice and tang. All this speaks to the creativity of executive chef Fernando Roman, a native of Guerrero, Mexico, who has previously cooked at The Prado, The Hotel del Coronado, the Bahia Hotel, and the Island Palms Hotel.
Playa Grill is open for lunch and dinner with a full "to go" menu. They also serve brunch on the weekend. The restaurant is located at 2401 Fenton Parkway in Mission Valley.

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