…despite the urging of my dinner companion at Commis I simply could not justify the expense of a dinner at Coi during this trip to San Francisco; I’d simply heard too many mixed things from too many trusted palates and the recent menu changes from duck and “raw sugar” to beef and licorice made two out of the thirteen courses the sort of thing I simply don’t go out of my way to eat. Additionally, while I had no doubt that Daniel Patterson’s Michelin 2* restaurant would be a nice experience, after lackluster meals at Cyrus and Meadowood I was a little apprehensive regarding the Bay Area’s “best” according to Bibendum. Taking the above into account yet still intrigued by Patterson’s regional acclaim and culinary pedigree despite minimal national attention it was with great interest that I found myself seated at Plum for my last meal in the Bay Area; a compromise that would give me a chance to experience his vision without fully committing to the time and cost of Coi considering my early morning flight out of OAK the next morning.
Having already mentioned the previous day’s reservation change it was with a bit of relief that when I called Plum at noon on Wednesday they told me reservations “would not be a problem” and arriving at 6:45 for my 7:00pm seating I was admittedly surprised not only by the area, but the easy availability of free parking just one block away. Harbored in an area appearing to be slowly gentrifying but not yet quite there I found the entrance to the restaurant without difficulty and on entering was greeted by a largely empty dining room with light ambient music playing overhead. Confirming my reservation (clearly unnecessary at such an early hour though the restaurant would fill to capacity by 8:00) I was asked if I’d prefer a seat at a table or the Chef’s counter and stating that the counter was definitely preferable I was led to a tall stool on the corner; undoubtedly the best seat in the house for a solo diner as it affords a full view of every single aspect of the meal’s preparation and plating.
Seated for mere moments before getting a smile and hellos from the kitchen staff including Chef Parker and a pair of younger females who would work the stations closest to me throughout the ninety minute meal I was next greeted by my server, Cecillia, who welcomed me to plum and presented the night’s menu and wine list. Thanking her and requesting house filtered water while I made my decisions I spent a few minutes looking around the room and instantly found myself making comparisons to both New York’s Breslin in terms of hipster-chic and Chicago’s Avec with the heavily wooded dining space well lit but cozy. Generally not a fan of backless stools or communal seating I was pleasantly surprised by the overall level of noise – a mild din even as the place began to fill – though I have to say a bit of lumbar support would have helped everyone as all diners seemed slouched over due to the chairs.
With the menu concise but well culled and local purveyors listed in abundance Cecillia would return shortly and after a couple questions I opted to start with three courses and a beverage. Having heard the portions were small but assured that I’d be able to order more if desired the night I sat for a bit chatting with my neighbors – a local couple making their first visit to Plum based on the recommendation of a friend – while I waited.
Having already mentioned the focus on local sourcing and farm to table ethics, I watched with interest as the kitchen interacted with one another and with the ingredients; green beans were taken from containers, snipped, washed, and cooked at one station while bread was baked at another and griddles were oiled at a third. Impressed by the action I actually did not even notice when my drink arrived – a recommendation from my server entitled Scott Beattie’s “Bella Rufina” Brachetto with Orange Bitters and Aramena Cherry that reminded me of sangria; light, fruity, and only slightly boozy with the cherry notes most notable and the citrus notes more subdued.
With the kitchen working quickly my first course of the evening, from the “snacks” menu, would be Pate Ciccioli with Mustard, Chervil, Toast – a classic preparation of the Northern Italian dish featuring aged pork with a gamy sapor atop rye toast and lightly dressed with salt, pepper, and chervil. A well crafted quartet I particularly liked the flavor of the pork and deferring on the mustard presented alongside was able to appreciate the unique texture of the meat as it contrasted with the toast in a cool and creamy meets hot and crunchy bite.
Pate quickly consumed and having heard that the bread – complimentary on request – should not be missed my next item to arrive was indeed the bread, a single slice divided in two featuring a dense/moist crumb housed in a smoky crust with just a touch of sweetness. Served with locally sourced salted butter and described as “house made honey wheat” to be replenished without a second request I will simply say that for those who fancy bread or those who question Plum’s portion sizes this is the sort of bread well worth a couple rounds and calories.
Forcing myself to go light on the bread as I slowly sipped my drink and chatted more with my neighbors the next dish to arrive would follow the pate by perhaps fifteen minutes and featuring three of my favorite crucifers Caramelized Broccoli, Trumpet Royal, Cabbage, Black Garlic, Cauliflower, and Torn Brown Bread Croutons would prove quite sublime. Beginning first with the cauliflower and broccoli, the first seared in olive oil and the second in housemade soy, then progressing through buttery melted cabbage, fibrous cooked mushrooms, and spongy croutons each bite of this dish was a textural exclamation point of flavor and having watched each ingredient be prepared individually the care that went into this plate was really quite remarkable for something seemingly so simple.
At this point agreeing at least partially with the price/portion complaints I’d heard from others the next course would disprove this theory while also serving as one of five best savory courses I had during this trip. Again arriving perhaps fifteen minutes after its predecessor and again witnessed from start to finish in its production “Smoked Farm Egg Quinoa, Summer Squash, Padron, Blossom” was quite simply one of the most comforting dishes I’ve ever had at a restaurant. Beginning first with the quinoa – smoky, toothsome, and seasoned just enough to bring out some of its malty tones…it was remarkable on its own and all the moreso when the lightly cooked egg yolk was blended in. Moving next to the vegetables, again expertly prepared, the combination of sweet summer squash, crunchy tempura squash blossoms, and seeded grilled peppers each lent something new to the experience and with or without the grain each bite presented something new, delicious, and entirely savory.
Asked how I was doing in regard to capacity and if I’d like to order another course I noted at this point that my neighbors desserts were being prepared and on browsing the sweets portion of the menu I decided the better part of valor would be to omit further savories and instead opt for two desserts and a French press of Blue Bottle – a veritable bargain at $3 and as expected bold, balanced, and complex with only the lightest note of acid.
Watching the desserts be prepared literally three feet from my vantage point the first of my two selections would be the lighter choice – one of the few items that has been present on Plum’s menu in some form since the restaurant opened; Cheesecake in a jar. Served, as expected, in a jar along with fresh Maine blueberries and ‘spice crumble’ the first thing to note about this “cheesecake” is that it really is not a cheesecake at all but rather a cream cheese pudding not dissimilar in texture to cream cheese frosting but slightly less sweet. Taking bites of the pudding first and then plunging my spoon deep to explore the textures beneath I have to say that although good this was the one dish of the evening that really did not “wow” largely because it didn’t show the diner anything new – it was just a tasty parfait made of top notch ingredients, no more or no less, and at $9 a bit steep in the price to portion ratio.
Finishing my second cup of coffee before progressing to my last course of the evening I’d had a little aural preview of this dish as my neighbors gushed about it and again watching its composition from start to finish this selection would prove to be vastly superior to the cheesecake in part because of my personal preferences for the ingredients and in part due to its novelty. Beginning first with a dense pave of 66% dark chocolate and subsequently dressed with fresh sliced figs, chocolate malt crumble, pine nut brittle, olive oil ice cream, and finally pinenut “pudding” this dish was a return to the flawless textures of the prior dishes and although still a bit pricey at $9 for what could have easily been finished in three or four bites this was a dish that demanded small bites and exploration, each bite something new and for myself the ideal spoonful being just a touch of each or the pudding along with the figs and malt crumble.
With 16% service added to the bill (lower than I’d have opted to leave given the quality of the service and the show) and my total with tax and tip just over $80 I paid my bill and was told to take my time finishing my coffee – something I gladly did as the night was still young and my bags were already packed for the morning flight. Chatting with my neighbors again about the recent rejuvenation of Oakland after explaining I was in town for a job interview the staff next joined into the conversation as they worked telling me of all the great reasons to live in the Bay Area, not the least of which was the great restaurant scene – a scene which Plum and it’s owner are very much a part of, and a scene which I’ll undoubtedly revisit whether I move there or not just to see if Patterson’s flagship can somehow trump what is going on in the East Bay.