Check out my foodie adventures at Foodspotting and Foodgawker

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Plum: Oakland

I’m pretty sure the San Francisco foodie culture is boosting the chef profession to celebrity status. In this city, people ooh-and-ahh about who is cooking their meals, they read blogs and articles about their backgrounds, tattoos and philosophies and they stalk restaurants hoping for a glimpse (or even better, a conversation) with the chef, much in the same way paparazzi stalk celebrity homes. We know when chefs migrate from one place to another and we study up on when they grow executive chef wings and ditch the close kitchen supervision to take off on their own projects. And when we see a flashy name like Daniel Patterson being waived around, we know we are in good hands and there is good food ahead. It’s like reassuring freeway signs that point you in the direction of good food so you don’t miss any critical exits and you can see and taste all there is on the great highway of food.

On Monday night, I went to see Sufjan Stevens at the Paramount Theater in Oakland (brilliant show), so I seized on an impromptu opportunity to stop by Plum for some dinner before the show. The hostess apologized for only having room at the “kitchen bar” not knowing that it was exactly where I was hoping to be seated. After all, the food begins way before it is plopped down on your table by the hand of a waiter—it begins in the kitchen with creative minds and many hands finessing every detail and tastings and seasoning every element that you will encounter. So why not watch it?! Kitchens all around are transforming because diners are slowly coming around to being interested in this step in the process. These transparent kitchens are windows into foodie entertainment where the aesthetics and lighting match the restaurant décor, everything is clean and tidy, the cooks are busy cooking and quietly concentrating on assembling dishes (sometimes with tweezers!) and no one is getting yelled at. Imagine that.

While I did not have my camera, you can see some online photos of the food and I will do my best to describe my dishes on the menu. Let’s see how well I can describe the food without the easy comfort of relying on a photo—it’s a good exercise because restaurant lighting is generally terrible for photos anyway and without smell-ivision, you’re gonna have to rely on my descriptions. And I don’t want to disappoint.

We started with chickpea fritters and potato “chicharrones”. The chickpea fritters (3 on a plate) were gussied up falafel balls with a dense hearty texture that caved in on a small pocket of gooey cheese in the middle. They tasted earthy and were complemented by a little pool of yogurty sheeps’ milk cheese with flecks of fresh herbs. The potato chicharrones were crunchy sticks of a potato substance that had been pressed into strips and deep fried. It wasn’t magical, but I appreciated the effort behind the concept of taking an ordinary vegetable and altering its shape, texture and flavor to bring something totally new to the table. That is what innovative dining is all about and it’s a sure fire way to excite a Foodie. If you can magically change the familiar into something complex and totally baffling such that the Foodie says “how in the world did they do that?”, then i think you’ve got yourself a firm stake in the ground.

Next came a very unique and stunningly delicious soup made with turnips, apples and miso. It was a creamy beige-colored poor of earthy soup that was topped with thin ribbons of shiso leaves and a pepper cream that melted into a frothy puddle. I think the hint of sweetness from the apples really complemented the distinct slightly spicy flavor of turnips while the miso went around like a janitor polishing it up and smoothing over any rough edges.

The chicory salad was one of my highlights. It had various colorful chicory greens tossed in a very light date-yogurt vinaigrette. I couldn't taste any date (I really wanted to taste dates), but the yogurt dressing was light and creamy. The bitter chicories were delicately tempered with sweet snappy bites of matchsticks of asian pear, mint and pomegranate seeds. It was such a perfect union of flavors that I could have eaten three bowls and called it a night.

The artichoke terrine was a well-thought out dish comprised of many intricate elements. It started with a swipe of tapenade of olives crushed into a bright and vibrant olive oil. A slender block of forest green artichoke jello (for lack of a better description) was nestled into the tapenade and topped with a stripe of creamy goat cheese mousse. Then wedges of tender artichoke hearts sunk into the mousse and the whole thing was topped off with some shaved artichoke and shaved baby fennel that had been lightly dressed in olive oil. It was novel and delicious and watching the salad guy carefully garnish the dish with a delicate lacing of chervil only made my excitement grow as I squirmed in my seat waiting for it to arrive in front of me.

The braised cauliflower with bulgur, almonds and dandelion salsa verde was a slight disappointment for me. I had been hoping for a more robust flavor, but the bland cauliflower, clearly depending on the dandelion salsa to jazz it up, was only left with an odd tangy and acidic flavor that was pretty unpleasant.

I quickly moved on to the colorful pile of carrots. The carrots were perfectly cooked to be sweet and tender and then mixed up with some softened slightly-pickled green garlic stalks and sauced up with the most gorgeous brown butter and tooped with toasted breadcrumbs and purslane. It was not even the slightest bit greasy despite the distinct buttery taste and I attempted to drink the brown butter with my spoon. It tasted light and silky like it had a splash of white wine.

My companions shared a beef cheek and oxtail burger on a griddled bun. I opted for a slow-cooked farm egg over savory farro with veggies and sprouts. This dish was the major disappointment and I deeply regretted ordering it. While everything was perfectly cooked, I just did not care for the flavor combination and, to be honest, the chicken really derailed everything. It was a train wreck and I passed the dish off to my friends (who seemed happy to eat it) and I sauntered back to my lovely bread-crumb dusted carrots.

Beyond the food, what I want to speak about is the service. I don’t usually comment on service because really good food can get me to easily overlook things like shabby décor, snotty hostesses and poor service. But, I do acknowledge that these little details do enhance the overall dining experience, and I found Plum to be no exception. The kitchen team was calmly lead by Daniel Patterson himself, who had the most charming quiet and soothing demeanor. I tried my best not to act like a crazed fan or paparazzi, but I did ask him a couple of questions about his preparations. I even boldly asked him if he would be offended if I asked him about Jeremy Fox’s departure from the Plum project (to which he politely responded “No, not at all…but I think you’ll have to ask Jeremy Fox about his reasons). When we ordered some toasted brioche ice cream, he gently said “ah, yes, but you must try the white chocolate parfait”. When I confirmed that the parfait was, indeed, the winning dessert, the Chef softly reminded me that the desserts have feelings and it’s not a competition. Oh, but it is.

1 comment:

Sarah (aka Mama Pea) said...

Hi Morgan! Just wanted to say hello and thank you for the wonderful coffee gift tonight. Very nice meeting you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip!