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Plum Review (Oakland)

daveena | Sep 30, 2010 08:52 AM

Day 1, and Plum is already on the fast track to becoming one of my favorite restaurants. I’m not sure I’ve quite had this experience before, where I’ve walked into a restaurant and immediately felt bombarded by similarities to other restaurants I love – all restaurants with creative food, most at moderate price points, but with very different vibes. The open kitchen looks quite a bit like Commis’ (flattop and salamander, extensive mise en place, lots of tweezers involved in plating); the lusty Mediterranean flavors reminded me of Bar Tartine under Jason Fox, and most obviously, the creative vegetable cooking and light but sure hand with Asian flavors are in Plum's shared DNA with sister restaurant Coi. The space and vibe recalled some of my NYC favorites as well – the dark walls and intense, focused chefs reminded me of Degustation, while the monolithic, blond wood furniture and raucous music (as well as the generous use of pork fat and offal) seemed transplanted from Momofuku Ssam Bar. The most immediate comparison I can make is probably to Commonwealth in SF, which has a similar feel, but leans more Asian, and hits a slightly lower price point. I enjoyed my meal there, but the Mediterranean-leaning, modern Californian cooking at Plum scored a more direct hit for me.

Patterson circulated around the open kitchen last night, coaching cooks on some of the fussier plating, while Laura Kiino worked the flattop. Despite the nervous energy, it was a quiet, disciplined kitchen.

The menu is divided into “snacks’, “to start”, “vegetables and grains”, “animal”, “cheese”, and “sweet”. We had the artichoke with green olive romesco to start – tiny braised artichokes dotted with fresh cheese, their natural nuttiness amplified by the romesco. The chilled eggplant soup was fantastic as well – lightly curried and creamy, spiked with the bite of preserved lemon, topped with a spoonful of clear tomato gelee, it was a lovely, silky counterpart to a mound of tender braised fresh beans (both pole and shelled).

Mushroom dashi with yuba, tofu, and greens was chosen for its similarity to a dish I’d had at Coi – while the dashi was delicious, it didn’t seem to really permeate any of the star ingredients, which were disappointingly bland. Once I hit the bottom of the bowl, though, I savored the marvelously toasty mushrooms, along with the smoky broth.

The new potatoes with lardo, chanterelles, and arugula were delicious – coins of potato were draped with lardo and topped chanterelles cooked down so far they resembled bacon chips. I was a little startled that the potatoes were cold (the plate was hot) – I think it was one of the only missteps that night (the other being that the initial courses came out slowly, but as I was witness to the intense, last minute tutorials in the open kitchen, I found that entirely understandable. Of note, the pace picked up significantly toward the second half of the meal).

For our “animal” course, we had the pork trotter burger, the slow cooked farm egg with chicken giblet fried farro, and the seared squid with black rice porridge. All three were great, but the squid was fantastic – perfectly cooked, tender squid, with an inky black “porridge” that was closer to risotto than jook. The slow-cooked farm egg wobbled over chicken giblet spiked farro, a Mediterranean fried rice of sorts. These two dishes exemplify the approach toward fusion that I love – rather than forcing disparate flavors to combine in odd and novel ways, they appeal to deeper, elemental human cravings that span different cultures – the desire for umami, the craving for carbs and fat – and manage to be both refined and deeply satisfying.

The pork trotter burger was quite delicious, but I haven’t decided yet if I actually preferred it to just a trotter cake on a plate with the bright, sharp radish slaw on the side. I did find that after a while, having all three animal dishes at the same time started to dampen my palate a bit. In the future, I will probably try to alternate starters/vegetable + grain dishes with animal dishes, as the earlier dishes had carefully calibrated acidity that I think would have helped prevent palate fatigue in the animal course.

With tax, tip, additional tip (they build in a 16% service charge, to be shared amongst the entire staff, which I think is unusually low for the Bay Area). and one drink each, minus a 10% opening night discount (as an apology for any glitches that may have occurred, which I found both classy and unnecessary), the bill came to $70 pp. It wasn’t cheap, but we also waddled out a little over-stuffed, and for the quality of the food, I think it’s a great value.

2214 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612

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