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Sep 30, 2010 08:52 AM

Plum Review (Oakland)

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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  1. Excellent review and very helpful. I'm headed there tonight and my mouth is watering from your descriptions...Thanks.

    1. This place is a great addition to the oakland scene, but not the destination I had been hoping for.

      Note my palate is tarnished by the previous meal I had eaten - a "best ever" at Manresa. Compared to the sparkling flavors and combinations (at 10x the cost), I might not have my objectivity.

      Service was great, especially for a near-opening night. Sitting at the bar with 2 is certainly the right way to go, I kept craning my neck to get a glimpse of patterson cooking.

      Wine selection is very good. We went the "flask" route, which is about a half-bottle. The waiter suggested well.

      The eggplant soup was great. The Potatoes were a little weird - we could only guess that the lardo had the peculiar "new car smell" taste. Bites without the lardo were pleasant.

      The squid had a very nice lemony taste with the bulghur, but the squid was nearly missing, so the dish didn't work "as squid". The egg, however - very nice. They recommended mixing the egg in, korean style, so it coated the grains and veg. We got talked into the deserts, and enjoyed both the white chocolate cake (which didn't taste like white chocolate) and the burnt cinnemon ice cream, which was up near the level of lush (we tried to make it over to lush afterward, but missed by about 10 minutes). Good deserts.

      The tastes here are overwhelmingly light and delicate. I think it's a very light hand with the salt that does it, and frankly it's rather welcome.

      My feeling is the kitchen hasn't quite hit its stride yet. The dishes need some kinks worked out, the chefs interpreting Patterson need to feel their way around the dishes a bit more.

      Plum isn't going to be a Commis. It doesn't strive for that. In a month it'll be the kind of casual place you can drop by without reservations later on a friday, get a really good wine and something light but satisfying. You can spend very little by ordering less (chicarones and a burger), or go more whole hog.

      Manresa Restaurant
      320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

      3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

      5 Replies
      1. re: bbulkow

        Everyone feels for you having to eat to Manresa and then Plum back-to-back. Man that sounds like work!

        1. re: bbulkow

          Interesting - the only dish I had that I would characterize as "light" would be the mushroom dashi and yuba. Looks like they changed up the menu quite a bit from day one.

          1. re: bbulkow

            "overwhelmingly light and delicate"
            Overpowering in effect or strength

            1. re: wolfe

              Can one be overwhelmed by delicacy?
              But I probably meant exclusively light and delicate, or very much light and delicate.

            2. re: bbulkow

              Went friday and while the food was very good things just were not quite right. In the Animal section of the menu at one point there was only one dish available (out of four originally available). Initially service was nice but getting our first course took quite awhile and the other courses weren't paced much faster. Hopefully this gets fixed as with proper pacing and not running out of food this would be a real nice addition to the Oakland dining scene.

            3. I too was there opening night and I have to say Plum is lovely! I love the black walls, art, and oddly shaped room. My friend and I sat at the bar and watched the 8 person team, including a supervising Daniel Patterson in action. Service was attentive, though there were some longish pauses, but nothing unforgivable on opening night. My three favorite dishes of the night were the cauliflower with dandelion salsa, the vegetables in a vadouvan (sp?) broth and the goat cheese cake with grape sorbet desert. I can't speak to the animal dishes, since I am a vegetarian, but as a vegetarian I left very happy. It is a great addition to Oakland, and BRAVO for staying open until 1 AM!! Very convivial and fun. I can't wait to see how it develops, and think it is off to a great start.

              1. Add link.

                2214 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612

                1. Agree with everyone that the food here is pretty delicious. The only miss for me was the cabbage salad, which was heavily sour and crunchy without much in the way of sweetness or any softer textures to balance it out. But the trotter burger: awesomely melt-in-the-mouth; the squid + black rice: tangy and tender and creamy all at once; and the potatoes + lardo: oddly refreshing for something so rich. Cauliflower with bulgar and dandelion was a perfect, comforting fall dish.

                  It was interesting to eat so much food that leans toward bitter, tangy and sour accents, and crunchy vs. soft textures -- there seemed to be very little dairy in most non-dessert dishes, and despite eating a lot, we left feeling full but not stuffed.

                  As far as desserts go, the white chocolate parfait was incredible -- an utterly wonderful balance of creamy chocolate with a fragrant cookie-type crust and a sublime huckleberry compete with candied fennel. IMHO one of the absolute best desserts I've ever eaten. (Which doesn't tell anyone else much, I suppose, but it was really, really good.) We sat at the bar and the parfaits were being prepared nonstop. The chocolate cream was also very good, although the basil meringue (a soft rather than crispy meringue) was a bit sweet for me.

                  Oh, and as for any reservations about the restaurant adding the tip to the bill ( I saw a snippy remark or two on Yelp about this): 16% is really very modest and we were happy to add more for the attentive yet relaxed and unobtrusive service.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: bgbc

                    I went back to try the bar menu Friday night and left happy once again. I had a delicious miso, apple parsnip soup and an amazingly delicious grilled cheese along with the Linden Street dark ale.I also tried the potato chicharones and boy were those tasty. Light and crispy and flavorful.

                    We arrived at 11:30 PM and were happy to see a few parties enjoying dinner late too. I really want to support any restaurant that will serve until 1 AM, especially one this tasty. I think when the bar is finished in the spring, that will be even better and do a great job of filling the space later at night.

                    1. re: happenstance

                      Pretty sure it was turnip, not parsnip. Agree, however, that it was lovely. Silky smooth and rich with the addition of pepper cream.

                      1. re: lexdevil

              're so right. turnip not parsnip.

                    2. re: bgbc

                      enjoyed all the complex flavors; plus every dish had a nice mix of veggies. glad to finally have a tasty menu without pork belly (i tried the turnip soup, dashi, cauliflower, potatoes, farm egg, and trotter burger)