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Plaj - Scandinavian in Hayes Valley [SF]

Last night, a friend and I went to try Plaj, a new Scandinavian restaurant in the Inn at the Opera which opened on June 29. Their website is not fully up, but the Chron had the menu on its blog:


We were very impressed with the meal, with only one hiccup across six dishes. The food here was different than I've had at any restaurant in the Bay Area, as far as I can recall. We split everything, and let the kitchen course the meal as it thought best. Pacing was excellent, with a new dish arriving shortly after we finished the prior one. I am unfamiliar with Scandinavian food, so each dish's flavors were surprising and interesting. It was all very different than anything I'd had before, but in a good way.

Table bread comes in a little wax paper bag on a little bamboo cutting board, which I thought was pretty silly. The butter was nicely soft, and sprinkled with sea salt and pepper. We had the burata salad, the taste of herring, the gravlax, the halibut, the charcuteri, and the chocolate torte. I really liked the first three, and would return to Plaj to order each of them. Flavors were light, bright, and balanced, or perhaps a touch on the acidic side. The burata salad, for example, did not taste like the usual burata salad offered at so many restaurants in SF. The halibut was also excellent, though not as surprising and interesting as the first three dishes. The charcuteri was not a success for us... the pork belly one in particular was not to our tastes, but we didn't much care for the lamb either. The chocolate torte was surprisingly light and airy, with a really delicious and not sweet sorbet, with bits of meringue scattered about for crunch. A really lovely dessert. Aside from the charcuteri, each dish had bright, fresh, interesting flavors, including the frequent appearance of not-sweet berries. We also had two Icelandic beers. I liked the white ale, and my friend the monk's brew.

Service was pretty good. The only hitch was that we asked for a sharp knife to better divide each plate - the waitress graciously brought us a sharp knife in its blade case, but when I took the case off the blade, the blade was filthy. I imagine she had no idea, but needless to say, we didn't use it. Once we requested a change of plates after the first course, our waitress changed plates after each subsequent course without having to be asked. She was friendly and engaged.

The decor doesn't match the food at all. Maybe I'm too influenced by Ikea, HGTV, and movies, but I think of Scandinavia as more slick and modern, with glass and metal. The food was fresh, bright, and, to me, inventive. Yet the room is windowless (at the back of the hotel) and old fashioned, covered in wood with a fireplace and a big wooden bar.

My friend and I both plan to return. It's not often for me to come across a totally new cuisine, so it was a real pleasure to be introduced to Scandinavian food at Plaj. I hope Plaj gains in popularity and sticks around.

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  1. Thanks for the review. I've been very curious, particularly after returning from a week in Oslo just last Monday. We had some excellent food there, but WOW is it expensive, even by San Francisco standards. I'm looking forward to trying this!

    1. Sounds good! Checking it out next week. I've only eaten Scandinavian food in Scandinavia so it will be interesting to see how traditional they are. FYI, Traditional Scandinavia style is very rustic and woodsy.

      1. My experience:
        Had the first of what I think will be many visits here. We came on a Monday and there were only a handful of tables full. There wasn't one assigned host at the host station but the service was decent with some kinks still being worked out.

        The French Spouse and I have only eaten Scandinavian food in Finland, Denmark and Sweden and never had it in the states so we were excited to see how much it hewed to tradition. It was nice mix of traditional ingredients with modern technique.

        The menu is divided up into four sections, hagen, smaller plates of greens and veggies, fjord: seafood; some smaller plates, some larger, beta:meat in mostly larger entree portions and finally Godis: desserts.

        We order one dish of each category. As is common the smaller dishes were the more creative and interesting while the larger dishes especially the meats which stay true to the Swedish inspiration while be very approachable and familiar to American palates and the opera crowd scene.

        We had the
        1. Potato dumpling kumla, onion ragout, lingonberry, brown butter which we got without the lardon (12) This was one of the best dishes we had in a meal that overall very good. The dumpling were crisp but nice and smooth on the inside and the onion ragout & lingonberry & brown butter was the perfect savory complement to dumplings. This dish was smaller with two large dumplings but very filling.

        2. Krondil poached lobster skagen, white fish caviar, horseradish, avocado, chili (18) This dish was so delicate in the best possible way, there were many component but nothing overwhelmed the perfectly poached lobster. It was a good portion too. There was a nice horseradish cream that complimented the lobster rather than overpowering it.

        3. Porter braised ox cheeks, roasted beet root, fried onions, horseradish (22) This had all the flavours of a country side farm favorite but was rather bland. The cheeks were tender and cooked beautifully but didn't have much taste of the porter. The roast beet root which was super light and fluffy was the true star of the dish. The fried onions were nice but there was too many on the dish and the real shaved horseradish was great. It was the least interesting dish and I would still recommend it.

        4. For dessert we had the chocolate tarte with cloudberry sorbet, meringue, blood orange sauce (8). I've never seen cloudberries in North American except in northern Canada but I've heard they are also grow in a few northern states. Either way it was really nice to see what is a common wild berry in a dessert here and it was nicely paired with the chocolate torte. Neither the sorbet nor the torte were overly sweet and the meringue added a nice crunch and texture to the dish.

        I really liked how the chef has married traditional Swedish food and dishes with the abundance of local produce and seafood. Although they said most dishes are for sharing I found four dishes to be very filling and don't think we could have eaten more. I would have preferred some smaller dishes at lower price point as the lowest price was 12 dollars.

        For drinker there is a selection of cocktails, three kinds of Aquavit which is must if you are drinker and eating Swedish food, beers,both draft and bottle. There was a small selection of wines as well as dessert liqueurs. There is also a good selection of non-alcoholic beverages including elderflower soda and lingonberry soda both as well more American sodas.

        The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, our server explained that many of dishes were meant to be shared and pointed out which ones were larger and smaller. She was able to answer most of our food questions and they were able to remove elements from some of the dishes on request. They also don't add on a healthy SF charge on which is so incredibly tacky of a restaurant owner to do.

        I liked the decor while the French Spouse who is more of a hipster and likes the current trends of wood on the wall and faux vintage in restaurants more. It looks like they kept much of the old decor with the dark wood paneling and just changed the furniture to a mix of swedish country house and modern bright metal elements. The lighting was good and we could see each other and the menu well. The music was downtempo electronica which was kept at a low volume and hearing each other was easy.

        Parking on the street was very easy but it gets much harder when there are events going on. There is a paid parking lot across from the restaurant.

        1 Reply
        1. re: tjinsf

          The French Spouse pointed out that I forgot about her entree which was the halibut, chanterelle emulsion, shaved asparagus, trout roe (21) The fish was beautiful and it was complex and really well composed dish with bursting flavours and a sauce that was sopped up with the in house made rye bread.

        2. I had dinner with a friend here recently and I liked the look of the restaurant, and I liked the idea of trying new cuisine. I'm open to Scandinavian food because I'm a big fan of pickled things, and lots of the dishes have the component of tartness to counter balance some of the richness. As for Plaj, the taste of herring is probably going to be its signature dish because it's good and fun to try different flavors, but overall I felt many of its dishes are heavy on the sauce.

          Here's my overall review with photos: http://focussnapeat.com/2012/08/08/di...

          "You can discover bits of Nordic-influenced food in the dishes of Chef Nick Balla at Bar Tartine or some dishes at the regional Leopold’s on Polk – and of course there’s always the Ikea cafeteria.

          But with the opening of Pläj this summer, the food of Scandinavia gets a full tasting in this modern restaurant in the back of the Inn at the Opera on Fulton Street.

          Always ready to try new cuisine, I visited Pläj (pronounced like “play”) with my food-adventurer partner Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging. The space, a mix between a contemporary café and a rustic lodge, seats 44 with a large communal table with orange-painted metal chairs.

          During our meal, the service showed the signs of a new restaurant as slight awkwardness was evident in the way the host and servers interacted with each other and with the guests, with oddly timed visits to the table or miscues in the removal of plates and utensils. It was just a sign that kinks still needed to be worked out, although it wasn’t anything that marred the overall dining experience.

          As for the menu of Chef-Owner Roberth Sundell, the food is broken into four sections: “hagen” (starters) “fjord” (from the sea), “beta” (meat dishes) and “godis” (desserts). The dishes aren’t considered traditional Scandinavian dishes but influenced by ingredients and flavors from that part of the world.

          I found the food to be one note, offering an interesting play between savory and pickled, but often overcomed by too much sauce. A white asparagus starter ($15), for example, was nicely cooked but had too much hollandaise sauce that competed with the 63-degree cooked egg and bits of morels.

          My plate of Krondill poached lobster ($18) also had nicely cooked lobster meat but was almost drowning in sauce, with only a few moments of the horseradish and white fish caviar providing contrasting flavor notes.

          The only dish that seemed to really represent what I would think is Nordic cuisine was the taste of herring ($12), which presented wonderfully pickled herring in three ways: saffron tomato, coriander chili and lime, and ginger-smoked soy. A cracker served as a great vehicle to try these tasty bits of herring, although, again, sauce played a major role in the construction of this tasting.

          Sandy – who has in-laws in the Minnesota area, which has a large Scandinavian community – seemed to have ordered the dishes that were really influenced by traditional dishes of the region, starting with her potato dumpling kumla ($12), served with onion ragout, brown butter, lardon, and the ubiquitous lingon berry sauce.

          She also ventured to try the Swedish meat balls ($15), which she said easily bypassed Ikea’s version. She had a hearty portion served with potato puree, pan gravy, pickled cucumber and lingon berry sauce.

          Our desserts (all $8 each) came out looking almost the same, a plate with a scoop of ice cream on top of our main dish and then surrounded by a moat of sauce. I loved the idea of my rhubarb lavender crumble pie with strawberry ice cream, but I found the rhubarb too tart and not much crumble or pie bits.

          Sandy’s chocolate torte was like a perfect brownie, and we tried to pinpoint the taste of the scoop of “cloudberry” sorbet. It had a taste that seemed familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it. (Wouldn’t it be funny if “cloudberry” was just the Nordic people’s way of saying “raspberry”?


          While I found the flavors to be interesting, especially when it waded toward the pickled end, I found the overall dishes and plates to be rough around the edges, needing a bit more restraint or refinement to highlight the touted simplicity of Scandinavian cooking.

          Pläj has some ways to go to find itself, but it’s starting from a good foundation. Hopefully it can delve deeper into its Scandinavian roots so we can really have amazing Nordic food in the Bay Area."

          1 Reply
          1. re: singleguychef

            the cloudberry isn't a raspberry. It is a wild berry that grows in alpine and arctic regions. It does actually grow in Canada and a couple northern states but I asked the server where they got their for the sorbet and she said that it was imported from Sweden. Wild they aren't as sweet as raspberry although the tastes are similar.

          2. We ate here before Symphony last night and will be back for sure. I'm a huge herring fan and the herring tasting platter was fantastic - three different marinades and preparations, each emphasizing different flavors in the fish. It went superbly with my Mikkeller PIls. My entree of the California halibut with roe, mushrooms, and shaved asparagus was fine as well. My wife's choices of the gioia burrata salad and caraway smoked salmon were also delicious, though her glass of Chablis went better by itself than with the salmon. We happily split the chocolate torte with cloudberry sorbet and orange-vanilla cream.

            This was a great 5-for-5 night. The ingredients are high quality and combined and cooked with care, with different flavors than you find elsewhere in the Bay Area. They're already popular and this was the night before Bauer's review came out. What a great addition to the choices near the Opera and Symphony!


            1. I had dinner here on Saturday night. I was really looking forward to the meal based on a variety of things I've read, but left overall unimpressed and not likely to return. While perhaps a nitpik, we were really put off when we were sat against a wall that had a variety of food and beverage stains on it. I expect more than that at this price point.

              We started off with the White asparagus, trumpet mushrooms, fennel confit, egg 65°C, hollandaise sauce, soft rye croutons. I was most excited about the fennel confit, but I believe it was pickled and the flavor completely dominated the dish, drowning out what probably was a lovely richness between the egg and white asparagus. The dish lacked salt as well.

              Next was the Coriander crusted tuna, licorice ponzu, parsnip chips, ginger jam, horseradish and Krondill poached lobster Skagen, white fish caviar, horseradish, avocado, chili. The tuna was properly seared and tasty, but was nothing special. The ponzu sauce on the plate dominated the dish. The lobster was the best dish of the evening. It was balanced, rich, and we simply just wanted more. My only gripe is that the foam took over the plate on arrival and we had to hunt for the other components a bit. At $21 for an appetizer a few more bites would have been appreciated.

              We moved on to meats as our mains and had the Porter braised ox cheek, roasted beet root, fried onions, horseradish and Saddle of venison, Scandinavian gratin, Juniper berry jus. The cheek meat lacked any of the gelatinous texture and richness that we had expected. Most of the serving tasted like a somewhat dry stew meat. A few bites approached something akin to a short rib, but nothing like a cheek. As I write this I'm wondering if they subbed a short rib. The flavor from the porter sauce was rich and lovely, the beet root puree was forgettable, and the crispy fried onions added a nice contract in texture and had the salt the dish very much needed. The venison arrived nicely pink and just past medium rare. We asked for it to be on the lesser side of the advertised medium rare. It was tasty, but really needed the jus to combat it's lean dryness. The gratin was rich and tasty, but both the gratin and the meat again lacked salt.

              Food summary take away from my visit is that out of five savory courses only one did we really like and three of five lacked salt. We did finally ask for salt with our mains because it is not offered on the table.

              Service was good through out the meal. Nothing notable in terms of either positives or negatives. The two recommened glasses of wine were delicious and pared well.

              For $200 with tip I'm looking for a bit more. Too many options in SF for me to return here.

              4 Replies
              1. re: SLRossi

                agreed, it's different, interesting, but the price point doesn't make it worth going back.

                1. re: vulber

                  I agree, was disappointed in prices and portions.

                  In contrast, I had the most glorious and large portion of herring at the Lighthouse in San Rafael. It's basically a bar that has a (very genuine) scandinavian section to their menu.
                  It's far away but every time I see anything about Plaj I start fantasizing about taking a trip back up there for that amazing herring. (3 times the size of what Plaj serves and twice as tasty)

                  1. re: pauliface

                    Actually, Lighthouse may be more than 'just a bar'. The bar is in the front, and that's where I was seated with fiends, but there may be tables as well a little further back. I don't recall...

                2. re: SLRossi

                  We found the ox cheek boring too and it appears they've raised the price since the first time we went. It's sad the food quality hasn't improved since they opening.

                3. I was at Plaj the other night and was very disappointed by the food. The dishes all seemed to have numerous very strong flavors that did not meld at all. For example, dumplings were covered with an intense lingonberry sauce, onions stewed in cardamon and some greasy lardons. That the dumplings were chewy did not help. The salad had a very acidic vinaigrette and was topped with finely diced breadcrumbs that added a gritty unwashed texture to the dish. The presentation of dishes was very nice and it was clear that lots of effort had been made -- but none of the things we had really worked.
                  The service and setting were nice, but for the money, Rich Table or Absinthe are much better bets in the area.

                  1. After refusing to eat much of anything at Rich Table, Mom was still hungry.

                    We dropped into Plaj for dessert around 9:30pm. She had the Swedish apple pie with a cake-like crumbly top crust and brightly tart green apple filling. Served warm this was topped with vanilla ice cream and creme anglaise.

                    I had the chocolate torte, lighter than it looks and elegant. The crunchy meringue bits were a nice touch. This was topped with chocolate ice cream and served in a puddle of creme anglaise.

                    Mom inhaled hers and I barely got a bite to taste it. I give the slight nod to the apple dessert. But both were quite good for $8 apiece.

                    1. Had a decent meal at Plaj before the symphony. Not having read this thread beforehand, it's especially interesting to read what others have written.

                      But first, we had the lobster, herring, ox cheeks and albacore dish. The standout dish was the lobster. It had a lobster bisque like foam on top of the lobster, which sat on a horseradish sauce. The lobster was cooked very well, and a delicious match with the roe and avocado. The herring tasting and albacore were both solid as well.

                      Looking at one of the earlier posts, the lobster dish was once priced at $18, then $21, now $23, a significant change for just over a year. I have no idea if the portions have changed, and we did not feel this was an undeserved price, but it also seems that the preparation has not significantly changed.

                      Which is also the case for the rest of the menu. Others here noted the ox cheeks being underwhelming (not much braise flavor in the not particularly tender meat) and it was during our visit too. The dish was listed under the specials category, but now I see it's been there all along.

                      The other issue we had was that there were similar notes in all of the dishes we had. All four of our dishes had horseradish, and three had dill. Perhaps this was coincidental to our ordering, and they made sense in the dishes, but it did become repetitive.

                      Service was good. They seem very used to serving those who have a show to attend, proactively inquiring about our preferences. Though we were happy with our meal overall, if several dishes have similar flavors, and the menu doesn't change very often, a frequent visit is unlikely.