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Jul 8, 2012 05:06 PM

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:

          "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!