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new chef & menu makeover at Plum [Oakland]

Inside Scoop reports that Manfred Wrembel, former chef de cuisine at Incanto, took over the kitchen at Plum / Plum Bar yesterday and that the menu will change to a more conventional appetizers and mains format.


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  1. I can't imagine that the more conventional format is a good thing. Would that be a profit issue, or chef wants to appeal to the masses instead of us?

    14 Replies
    1. re: bbulkow

      The old format was "snacks," " vegetables and grains," and "animal." The first two were basically appetizers, the last was main courses. Patterson said some customers had trouble deciphering that. Reorganizing and changing the headings doesn't necessarily mean any change to the food or anything else.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        When I went the second day, this was part of the charm. The server particularly said the concept was a menu format where diners would question the structure of app/main, and think "poststructurally" about menus, and order what they desired, as opposed to what they thought they were supposed to order. The menu structure was designed to foster authenticity and increase dialog. I was dining with a professor of english who focuses on these kinds of analysis, so I remember the conversation quite well .

        That echos why the restaurant is named after the poem it is - one of the famous minimalist / poststructural poems.

        [ I will also disagree that the "veg and grain" section was appetizers. They were larger and heartier than appetizers, and the "animal" section was often smaller. This was clearly a statement about our eating habits and the traditional animal centered dinner. The menu really didn't have traditional mains, so I do think the food will have to change. ]

        Which all sounds kind of crazy, but did show a concept in the menu and philosophy that points to challenging the diner, which leads to "trouble".

        Which is why I made the comment about appealing to the masses. Yes, masses will be confused about not having apps and mains. You aren't confused, I'm not confused. We saw the sections, we looked at the food quantities, we ate, it was good. No confusion.

        [ I eat at plenty of restaurants now that just have a list of dishes, and spacing down the page. Dishes get bigger toward the bottom. The fact that quite a few restaurants have abolished app/main causes me further question about if this is really about decreasing diner confusion.]

        If patterson - or the new chef - is backing off on challenging diners ("creating trouble") in the menu, one would expect the restaurant will follow as a whole.

        I hope not.

        But I recognize concepts and experiences like Plum can't stay static. One can't expect a restaurant attempting to do something new to stay the same - it'll do something new after a few years. I hope their commitment to novelty continues, that Patterson hasn't given up, but even if he has, I'll thank him for several years of a great restaurant.

        1. re: bbulkow

          I wasn't confused, but I doubt I ate different dishes in a different order due to the grouping and labels. I never pay much attention to those anyway, I'll split a main course as an appetizer if it makes sense.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Right - you and I, people who like Plum as it was, won't really care one way or another, unless the food changes. So they're trying to appeal to a different set of diners, which is either a difference of vision in the new chef, or a profit issue that they're not pulling in enough people.

            1. re: bbulkow

              Or maybe the new chef just thinks it's pretentious and silly. I'll have to eat there soon and see how it's changed.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                It's also elitist: if you aren't "in the know" or food-sophisticated enough to "get it" then you're not welcome. Note bbulkow saying "...appeal to the masses instead of us."

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  I have to agree with the elitist idea. The menu seemed almost confrontational in its refusal to give usable information. I would not drive from San Jose without some hint of what I am in for. I may not be the most adventurous diner but I am loyal and after the bloggers have moved on to the next new thing, restaurants need repeat customers to survive. This is an attempt to reach out to the other "us".

                  1. re: budnball

                    the recent Top Chef Masters revealed a little of the anti-elitist ethic of the new chef at Plum, when he helped his ex-boss Cosentino win the big $$ for charity (Parkinson's disease). they won with a final course of blood sausage and sunny side egg.

                    1. re: moto

                      With oysters poached in pork trotter stock, chive flowers, and buckwheat sprouts. That would not be at all out of place among the dishes I've had at Plum.


                    2. re: budnball

                      And I'm sure you have a lot of restaurants that will indulge what you want, and you give them that level of loyalty.

                      What Plum was (maybe is?) doing was unusual, in the level of confrontation, sophistication, complexity. And, critically, they were doing this without committing to a 10-course tasting menu.

                      I thought that was very cool, and I will miss it. Just from a menu perspective. I will consider that there are even fewer people like me, even in the bay area, that they couldn't make a go with their concept as it stood.

                      And, if they still have the level of cooking I've come to love, I'll overlook whatever they say on the menu and keep eating there. From RL's reports, it sounds like they might.

                      1. re: bbulkow

                        I think you can make exciting, creative food without "challenging" your diners with your menu design. I don't need Daniel Patterson to decide I need to be "challenged." That's why I love AQ: all the creativity, none of the pretension.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I love AQ but I don't find their menu less pretentious than Plum's was.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            The organization of the menu at AQ is pretty traditional in that it's grouped by price, in ascending order.

                    3. re: Ruth Lafler

                      I am of the masses and I liked the food before at Plum. Was I not suppose to. I did find the organization pretentious but lots of things at restaurants at that level are. I also didn't care that it was pretentious. EMP just has one word for each dish and I still enjoyed that too. Creen's place has a freaking poem but it's my favorite white linen place in the city.

        2. I like that Plum Bar, if not Plum itself, will be open for lunch in December.

          1. I went for dinner last night. Wrembel said he introduced a completely new menu on Monday. I got spaetzle, sardines, and pork belly, $11-13, all from the appetizers section, seemed as tasty and imaginative as previously. Portions might be a bit larger, that was plenty of food for one.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Okay, it's still early but I must need a second cup of coffee, Robert. I read your post the first time as if you had spaetzle AND sardines AND pork belly together, LOL! I was trying to imagine such a dish and failing entirely............(getting up to pour my second cup right NOW)

            2. I went for dinner last night before the Cat Power show at the Fox and wasn't as impressed as Robert. I'd been to Plum maybe 3-4 times previously, so not as much a regular as many. The food seemed less imaginative and more bland to me. The only thing I really loved was the cow tongue appetizer; the flavor combo on the sardine dish was too plain (basically tasted like sardines with a pat of mayo); the baked gnocchi was good but straightforward.

              It's not that the food wasn't good--it was. But overall the experience felt easily replicated by a host of mid-range SF restaurants, whereas before Plum felt interesting and sparky enough for me to want to cross the bridge. I don't think a week behind the wheel is enough to declare which way Wrembel will take it, so I'd certainly return, but it's worth saying that I wasn't as impressed as the previous menu.

              1. We went on Friday and were very impressed. Indeed, it may have been the best visit so far. The new chef is adding a German touch to the menu, which adds a different dimension, although I still thought the food reflected Patterson's vegetable/lighter touch focus. The spaetzel was great and light, and really dfifferent. The same with the beef tongue appetizer -- refreshing and tasty with a horseradish sorbet-like topping. The pork cheeks main dish were very rich on the otherhand, but great.

                I am thrilled with this direction and will returning soon (especially once they open for lunch).

                1. They've changed the furniture in the dining room to make it more comfortable. The communal tables are gone and the benches have been replaced by seats with backs. There must be considerably fewer covers.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Also, they've gone to an almost-all-domestic wine list. There are some interesting and unusual bottles, e.g. a Finger Lakes Riesling and a Scholium Project Verdelho.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      The seating thing doesn't sound promising. I'm almost hoping they change the name of the restaurant; this doesn't sound like the restaurant I love(d), and I'd rather consider a new place on its own terms than with the baggage of its past incarnation.

                  2. Went last night for the first time since the chef change. I have always been a big fan of Plum in the past but last night probably pushed me away for a while, until I hear some further updates on this board. The food was not nearly as interesting as it has been on prior visits--salad of chicories was fine but could have been from any place, the carrots appetizer was no longer that lovely plate of tiny various carrots but just carrot curls topping greens and grains, etc. But what really was a shock to our group was the service, which had always been quite good. As one illustration, the members of our party of four (all multiple repeat visitors) each ordered wine by the glass, but our server brought only two of the drink orders at first, forgot one of them entirely, and brought the second two ten minutes apart. In addition, the last of these was a pour about 1/3 shy of the other three glasses. The restaurant was only about 1/2 full at its peak and we were still pretty much ignored most of the night, with the meal taking 2.5 hours--and not because we were lingering and having a great time and the server was pacing our dishes accordingly. I have in the past often dined at the bar, so maybe that would have been better. Have to confirm bbulkow's suspicion that this is not really the same place anymore. Did hear from friends who went to Haven last night that they had a great time, one of the best meals they've had in years, so maybe all the energy is over in Jack London Square now?

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: BAnders

                      The carrots I had the other night were two ways, raw curls and cooked baby carrots so concentrated and caramelized I didn't realize what they were. I liked it a lot. Service was great but we went in around 9 and the place was very quiet.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Yeah, it was very quiet last night too, never more than half full, so I really could not understand why the service was so bad. No excuse that I could see.

                      2. re: BAnders

                        The menu does not seem to have changed much in the past six weeks. Tonight we had woefully undersalted gnocchi. The pork cheek dish was good and would have been great if the potatoes had been either more flavorful (nuttier) or more textural (softer inside and crunchier outside). Pork belly "appetizer" was good, but very fatty and filling. I would have thought it was too much if I had tried to eat the whole plate instead of just a few bites.

                        The most remarkable dish, though, was a dessert that was called a "parfait," but that resembled a bar of soap in both texture and taste. They served it on a pool of inedibly tart lime curd, with crisp but tasteless slices of fruit that the menu said were pears. I do not recommend it.

                        On the plus side, service was fine.

                        1. re: ourswimmer

                          if you are referring to the white chocolate parfait here, our experience was very different than yours, probably not from any big difference in execution nor in the quality of the fruit, but because everyone's palate is individuated.

                          according to chef Manfred, who served us nearly our entire meal [having specified w. our reservation that we wanted the chef's counter, and seated at the pass where he expedites and finishes the plates], the three Patterson-affiliated places including Coi and Plum share the same pastry chef. to us, the parfait was delicate and complex, only lightly sweet which let the complementing fruit tastes intermingle (chocolate in this form taking a fruity note). our second dessert, compliments of the chef, was a more conventional chocolate tart, very fresh tasting and perfectly executed.

                          overall, we had our most enjoyable restaurant meal since our Paris trip in Nov., granted, having Manfred as our interlocutor was a unique and very enjoyable part of the experience. he feels he's only begun to exert his influence over the menu, and gives top priority to training his staff. all of the food prep takes place in the compact kitchen fully visible from the dining counter, and we've never seen a more stress free kitchen staff during dinner rush (our meal was on a Sat. night, 8-10).

                          we shared four appetizers and one main course. we appreciated how the kitchen uses a light touch with salt ; none seemed either under or over salted. everything was enjoyable to excellent, the stand outs among the savoury courses for us were the fresh local herring that came with perfectly complementing Portland butterball potato, and the beef tongue prepared two ways w. farro and wilted greens. the cauliflower soup was a fascinating kaleidoscope of tastes, with coconut milk instead of a dairy element in the broth and south Asian spicing, tartness from citrus and fresh pomegranate.

                          note on the wine and coffee -- the reds are exclusively domestic, except for one premium Italian sangiovese, and the most expensive red is a Sean Thackeray sangiovese, vintage 2000. we brought our own bottle, a 2000 Pessac Leognan. the only coffee available is from Blue Bottle and prepared in a press pot ; the folks from B.B. instructed the staff to infuse the grounds two minutes, which to my palate was too light an extraction, taking delicacy and finesse to an extreme.

                      3. I stopped in for a snack and tried a new dish of herring cured in whey. Really great. They have Linie aquavit.

                        I was sitting at the counter and watched them make a couple of the new burgers, one big patty and a perfect-looking bun, I had dinner plans but will have to go back soon to try one.

                        1. Went the other night and had some dishes that were as adventurous and interesting as ever. I went craving more of the great herring dish but the chef said maybe next year.

                          Hamachi crudo with lime, coriander, chile, tequila applied with a mister, and some other things ($12?): sort of like two dishes in one, the salsa-ish stuff was on one end of each piece and the other was plain. Very good.

                          Winter soup ($9): rutabaga puree over grapefruit, coffee, mint, and some other things. Delicious, everything worked together but without the description I wouldn't have had much clue was it was.

                          Hearts of palm, a salad with citrus supremes, avocado, pepitas, cilantro, cocoa nibs, pickled kumquats ($10): really good, exciting mix of flavors and textures, the crunchy nibs made the dish. (Didn't think to take a photo until I'd eaten over half of it.)

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            We also had the soup a couple nights ago. While I found it to be a most unique soup, I'm not sure it entirely worked. My partner, never as big a fan of acidity as me, chose to give me her portion half way through. I really liked the grapefruit bursts while eating the soup, but also feel the sour and bitter were a bit too assertive here. It wasn't my favorite dish of the night, but it was certainly the most memorable.

                          2. Almost all new dishes on the menu the other night. Green garlic chowder was delicious. A saladish squid dish had three kinds of sunflower (seeds, sprouts, and cooked sunchoke) and avocado, very nice. I ordered game hen with clams because I couldn't imagine how that would work, but the clams were not very briny and it was actually a very delicate sort of Italian-seeming dish.

                            Drank a fantastic Forlorn Hope Semillon.

                            1. Well, that didn't last too long. Inside Scoop reports Kim Alter is moving from Haven to Plum. The restaurant will be closed for a week staring Monday to install some new equipment.


                              1. So... has anybody been to Plum under the new (or new new) regime? Curious how palpable the differences are, and how the food struck you -- thinking of heading there this weekend.....

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: uberslop

                                  Would really like a report too... RL help us out... should I venture there again? Was too disappointed re: backs on chairs that I never made back ....

                                  1. re: bbulkow

                                    They improved the furniture a while back. I'm not sure when I'll have a chance to check out the new menu.

                                  2. re: uberslop

                                    I've been to all versions of Plum. The first Plum was by far the best and it went downhill from there.

                                    The most recent version with the chef from Haven is a step in the right direction, back toward the umm light. The portions are minuscule. You need a microscope and pincers to eat but at least the food doesn't suck.

                                    Worth a visit? Yes. Worth a repeat visit? Not yet..

                                    1. re: MrSmart

                                      Did you order a la carte or was there a tasting menu?

                                      1. re: MrSmart

                                        Thanks for the update. I have not been since Kim took over the kitchen. My opinion is the first was the best with regards to food but I did not like the original seating and also felt the service was weak. The seating and service appeared to improve over time but the food was weaker as time passed. It would be great if they could have the original food with the current seating and improved service.