Monday, October 11, 2010

PLUM - Dining Under the Harvest Moon

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend the second night of business at Chef Daniel Patterson’s new effort, Plum Oakland. I brought my Better Half along and we were early for our 5:30 p.m. reservations, so we were allowed to select our seats from virtually anywhere in the joint. We picked the two seats at the end of the long stainless steel bar, which allowed a perfect view of all that was happening in the kitchen. Dinner and a show. Psyched.

Why Plum? At some point I hope to be able to ask Owner / Chef Daniel Patterson that question, but for now, I will simply speculate. The word Plum to me at first seemed random, disconnected from a concept, until I entered the restaurant. The exquisitely textured walls at first appear black, but on second glance they reveal themselves a deep bloody wine beneath a darker purple, almost black, exterior. The wall treatment, which was hand-stained and then applied to the wall a strip at a time, looks much like the reflection of wine in a dark bottle when held to a strong light, or the skin of — you guessed it — a ripened Plum.

Chef Patterson oversees finishing
touches on a dish
 The interior fixtures were likewise intriguing. The ceiling holds lighting that looks like nothing as much as a handful of amber-colored stars, thrown upwards carelessly by a god in need of a little illumination. These tiny lamps form ovals of light all above the dining area, a warm and welcoming twinkle reminding one a little bit of the ovals of seeds scattered within the center of a ripened fig. The restaurant leaves one with the impression that he or she is currently contained within an arc constructed of a lovely section of overripe, sweet summer fruit, its ribs the bleached wood of the tables and chairs within. It’s peaceful and very conducive to pleasant dining. Really thoughtful decor.

Chef Patterson has chosen a dark green ceramic ware to plate many of his simpler dishes, which somehow furthers this feeling of being surrounded by ripening produce. An example is his fabulous Chilled Eggplant Soup, which in addition to the eggplant, contains fresh pole and shelling beans, and a hint of preserved lemon. The result is a refreshingly tangy liquid, whose flavor is enhanced by a creamy texture and a rewarding finish of cilantro. The dark green, earthy quality of the bowl and the vegetable flavors all worked together in unison to produce a successful combination of taste and visual harmony. If we eat with our eyes, then my eyes were approaching a full belly even before I tasted the soup.

Chickpea Fritters
 The BH and I were somewhat apprehensive at the idea of communal seating, but we ultimately found that we really enjoyed the counter-top show provided by our seats at the end of the kitchen bar. Watching the food as it was being prepared was all genuinely entertaining. Chef Patterson bent over each dish to verify the perfection of its preparation by each of his talented staff, the tossing of salads, the frying of fritters and most intriguing, the rolling of each grape sorbet before plating it with its cheesecake. We found everything about the kitchen staff engaging, and were constantly being handed free goodies by the Chef as he worked. A bowl of the Popcorn Escabeche, followed a bit later by a dish of the Potatoes Chicarones. A second helping of Chickpea Fritters. If Chef found a dish somewhat less than perfect, or an order was prepared that maybe hadn’t been ordered, we were handed it gratis — with a smile. This was an unanticipated benefit of the end seats, due perhaps to the fact that the place is still new and working out the kinks. The seats were really a treat. Chef Patterson probably returns to Coi once this place finds its stride, but we so enjoyed the attention while eating our meals. Watching various staff perform tasks like adding berries to the tops of desserts in a plating so carefully precise that they needed tweezers, kinda fun watching the love as it is dished out.

 So to the food itself? Mostly fantastic. We enjoyed the Potatoes Chicharones - they were a crunchy, crispy treat, reminiscent of a pork rind, except they were made of potato. The BH and I absolutely loved the Chickpea Fritters. They were a hot right out of the fryer ball of essentially hummus, with this lovely brown crust and soft warm inside that went perfectly with the cool refreshing yoghurt, all set off with a nicely with a bit of mint.

Popcorn Escabeche. I gotta say I really liked this one too. Another diner asked how the escabeche powder was made and Chef Patterson responded that it was made from powdered vegetables all prepared with a spice similar to how fish would be spiced with an escabeche powder, and that preparation was then freeze-dried and made into a powder seasoning of its own. This produced a popcorn that had multiple flavors, eating it was a little like finding a surprise in every bite. The seasonings coated each kernel a little differently, producing a variation that made for a little party in my mouth.

Beets and Onions
 Perhaps my favorite dish was the Roasted Beets and New Onions which was a rich, earthy dish of beets that tasted of the harvest.  The beets were mingled with these lovely softened onions that gave a bit of the expected pickled flavor, without stripping the beets themselves of their natural, almost smoky flavor.  Along with this was a sprinkling of pistachio that gave a nice contrast in texture to the smoothness of the beet.  Keep in mind I am a huge fan of beets, but this is only the second time I’ve had them prepared this naturally. It's like tasting the color purple.  We also enjoyed the Artichoke dish, comprised of hearts sprinkled with fresh crumbled cheese and a green olive romesco.  The artichokes arrived with a Potatoes & Chanterelle Mushroom platter, a nice combination of chanterelle mushrooms and new potatoes. By now we are getting full, but we still had our mains to come.

The BH had the Pork Trotter Burger, which I tasted. It was fine. The bun was incredibly soft, fresh made and perhaps my favorite part. The meat was tangy and well seasoned. I had the Lamb Stew which was something along the consistency of oatmeal.  Soft and flavorful. It came topped with a toasted bruschetta layered with a tangy vinaigrette, sliced lamb tongue and a tasty spread.

Goat Cheesecake
 For dessert we chose two of the four offered: the Goat Cheesecake was a light, airy cloud atop a fluff of graham cracker crust - a spectacular grape sorbet egg beside it. Watching someone with sufficient skill to execute the preparation of that item alone was worth the price of admission.

We also sampled the Milk Chocolate Creme with Basil and Pinenuts.  It was a lovely bowl with dollops of creamy dark & light chocolate, blended until just firm enough to form plump little tears of puddingy goodness. I'm sure it was formed somehow by the hands of an exquisitely trained staff member with special magic fingers, and then topped with leafy sprinklings of basil and dotted in pinenuts. This dessert was a chocolate lover's delight.  Smoothly rich, ultimately satisfying.

Milk Chocolate Cream with
Basil & Pinenuts
Oakland hasn’t had anything like this before, and it makes a lovely accent to the four corners of fantastic dining that have become the intersection of Grand and Broadway. There is much to be enjoyed here. The food is unusual, and the proteins in particular are adventurous to say the least. That said, I would say to stretch yourself a little. If unusual proteins don’t appeal, there is bound to be something else to try on the menu (those beets are so tasty and there’s always dessert!!). Plum’s decor, with its womblike black-purple walls, gleaming stainless kitchen, bleached golden wood and lovely amber lighting, is a feast for the eyes. The rich gold fixtures on the ceiling give the appearance of nothing so much as a sky full of seeds, the industrial sparsity of the lines within reminiscent of furrowed fields, there is an unspoken suggestion of harvest bounty within its walls.

I enjoyed my visit. The service was fantastic — attentive yet inobtrusive. The food was beautiful to behold and really, really good. There may be some kinks in the early days, as food this labor-intensive requires precision. All new rollouts have an adjustment period, but what I saw was an energetic Chef doing his best to see that every diner had a magnificent experience. Check it out, and bon appetit!

Plum Oakland
2214 Broadway
(between Franklin St & Grand Ave)
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 444-7586

Noise level: 2-3 bells when full
Table size: adequate
Service: excellent, attentive
Note* there is a 16% tip added to every bill -no matter the party size- to ensure that waitstaff is adequately paid.  Given the tipping habits of many and the extremely labor intensive food served, it makes sense.  One can always bring the tip up to 18%-20% if desired.

Post Script:  The chef has answered my question as to the title of the restaurant.  It is from William Carlos Williams poem "This is just to say" :

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold