Wednesday, October 5, 2011

PLUM Oakland - (Pork) Belly Up to the Bar

A Rose....

It began with an email.  I get a lot of email, and even though most of it is information I have requested in one form or another, life just never seems to allow me to read every article on every new opening.  Hard truth is, there just aren’t enough hours in a day. The fact that I managed to receive this particular invitation was a combination of luck and timing. Guess some things are just meant to be.

One of my favorite new restos in Oaktown —  Daniel Patterson’s, Plum, helmed since shortly after opening by the incomparable Charlie Parker — was having a special prix fixe dinner.  The first of a series of such meals to be held on Monday &Tuesday nights, which will feature local-grown produce and proteins.   What could be more enticing?  Great food that supports local farmers.  Everybody wins.

The star of this particular dinner was to be The Pig.  A local pig butcher who’d worked with HAVEN Chef Kim Alter during Eat Real was sourcing the pork.  (Now, I’m a girl who loves pork in almost all forms.  Despite my decades old conversion to the laws of Moses, I still consume pork.  Raised Italian Catholic, giving up prosciutto seemed worse than cutting off an arm.  I was prepared to make the sacrifice, but my BH wouldn’t have it.  Fortunately the rabbis never asked me that question.)   Tantalized by all the potential in that “other” white meat, I made a reservation within seconds of receiving the emailed invitation.  Didn’t even run the menu by the BH.  We were down on the dance card.  All that was left to do was to wait and show up.

Beattie's Cucumber Cocktail
We arrived on the evening of our reservation, and after a brief delay while we waited for the hostess to deal with a fairly hostile walk-in, we were seated at the chef’s counter.  The counter is my favorite place to eat at Plum, or any other place that offers one.  I love sitting where I can watch the magic, the food becomes a lovely bonus while watching the best show ever.

There’s a certain kind of playful risk in a prix fixe meal.  Whether it consists of a simple and straightforward handful of courses or the more elaborate eleven-plus course “Chef’s Tasting,” one must be willing to submit their entire dining experience into the hands of another.  The patron has only one choice — to participate or not — he or she must become a guest at the table, dining at the pleasure of the Chef.   I find it invigorating.  Some Chefs are expanding on that experience, limiting their menu descriptions to suggestions of what is to come.  Recently, while being seated at Saison in San Francisco, we noted the “menu” contained only a single word to describe each course.  Last fall at the re-opening of service at the newly refurbished Eleven Madison in Manhattan, the diner was given a cryptic table, looking more like a game of tic-tac-toe than a menu, which contained several words in each line, supplemented by lithographs of seasonal symbols.  The diner was to select one word from each line, creating a mystical menu laden with unknowns, the words suggesting little more than which protein or other single ingredient might be in the dish.  The rest was left to the imagination.  Adventurous.  In the words of Anthony Bourdain “...your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”

Pig's Ear Chicharrones
For the record, although the pig dinner was the first, there will be more of these collaborative prix-fixe dinners coming to Plum at the hands of Guest Chef Kim Alter of HAVEN*.  These neighborhood celebrations will each focus on local-sourced ingredients, whether from farmers, beer and winemakers, or any other talented vendor with wares worth experiencing in a meal.  Showcasing that which is locally available to the consumer and giving each a featured moment at a particular meal is a wonderful way to teach people what they can find in their own backyard, as well as allowing them to experience those ingredients manipulated into something delicious by some spectacular local talent.  It’s also a pretty genius way to introduce folks to new talent.  Personally, I want to be first in line when HAVEN opens later this fall.   The five course menu offered last week was also priced very reasonably at $49 per person.

Another fabulous addition to Plum: the long-awaited bar next door is about to open and is currently offering mixology through a delightfully “speak-easy” styled service window that opens into Plum.  The as yet untitled saloon is another of D. Patterson’s brainchilds, and brings to Oakland’s bright mixology landscape the substantial talents of Michael Lazar, gifted mixologist  who will be serving masterful concoctions prepared by himself and which will incorporate recipes from the renowned Scott Beattie of Spoonbar (formerly with Cyrus).  Lazar is an expert in liquors, most particularly Bourbon.  Mr. Beattie’s artistic input comes in the form of recipes from his vast array of seasonal recipes, and yes, they’ll have the familiar floral garnishes and elaborate ingredient preparation that have become legendary in the modern mixology movement.  Cocktails with flourish.   Look for the bar to be opening within the next few months.  I know I’ll be there!

Bloody, Bloody Mary
Though I love a good glass of Malbec, and am fond of the occasional IPA, I cannot resist a fancy cocktail.  To complement my Pig, I chose one of Mike’s inviting libations, a little something titled “By any other name” which was a lovely ambrosia of vodka, I believe, if I am remembering correctly.  The drink had hints of rose that made it very special indeed.  The BH ordered the simpler-titled, Cucumber Collins, which he found refreshing and much to his liking.  Mine was a Lazar original, his a recipe by Scott Beattie.  Both were perfection.

Now to the meal.  The first course description read: “PATÉ CAMPAGNE - bloody mary, chicharrone.”   We were served a lovely little plated containing a miniature house made Bloody Mary (a shot glass containing vodka, spicy tomato juice, seasonings and a dash of pig’s blood), which featured a cube of rustic paté on a toothpick with an olive, several haricot verts and a pickle as a “garnish.”  In appearance an invitingly precious mini-rendition of the cocktail.  The paté was rich and flavorful, seasoned beautifully and with a perfect mouthfeel.  This tasty little mashup of meats and herbs was a complete success in my book.  The chicharrone were fried pig’s ears, which looked like crushed onion rings and tasted almost like bacon, but not as fatty nor as naturally rich in flavor.  While pig’s ears are not a food group I would seek out, I found the presentation inviting and the flavors appealing.  See what I mean about adventure?

Tomato & Bread Salad
The next course bore the title “TOMATO & BREAD SALAD pancetta vinaigrette, flatbread, crema, arugula.”   This dish arrived on a share plate.  Broken flatbreads hot from the oven, mingled with a nicely tossed salad of the above ingredients and several chunks of gorgeous, chewy pancetta, beautifully browned, and crispy in the mouth.  The acids in the dressing mingling perfectly to balance the fat in the salad.  Lovely.

The next savory dish was titled:  “BACON & EGG “salad lyonnaise”, braised bacon, fried egg, chicory.”  This dish was a one-per-customer affair.  A thick crispy slab of pork belly, a bed of luscious greens, all topped off by the perfectly-cooked fried egg.

We watched them fry the eggs from our vantage point at the counter.  First they are cracked one at a time into a glass dish and the thinnest part of the whites drained away;  then the egg is slid carefully from the dish to be fried for just about a minute on the hot steel griddle, and lastly broiling it in a hot oven for another few seconds to seal in the yolk, keeping it soft and runny in the center with the whites neatly cooked to perfection.  Tricky, smooth, intriguing.  The end result went beautifully with the pork, which was crispy and delicious.  The BH insisted he didn’t like any kind of egg that was loosely cooked.  I insisted he try it.  He ate it all, and says he’s a bit of a convert.  Personally, whenever I am offered the option, I “egg” it.  Always.

Loin of Pork over kale
The last of the four savory dishes was the “ROAST PIG fork mashed potato, braised kale with apple, crispy pig.”   A moist perfectly prepared loin slice of pork over a buttery mashed potato on a bed of kale.  Simple, juicy, toothsome.  We polished them off in moments.

We were just about stuffed by now, but the sweet tooth had been activated.  It’s like a little button in my brain that goes off when I eat that well, everything on my palate teased to perfection except that one place that needs a hint of sugar to finish off the meal.  The dessert that evening was prepared by pastry chef Matt Tinder from COI.  The menu read:  “PECAN PIE smoked lardo crust, chicory cream.”  The BH also decried pecans.  He announced before we began the meal that he hates them, particularly in pie form.  Has never eaten a bite of pecan pie on any holiday event, not since he was a kid and gagged on a mouthful of the most loathsome preparation.  Or so he says.  When the subject first come up (he’d finally got a look at the menu) I’d reassured him that we’d order him something else.  When we realized upon arrival that that wasn’t an option, I kindly offered to eat his, and whip him up a proper dessert when we got home.  The dessert plate hadn’t been before him for two seconds, when he said with a sly grin “You’re not getting any extra dessert tonight.” I love being right.

Pecan Pie & Chicory Cream
The pie was excellent.  Rather than being overly cloying, it was just sweet enough, the fresh frozen cream served with it forming a milky marriage of flavors.  Along with the ice cream was a powdery dusting of something that was delicious when mixed in with a bite of the pie and the chilly cream.  Not sure if it was lardo hit with a blast of nitro, or some other magical concoction because the waitress forgot to come back when I sent her to ask the kitchen.  No worries though, it added to the mystery.  I don’t need to know why everything tastes delicious, or even what I’m eating, as long as it’s served by a trustworthy chef.  It heightens the adventure, and I’m all about adventure.

If you’ve got an evening with nothing to do, and you are thinking about going home to waste an hour or two on reality TV, do yourself a favor.  Check it out. Make some adventure memories of your own.

Plum Oakland
2214 Broadway
Oakland, California
Twitter: @plumfooddrink

*HAVEN will be opening in November and will be located in the new space adjacent to the  Oakland Train Station at Jack London Square, in the same facility that now houses the Farmer’s Market.

Soapbox Sidenote: The walk-in was so rude and clueless that it made me wonder, again,  if there is anyone left on the planet who recognizes that they are not the only person living.  She stormed into the place ahead of those who’d been waiting patiently in line and had made reservations, demanded a table, and refused to listen to the hostess as she attempted to explain the format for the evening. When she finally did pause long enough to understand the meal was a set menu for the evening, she tossed the menu back in the face of the hostess (who remained patient and polite throughout) and stormed out.  There’s just no excuse for such rude and thoughtless behavior.  Ever.