In case you haven't checked the calendar, autumn is here, long shadows, early sunsets, and all. The staff at new Uptown Oakland destination Plum have taken the season seriously since opening their doors a week after the equinox: Just about every dish on the ever-changing menu is informed by the flavors and textures of fall. Soups taste of apples, turnips, eggplant. Salads star figs, almonds, beets, and endive. Chanterelles, cauliflower, squash, and sunchokes accent slow-roasted entrées designed for cold weather, and desserts are sweet with fennel, harvest grapes, and mountain huckleberries. What's more, these mid-November ingredients are employed in autumnal comfort food edgier in concept than the standard turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce.
The restaurant's opening was one of the East Bay's most eagerly awaited culinary events of the past year. Chef and owner Daniel Patterson also operates Coi, an upscale prix-fixe North Beach eatery. When plans for a Jack London Square showplace, Bracina, were put on hold, the Oakland resident decided to open a more low-key neighborhood joint in Franklin Square with Il Cane Rosso chef Lauren Kiino heading up the kitchen, Coi pastry chef Bill Corbett crafting the desserts, and superstar mixologist Scott Beattie consulting on the cocktail menu. The result: a more casual, wallet-friendly version of Coi with an accent on New American cuisine. But while Plum is a lively addition to the neighborhood, with enough unique flavor combinations at hand to make for a tasty meal, the kitchen doesn't always execute the menu's promising seasonal-fusion concepts in a successful or satisfying way.
It is located in a onetime Louisiana Fried Chicken franchise impressively transformed into a sleek, hipster-moderne dining room with hardwood floors, deep-chocolate walls, mural-size stone-fruit collages by photographer Catherine Wagner, and a ceiling-length ellipse of low-slung amber lights. Diners sit at communal buffed-pine tables or at the dozen-stool counter watching the goings-on in the open kitchen. The mood is fun and festive, the service is affable yet professional, and if you order right you can have yourself a pleasant if not world-rocking meal.
We started with three "snacks:" potato chicharrones, which looked like pork rinds but were actually crisp, peppery, not particularly exciting potato puffs touched with the flavor of lime; bits of charred heirloom popcorn tossed in Peruvian chili powder, an underwhelming experience; and three deviled eggs with nice runny yolks and dollops of snarky tarragon-caperberry relish. Among the official starters, the oyster stew was our favorite: sweet, plump bivalves swimming in a light bisque with chunks of earthy parsley root, crisp croutons, and pea shoots for roughage. We also liked the terrine of puréed artichoke, a lush green mousse with contrasting accents of crunchy fennel salad, and a bracing black-olive coulis. And the chicory salad combined ripe, succulent pear wedges with zippy pomegranate seeds; rich, sweet dates; and barely bitter curly endive in a tangy yogurt vinaigrette.
The grilled manila clams were a disappointment: flavor-free and served with equally so-so heirloom beans, string beans, and escarole. The sliced new harvest potatoes lacked flavor as well, despite all the shallots, chanterelles, wild arugula, and lardo (pig fat) that shared its platter, while the mushroom dashi was just your basic miso soup with sheets of tofu skin thrown in. But the lushly textured roasted carrots were terrific, drizzled with nutty brown butter and accented with pickled garlic and salty, tangy purslane. Ditto the cauliflower braised in olive oil until practically creamy and accompanied by toasted almonds, bulgur, and a tangy dandelion salsa verde that in concert was like an exponentially yummy tabouleh. Thick filets of tender, luscious roasted pork were even better with a coulis of sweet, earthy squash purée; a warm salad of carrots, parsnips, kohlrabi; and Brussels sprouts in a zippy garlic-shallot-curry vinaigrette. Best of all, though, was the beef cheek and oxtail burger, shards of rich, tender, slow-cooked meat pressed into a patty and served on a brioche bun with an eye-opening horseradish aioli and bits of fresh fennel.
Among the desserts is a tasty deconstructed cheesecake — a dense, puckery slab of sugared goat cheese with a hillock of buttery graham cracker crumbs — and a brisk, fresh sorbet made from sweet California Niabell grapes. The milk-chocolate cream wasn't as successful, a less-than memorable pileup of light chocolate mousse and overpoweringly licorice-y tarragon-laced whipped cream. But the roasted white chocolate parfait was a fine way to end a meal: a feathery panna cotta of not-too-sweet white chocolate with a marvelously juicy bouquet of sweet, fresh huckleberries.
Early next year, Plum plans to open a next-door cocktail lounge overseen by Beattie, the Cyrus barkeep whose farmers'-market-inspired cocktails catapulted him to national stardom, and Michael Lazar, author of Left Coast Libations, a celebration of the best bars, bartenders, and cocktails in Seattle, Portland, LA, and the Bay Area. The goal is to have the bartenders from the book drop in as guest mixologists on a rotating basis, but until then local tipplers will have to content themselves with low-octane aperitifs like Lillet, Carpano, a smoother-than-Campari house Americano, and Beattie's Bella Rufina cocktail (a bright, sweet concoction of Brachetto sparkling red wine, orange bitters, and Amarena cherry juice).
Plum is a work in progress, a potentially marvelous restaurant seeking its footing as chef Kiino transitions to her new stint at Bracina, Charlie Parker of Santa Cruz's Cellar Door Café travels north to head up the kitchen, and all those star bartenders await the opening of the lounge next door. Until then, it's merely one of the more inventive, high-spirited eateries around to sample the flavors of the season.
Editor's Note: The print version of this story misstated Daniel Patterson's involvement with Il Cane Rosso. It is owned by Lauren Kiino. This version has been corrected to reflect the change.
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