Plenty, a new cafe in Uptown Oakland, sits in a bright, high-ceilinged space. It has all the accoutrements of your typical hipster café: exposed pipes, an abundance of hanging plants, and outlines of dangling Edison bulbs painted on the windows. It serves pour-over coffee and has free Wi-Fi.
But make no mistake: This isn't just some coffee shop.
The co-owners are Oakland residents who are alums of Hopscotch, the Japanese-Californian diner located just one block up San Pablo Avenue. Jack Lin was Hopscotch's chef de cuisine; Clara Yun had consulted for the restaurant, helping to develop pastry recipes and coordinating special events. Her main background is as a high-end pastry chef, having worked at prestigious restaurants around the Bay Area, including Kokkari Estiatorio and Epic Roasthouse in San Francisco.
Yun explained that the concept for the restaurant was driven by her feeling that Oakland doesn't actually have many places that serve what she considers to be healthy food, despite the city's location at the epicenter of California cuisine. Instead, Yun kept seeing menu after menu centered on pork belly and fried foods. She and Lin don't have anything against those kinds of rich, fatty foods. But they wanted their cafe to be more of "healthy eating kind of place," where customers could come in for breakfast or lunch multiple times a week and still have a clear conscience.
Plenty's website puts this focus on "wholesome," "healthy" eating front and center. But framing the place that way might do the restaurant a disservice if it gives the impression that this is some kind of health food restaurant — say, the kind that puts alfalfa sprouts or millet in places where God never intended.
Let me be clear: Plenty is decidedly not that kind of place. This is, after all, a restaurant at which one purported health-motivated substitution was to make a gravy not with pork fat but duck fat, arguably the most luxurious of the animal fats — and to serve a generous ladleful of that gravy mixed into the mound of mashed potatoes that went atop one of the sandwiches I ordered. The display case for Yun's impressive selection of house-made baked goods isn't filled with the kind of reduced-sugar, reduced-fat muffins you might find on a Weight Watchers recipe card. Instead, there are cream-filled bombolini and thick rounds of focaccia topped with cheese and roasted tomatoes. The most popular item? Valrhona chocolate chip cookies. There is, as the name of the restaurant suggests, plenty of every kind of thing.
All this is a slightly roundabout way for me to say that the food at Plenty is quite good, and that much of it is heartier, and more decadent, than you might anticipate from a quick glance at the dainty block lettering of the chalkboard menu. The savory menu is divided into three main sections: tartines (open-face sandwiches, basically), salads, and "bowls" — a rice option and a noodle option. Everything has a very "Cali fresh" feel, down to the frequently rotating list of seasonal specials and the prominent use of local produce, much of it purchased at Berkeley Bowl, up and down the menu.
In keeping with that spirit, the tartines include a couple of refined takes on avocado toast. But my favorite was the Tennessee Tilt, one of the seasonal specials, which combined Southern-style pulled pork — not smoked, but fattier and more unctuous than typical and tossed in not-too-sweet barbecue sauce — with a mayonnaise-free cabbage slaw, whose chili-spiked vinegar dressing provided a sneaky, low-key heat that cut into the heaviness of the meat. Better yet, the bread was topped with a thick smear of gravy-soaked mashed potatoes, applied here like a sandwich spread, and a perfect poached egg, whose creamy yolk oozed into the mash when you cut into it — richness on top of richness. The whole thing made for a gorgeously messy knife-and-fork affair.
Meanwhile, meat lovers may find the siren call of the porchetta tartine difficult to resist. Lin makes his version in more or less the traditional way, insofar as he rolls up pork belly — which made it onto the menu after all — and roasts it until the skin is all crackly and golden-brown. Those bits of crisp skin at the edge of each slice of pork were one of the highlights of the sandwich. So, too, were the aforementioned spicy slaw and the poached egg that graces the majority of the tartines. Those eggs, along with a hollandaise sauce that makes several appearances, including here, give much of the menu a breakfast-y, or at least breakfast-appropriate, vibe — which is helpful because Plenty serves the same menu all day. In the porchetta tartine, I just wished for a little more of that hollandaise, or some other kind of sauce. The only flaw was that the sandwich ate a little dry.
And you won't find many health-focused restaurants that serve biscuits and gravy, as Plenty does — a version that spares no richness, the lack of pork fat notwithstanding, and in fact adds a runny-yolked poached egg and more of those mashed potatoes for good measure.
Still, it is true that the food at Plenty has a lighter touch than you would expect with this kind of hearty comfort fare. Even after eating the richest and most decadent of these dishes, I never felt bloated or sluggish afterwards — an important quality for a restaurant that caters heavily to the office lunch crowd. The tartine format, by its nature, ensures that you don't get bogged down with too much bread.
Plenty also serves some of the loveliest and most abundant meal-size salads that I have encountered lately. The Lemon Chicken Romaine salad, for instance, is a dish that makes you feel good about yourself after you've eaten it, with its scattering of purple-pink pomegranate seeds and festive rings of thinly sliced red pepper. But ultimately this is a salad that packs a big flavor punch, with a Caesar-like lemon-anchovy dressing that was so good, I'm still thinking about it two weeks later.
While Yun is Korean and Lin is Taiwanese, very little of the food at Plenty is overtly, or even covertly, Asian. That's worth noting if only because prior to opening this restaurant, Lin had worked mostly in Japanese restaurants (including Ippuku and Kiraku in Berkeley). While at Hopscotch, he had a reputation around town as "the gyoza guy," thanks to several well-received pop-up events. Yun said they might do a gyoza pop-up at some point, and they'll throw Asian-inspired specials onto the menu here and there, like a recent five-spice pork belly tartine, simply because those are things they like to eat.
For now, the most Asian dish is the brown rice bowl, which, seems very loosely inspired by Korean bibimbap, if only because of the gochujang-spike miso chili sauce. Also, the rice comes topped with a wide assortment of vegetables and only a small amount of meat as an optional add-on — I recommend getting it with bacon, which goes especially well with the house-made kimchi. But really, the dish probably more closely resembles a salad than anything. I loved the care with which the vegetables were prepared, and how the warm and cool elements of the dish complemented each other. Again, there was a poached egg, and damn if the kitchen here doesn't know how to poach an egg.
It's nice, too, in the face of a rapidly gentrifying Uptown, that the food at Plenty is relatively affordable — cheaper than most lunch spots in Oakland serving similarly lovely California cuisine, and maybe just a tick more expensive than any number of coffee shops that don't even have one real chef on staff, let alone a savory chef and a pastry chef with sparkling resumes.
It's also a place that is, for now, not so busy that you feel guilty sticking around to use the Wi-Fi, and where a couple of high schoolers felt comfortable walking in on an early-dismissal day and ordering a round of focaccia and an avocado tartine. It was a sunny fall afternoon, and the teens parked themselves in front of the big windows facing out toward the street. They seemed happy with their lunch.
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