An army of cooks in black T-shirts work with concentration in the open kitchen of Plum, a new Daniel Patterson production in Oakland. Patterson, who opened the high end Coi four years ago and then the wonderful Ferry Building counter restaurant, Il Cane Rosso, went for something in between at Plum, a moderately priced outpost of contemporary cooking which applies new kitchen technologies to an ever widening market basket of ingredients.
This very same space once housed one of my favorites, Louisiana Fried Chicken. Though a meal at Plum is about as far from Louisiana Fried Chicken as dinner can get, it shares a core value. Even though Plum’s food is highly conceptual, the cooking grabs you, sensually.
The most exciting dishes transform seasonal vegetables with labor intensive rigor. Beet boudin noir ($12) looks and feels like a blood sausage in your mouth, but the savory, sausage-shaped hunks of moist shredded beet on a bed of tiny quartered brussels sprouts in vinegar-spiked beet blood, has not one jot of pork in it. Young carrots ($12) and olive oil braised cauliflower ($12) are similarly substantial.
All dishes on Plum’s small menu are tapas-size, but I don’t recommend sharing. You need sole access to pick up all the threads of flavor, texture and scent that make these dishes whole.
The waiter pours a velvety parsnip puree ($9) with overtones of carrot and grass, over diced pears, chestnuts and chervil. Each spoonful almost shocks with wildly different flavors. A farm egg, poached so long and slowly that both yolk and still translucent white break with the touch of a fork over a stir fry of farro, chicken bits and sprouts ($16), that ultimately tastes like fried rice– except that every grain and morsel is distinguishable. Glistening fat-rimmed slices of ham-like roasted pork ($18), about one inch square, atop a ragout of fall vegetables and spicy squash puree, evokes the most opulent Sunday supper–in all of four bites. One slice of pink-fleshed beef short rib ($20), cooked slowly for hours to attain magical succulence, draped over maiitake mushrooms, sun choke puree, and tiny turnips, resonates like a classic prime rib dinner, except in miniature.
Snacks ($4) do lend themselves to sharing and are fun with a glass of wine from an eclectic tasting-style list. Who, after all, can resist a bowl of heirloom popcorn dusted in tart salt, or crunchy chicharrones made only of potato?
Ask for bread, which turns out to be ACME served with delicious butter. You need it to complete the meal.
House made ice creams ($6)–the kitchen will not mix them–are fantastic. Meyer lemon custard tastes like the best lemon meringue pie imaginable. Toasted almond and milk chocolate have deep, true flavor.
It took me two visits to realize that I’d been in this room before, eating fried chicken. The colorful mural of Simsboro, Louisiana has been replaced with dark walls patterned with muslin, and two huge panels of photographed plums in tiny grids. Blocky communal tables and stools are made of recycled Oakland trees. Hand blown lamps descend from the high ceiling on a railing, which somehow keeps the room dark and romantic, while allowing you to read the menu and see what you’re eating. This is important when you are experiencing the future of food at Plum.
Plum, 2214 Broadway (at Grand), Oakland
Contact: 510 444-7586; www.plumoakland.com
Hours: lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner nightly 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Price range: $4 to $20
Recommended dishes: beet boudin noir, wild green panisse; potato chicharrones; young carrots; kobe beef short ribs; slow cooked farm egg; house made ice cream
Credit cards: All major except Discover