We’ve been meaning to check out Plum for a while. Having visited Daniel Patterson’s Coi on a couple of occasions and Il Cane Rosso for lunch several times, we were fans, but Plum remained distant, literally and figuratively. We are ridiculously lazy, and – perhaps psychologically – find it difficult to make it over to the other side of the bay. But when I heard that Sean Brock was coming to cook at Plum, I immediately booked a reservation. Chef Brock’s reputation, it seems, has been growing in leaps and bounds, first garnering accolades for taking the helm at South Carolina’s McCrady’s, bringing modern techniques (à la Ferran Adrià) to the genteel old American South, and then opening Husk which is dedicated to using historically southern ingredients:
“At McCrady’s, Brock uses exotic ingredients such as tonka beans, soy powder and liquid nitrogen. At Husk, there will be strict rules about what can be served. Every item must be grown in and have historical relevance to the South. That means no salmon, no olive oil and no balsamic vinegar, among other things. But there will be sarsaparilla-glazed pork ribs with pickled peaches, wood-smoked chicken with Rev. Taylor butterbeans and chanterelles, and breads made with antebellum flours. “I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m trying to educate,” Brock said. “But I need rules. Otherwise, I’ll be reaching for the olive oil. And if they taste olive oil, they’ll think that’s what Southern food tastes like.”
–By Jane Black, Washington Post Staff Writer, “Sean Brock re-imagines Southern cuisine.”
In 2010 Chef Brock won the James Beard award for Best Southern Chef.
Upon approaching the restaurant, positioned on the corner of Broadway and 22nd, the neighborhood seemed deserted. We noticed a sign on Plum’s door that indicated that the restaurant was fully booked and sold out for the evening. I loved the space – soaring ceilings, striking black walls, gleaming wood and a circular starry ring of lights. We were seated instantly, much to our surprise; we had arrived half and hour early for our 7:30pm reservations. There are only communal tables and counter seats at Plum, but we were lucky to be the only ones at our 6-seater for most of our meal. We glanced at the pre-fixe menus (“everything served will be Charleston”) and ordered drinks – a Scott Beattie “Bella Rufina” for me, a Carpano Antica for DD. Without fanfare, or even an explanation of the evening (perhaps assuming patrons had already done some homework?), our food started arriving, and it was not until then that our server mentioned that there was a wine pairing available as a supplement to the meal.
The staff started us with a gorgeous pea soup. It was rich and creamy, thick and delightfully sweet. I was a little surprised to find that the Parmesan ice (is Parmesan “Charleston?”) was also on the sweeter side – I think I might have preferred a little more savouriness but ultimately this was a fantastic, fresh beginning to our meal.
I’m not usually a potato fan unless they’re double fried or thoroughly mixed with a generous amount of dairy product. These were startlingly good. Sometimes cooking potatoes relatively unadorned is a risky proposition – they have the capacity to be bland, undercooked, tasting a little too much of the earth. But these, even without a crisp exterior, were full of potatoey flavour, the fromage blanc, bordering on foam, a nice adornment but not the main flavour-provider. I loved the batons of pickled shallot stems, the nicely charred baby artichokes, the tender grilled green garlic punctuated by delicate dill trimmings.
Perfectly cooked fish arrived, a sizeable portion, served atop a smooth puree of cornbread (not grits, not polenta). The flavours here were distinctly southern; the chowchow especially tasted smoky, and sweet-tart. But I loved the pigs’ ears the most, thin and extra-crispy, savoury to counter the sweetness of the fish and chowchow, texturally, pleasingly different to the other items in the bowl.
I had to look up samp grits – they’re apparently a kind of cornmeal that’s been cracked rather than ground, as grits are. To my palate, the samp grits tasted more creamy than polenta but almost didn’t register due to the bolder flavours on the plate. The “pork shank” seemed almost like a croquette, with the tender, gelatinous pork pre-cooked, formed into a cylinder, coated with panko, and then fried. Grilled asparagus, ramps and a vinegary pickle of greens completed this dish. I unfortunately didn’t get to ask about the pickle – but it was definitely welcome as a counterpoint to the richness of the pork and tender grits.
A dessert after my own heart – slightly sweet, creamy and tart, with crisp cookie crumble and fresh fruit. DD noted that it seemed like lime pie in a jar, and it was a light and refreshing finish to a fantastic meal.
It’s almost an imperative that we return, and soon. I definitely want to check out the regular menu, special dinner or not.
Oakland, CA 94612