Ten or 15 years ago, it may have been hard to imagine sitting down for a nice dinner at a small, bare wooden table in a cacophonous room. A nice dinner meant spacious tables, white tablecloths, and perhaps a triple-digit bill to match. Today, often the only thing separating a “nice” dinner from a casual one is the price. Yes, yes, there are, of course, Bay Area restaurants that retain the high-end, white tablecloth concept; and yes, yes, there are even restaurants that are returning to formal service after years of bare wood and communal tables. But, when it comes to trending, of-the-moment dining rooms, the formal ones are still in the minority.
I want to be clear — I have little problem with this blurring of the casual-formal divide. It can be done well. Restaurants like Gather, Camino, and Shakewell all manage to hit that sweet spot. At some point, however, the blurriness can result in a lost identity. Here is where Plum Bar + Restaurant fits in.
The Uptown Oakland restaurant, part of the Daniel Patterson group, has been struggling to find itself since, it seems, it first opened in 2010. Plum (the restaurant) moved through a range of chefs and concepts. Charlie Parker (who is now the executive chef at Jack London Square’s Haven), Lauren Kiino, Manfred Wrembel, Kim Alter, and Brett Cooper have all been at the helm. For six months, Plum was called Ume and it served Asian-influenced cuisine. This fall, it changed again, and united with the consistently successful Plum Bar next door. The rooms are now linked with a doorway and share the same menu.
It was a logical move; a high turnover bar is ideal for the performance-going, bar-hopping Uptown crowd. Plum’s continued emphasis on creative, well-made cocktails perfectly fits this ethos. The food, however, needs to find its groove.
Take the poutine, for example. It’s a dressed up interpretation of the late-night Québécois munch par excellence. Gargantuan cheddar cheese curds mingle with a gravy that’s thick and rich, and studded with funky, flavorful beef cheek. A few leaves of baby arugula give the plate a dash of color and a wink at healthfulness. But its base? Thin, wan, salty fries of the McDonald’s persuasion that almost disintegrate into the toppings.
Plum’s burger is likewise a salty and messy beast of a dish. The medium-rare half-pound patty is topped with melted cheddar, pickled cucumber, onion, lettuce and a “special sauce,” which makes for a tasty wallop of umami. But even the pickles and lettuce don’t add enough crunch to counter the supreme mushiness of the burger and bun. And the special sauce? It’s not really special enough to warrant a $14 price tag. For that price, I at least want some fries on the side.
Other dishes are a far cry from bar food. The kuru squash soup slicked with curry oil, an obligatory kale salad with buttermilk dressing, and a thick-cut roasted pork chop done up with coleslaw and pickled jalapeño would all be at home in a more formal restaurant setting. There’s even a $12 “green elixir” juice on the menu, ostensibly added so diners could up the health quotient of their honey hot sauce wings or grilled cheese bites. It’s a strange menu.
In homage to the short-lived Ume is the top-billed “Top Ramen.” The servers sell the dish as the restaurant’s homemade answer to instant noodles; everything, from the broth to the noodles is made in house and the chicken on top is cooked en sous vide before being breaded and deep fried. Compared to actual Top Ramen, it is, in fact, a far more substantial and better-made dish. But when there are so many other restaurants in the Bay Area making stand-out ramen at the same price point ($14), Plum really should work harder to properly execute the dish: the broth was flavorful enough, but served tepid. The raw and al dente vegetables floating in the bowl would have been more at home on a crudité platter. And the chicken? It was tender and nicely fried, like expertly prepared chicken fingers, but the crisp exterior turned soggy after a few minutes in the broth.
The fried chicken sandwich is a better way to enjoy the kitchen’s expertise with hot oil. Smoked ranch and a fried egg play nicely with the fried boneless breast meat, and crisp romaine adds crunch. The only real misstep with the dish is the thick-sliced bread — it would make fine Texas toast, but its thickness makes the sandwich a challenge to eat. A softer brioche bun would have been a far better choice.
Plum’s strength still lies, however, with its cocktails. As long as the bar has been open, it has been mixing a strong line-up of tipples, accented with house-made bitters and liqueurs. Its oak barrel-aged drinks are stellar examples of the form; the oak smooths the rough edges of these spirit forward drinks. The Negroni still retains its signature bitterness, but it has a deep bass note of caramel-y vanilla. Unaged cocktails get a dose of originality in lieu of the oak. The Penicillin, a blend of scotch, ginger, honey, lemon with a peated scotch float, is pure, smoky comfort. The Fillibuster somehow makes rye, maple syrup, lemon, and egg whites taste of an elegant creamsicle. There’re also punch bowls and carafes for sharing types and boilermakers (read: shot and beer pairings) for those who are craving more than a buzz. Local craft beers and Belgian bombers round out the list.
In other words, Plum works best as a bar that serves decent bar-style food. It’s a vibrant, bustling space. Servers are friendly, guests are happy. It’s not a bad place to be when hanging out in Uptown. But in order for Plum to work as a bar, it needs to completely embrace this identity. Scale back the menu, focus on improving the classics, and keep pouring those cocktails.