At PLAJ with SCANDINAVIAN CUISINE
Photos and article by Virginia Miller
PLÄJ, Civic Center (333 Fulton St. between Franklin & Gough, 415-294-8925)
The world has become hooked on New Nordic cuisine in recent years, thanks to Copenhagen’s Noma, named World’s #1 Best Restaurant for three years straight, sparking a global interest in all things Scandinavian and a new generation of chefs. Before this renaissance, I dined at Aquavit in New York City, when Marcus Samuelsson was still chef, reveling in clean dishes and aquavit shots infused with horseradish or dill, wishing to see more of this cuisine. As a fan of pickled herring, cured fish and the like, I’ve long been drawn to Germanic and Eastern European cuisines, so loving Scandinavian was a given. I dream of trips to the region (I haven’t been though I’ve traveled Europe extensively), eating lutefisk (air-dried whitefish), breathing in crisp air during long hours of Summer daylight.
Finally, Pläj (pronounced “play”) opened in SF in June, within sight of City Hall, tucked in the back of Inn at the Opera. I dined opening week, returning multiple times since. Granted, this is an early take as the newborn restaurant needs time to come into its own. Yes, it’s a hotel dining room, but accents of bright orange and fireside seating warm it up, though off-putting smooth jazz or clubby Euro tunes alter the mood. However, the space is blessedly peaceful, service warmly welcoming, staff attentive and gracious.
Pläj isn’t so much New Nordic or minimalist food evoking Scandinavian style (there is much activity around defining New Nordic – case in point, cuisine guidelines from the Nordic Council of Ministers), but is more reminiscent of NY’s Aquavit: traditional dishes freshly interpreted regionally… Scandinavia by way of Northern California. Chef/owner Roberth Sundell hails from Stockholm but has been in the Bay Area long enough to be well-acquainted with local ingredients, put to use in Nordic-influenced dishes.
Working my way through every dish on the initial menu, I was happiest in the Fjord/seafood section as it highlights what is best about Scandinavian cooking. A creative Taste of Herring trio ($12) is herring in ginger-smoked soy, saffron tomato, and coriander-chile-lime, on rye crackers (rustic bread also arrives at the table in a paper bag). Krondill (crown dill) poached lobster is the seafood of choice for Sundell’s skagen, typically an open-face toast topped with a mixture often including poached shrimp, mayo, caviar. Beautifully reinterpreted here, lobster swims in a lobster foam akin to bisque, with horseradish, avocado, and a hint of chili, accented by white fish caviar.
Norwegian salmon belly gravlax ($9) is buttery, thin slices of cured salmon over lemon crème fraîche, spicy grain mustard and dill purée. Only Alaskan halibut ($21) felt closer to typical: fish seared in herbs, partnered with shaved asparagus in chanterelle emulsion. Similarly, in a traditional meat and veg entree vein, is tender, porter-braised ox cheek ($22) topped with a mountain of fried onions. Other than the vibrant red, whipped beetroot the ox rests atop, it’s well-executed, if not particularly memorable. I’d go for traditional, comforting Swedish meatballs ($15), juicy in pan gravy over mashed potatoes, with lingonberries and pickled cucumber adding the much-desired contrast of sweet and vinegar.
On the Hagen (“pasture”) or vegetarian section of the menu, burrata ($12) always pleases but presentation is similar to countless burrata plates everywhere with Heirloom tomato and greens (beets, though a more obvious cuisine fit, is likewise overdone with burrata). Barely-there aquavit in the vinaigrette could have set it apart if kicked up a few intensity levels. I found a subtle smearing of beetroot under a salad ($14) piled with Jerusalem artichoke, watercress, hazelnuts, and thinly-shaved layers of Västerbotten (Swedish) cheese and black summer truffles more interesting. As is potato dumpling kumla ($12), dense and doughy dumplings in brown butter sauce, savory with onion ragout and, once again, lingonberries.
Desserts ($8) are certainly pleasing, particularly a rhubarb crumble pie, though none left a major impression, while cocktails ($11) thankfully utilize Scandinavian spirits like vodka and genever (Dutch gin, often aged in wood so as akin to whiskey as gin). Spirit-cocktail aficionados may notice a leaning toward sweeter, subtle, light cocktails, craving more depth. The Midsommar is promising, however: Pernod absinthe delivers herbaceous notes to Flor de Cana light rum, lime and dill simple syrup – a garden fresh, light sipper, it’s a fine companion to seafood. An all Scandinavian beer list is a spot-on direction, with pours like HaandBryggeriet Norwegian Harvest Ale ($14) or cheaper, refreshing Einstock Icelandic white and pale ales ($6 each).
Pläj is a welcome newcomer to the SF dining scene – one I hope thrives as it dares to bring what we lack. What a delight it would be to form a “best of” list of Scandinavian eateries here, as we can with so many cuisines. Thanks to Pläj for introducing more to the joys of Nordic cuisine.