Reindeer isn't on the menu at Pläj, San Francisco's new Scandinavian restaurant. Neither are lutefisk, puffin, or many other delicacies that make Nordic food seem so much more foreign than its Southern European counterparts. Instead, Stockholm-born chef and owner Roberth Sundell fuses New Nordic and California cuisines — a promising experiment, even if early results show a restaurant still growing into its mission.
New Nordic cuisine is having a moment. Copenhagen's Noma has been hailed as the best restaurant in the world for three years running. Sweden-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson has brought quick pickles and cured fish to the Food Network. New Nordic restaurants like Acme, Atera, and Frej have opened to much hype in New York. And in 2008, the Nordic Council of Ministers issued a set of official guidelines for the cuisine that declared a philosophy of "purity, simplicity, and freshness" in dishes that highlight local, seasonal ingredients. Seems like an easy enough transplant to California soil.
But Pläj (a phonetic spelling of "play") is having some trouble blending imported traditions with local ones. The menu's most ambitious attempt at fusion is the taste of herring sampler ($12), three variations on pickled herring that flirt with California cuisine: soy-ginger (pan-Asian), saffron-tomato (Mediterranean), and coriander-chile (Latin). The saffron-tomato infusion works surprisingly well, with bright earthy flavors to round out the strong herring, especially when piled on a rye cracker with a scoop of lemony crème fraîche. But the coriander-chile "ceviche" is too fishy (ceviche usually calls for milder fish) and its sliced chile garnish seems out of place with the northern ingredients.
Other fusion attempts lack imagination, like the burrata salad ($12), which turns out to be the same heirloom-tomato-garnished number that seems to be on every menu in San Francisco, despite a faint hint of aquavit in the vinaigrette. It wanted something to make it uniquely Scandinavian; a handful of lingonberries, perhaps?
Some of the most revelatory dishes are the most traditional. The Swedish meatballs ($15) are guaranteed to be a hit; they're luscious and meaty, loosely packed to have some texture, and sit atop a bed of creamy mashed potatoes. Of course they come with lingonberries, but these taste as rounded and spicy as mulled wine, and a cluster of subtle pickled cucumbers add much-needed tang and crispness. Another striking Nordic standard is the salmon belly gravlax ($9), where buttery cured salmon seemed to melt into lemon crème fraîche, dill purée, and sweet stone mustard for a bite that's light, lively, and tastes like sunshine.
A few items, though well-executed, seem to be on the menu for the sake of tradition alone; they're more suited for a cold winter night than the height of summer, even in San Francisco. Fat potato dumplings ($12) were served with an onion-y brown butter sauce that lacked the freshness of the meatballs' berries and cucumber. An ox cheek entrée ($22) was similarly heavy — the beef was braised fork-tender and served with mashed beet root which, though fortifying, was mystifying on a menu that prides itself on seasonality.
Pläj is only 6 weeks old, a toddler in restaurant time, and can be forgiven for its initial lack of focus. It still needs to grow into its location, tucked at the back of the Inn at the Opera. You have to walk through the hotel's small lobby to get to the restaurant or visit the restroom, and it breaks the tenuously woven spell of the restaurant's interior. Sundell kept the dark beams and white tablecloths of the space's former iteration, Ovation, and the room feels stuffy despite modern touches like sepia city scenes on the walls and steampunk lights over the bar.
Luckily, Pläj is already polished and well-conceived enough to have the freedom to focus on small tweaks instead of worrying about bigger new-restaurant issues like service and consistency. And true to its name, the place has enough details that should guide it to its greater vision, like rye bread that comes to the table wrapped in brown paper like a gift, a menu that breaks dishes into categories like Hagen ("pasture") and Fjord, and checks delivered via Lonely Planet guidebook.
There are also some examples of seamless fusion of the two cuisines, most notably in the desserts ($8) and cocktails ($12-$15). Crème brulée is nicely infused with cardamom and complemented by minty strawberries, though the cardamom pods settled in a bitter sediment at the bottom of the ramekin; a warm chocolate torte is enhanced with a scoop of cloudberry sorbet (like a milder strawberry). Cocktails successfully blend Scandinavian flavors like elderflower liqueur, dill-infused simple syrup, and lingonberry concentrate with American exports like bourbon and rum. And though the beer list is all Scandinavian, there are plenty of recognizable options (try the hoppy American Dream pilsner from Denmark, or a bottle of citrusy Icelandic white beer). Pläj could be an ideal place to dip into for a drink, dessert, or snack after an opera or event at City Hall, especially if you can snag a cushy chair by the fireplace.
So why bother with fusion at all, in a town full of Northern Californian restaurants and hardly any New Nordic competition to speak of? Even when the risks chef Sundell is taking don't work out, I'm glad he's taking us somewhere new. Soon the culinary spotlight will leave Scandinavia and shine somewhere else (my money's on Argentina), but hopefully, like Mediterranean and pan-Asian cuisines before it, the flavors and preparations of New Nordic will settle into our ever-expanding definition of California cuisine. Maybe someday we'll all be snacking on chile-dusted puffin chips. In a world of chorizo pizza and kimchi-topped burgers, anything seems possible.