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Plum: Daniel Patterson's intricate and affordable cuisine 

Wednesday, Feb 2 2011

Sustainable-food types wary of phrases like "immersion circulator" and "Pacojet" should dine at the counter of the open kitchen at Plum. There, the stoves are bookended by immersion circulators — those are the plastic water baths with digital thermometers — but they're primarily used for prepping vegetables from organic local farms like Dirty Girl and County Line. Occasionally someone will hoist a whipped-cream canister and cover a plate in puffy orange dots of winter-squash foam, which is about as geeky as it gets. One cook shuffles pans on a flat-top, while another sears meats and vegetables directly on a plancha, a thick, well-oiled iron griddle. The countertop is covered in lidded half-pint tubs filled with radish shavings and feathery foraged greens, and everyone seems to be using tweezers to assemble the plates. The pleasure of sitting at the counter isn't in device-spotting, but in watching five skilled cooks hustle just the way they always have.

What they lift up to your seat can be spectacular. Take one of Plum's newest dishes, and possibly my favorite: blossoms of purple squid tentacles set amid feathery arugula leaves, the pale curls of squid bodies echoed in a single white flower. Under the greenery were tucked lengths of fennel and custard-centered artichokes, both braised ahead of time and then browned on the griddle. I swabbed the squid over the base of the plate, coating each one in a creamy black lentil purée; the lentils were smoked, which amplified the flavor of the plancha-seared juices that had caramelized on the surface of the squid.

Plum is the Daniel Patterson's third restaurant. Stylistically, it occupies the midpoint between the precise experimentalism of Coi and the glowing rusticity of Il Cane Rosso. Plum opened in late September, but I kept pushing back my review in order for the lineup to solidify. The guy who was supposed to open the restaurant, ex-Ubuntu chef Jeremy Fox, dropped out of the project a few weeks before the start date. The restaurant opened without delay, but it wasn't quite clear who or how many cooks were going to run the place. Then, a few months in, Patterson announced an all-star hire: Charlie Parker (no relation to Bird), who worked as a sous-chef at Manresa and Ubuntu before running the kitchen at Cellar Door Cafe, just north of Santa Cruz.

Even by late January, much of the menu still appears to be Patterson's. Certainly, it has the same structure: a short sandwich-salad-soup menu at lunch, and a slightly longer list of starters and small-plate entrées at dinner. Rather than rush in new directions, Parker is slowly streamlining menus, changing the plating, simplifying the most convoluted dishes. The longer his tenure extends, the more grounded the food tastes. My first two meals at Plum were intricate, playful, and a little wobbly. The last meal? Flawless.

While the restaurant is quite comfortable during the day, it's hard to imagine a place more committed to the night. The walls and ceiling are painted a plummy black, and every detail floats above the darkness. What first looked like immense moon-phase charts on both sides of the restaurant turn out to be photos of another rotating orb: a cut plum. Gold-filament lights trace an elliptical orbit around the dining room, and a second string of them follows the L of the kitchen counter seating. Most diners sit on benches at communal tables, all formed out of wood thick enough to recall the planking of a Viking ship.

Patterson and Parker keep the dishes intricate and affordable by sticking to the lower end of the food chain. There are more vegetarian items than meat-centered ones (without making a big fuss about it), and Plum uses sparing portions of inexpensive fish and cuts of meat — shortribs, cheeks, tails.

On my first two visits, many of the most tricked-out dishes appealed to my brain more than my gut. The fragile crack of the bubbly potato chicharrones, which were dusted with black pepper and piment d'espelette ($4), resembled Pop Chips a little too closely. Everything surrounding the roast pork ($18) was exquisite: The buttons of foamy spiced squash purée, the aromatic blend of toasted shallots and spices in the vadouvan vinaigrette that was dabbed onto the meat. The pork itself, however — a rectangle of trotter meat that had been formed together, slow-cooked sous-vide, then seared and sliced — came out dry and leathery around the rim. (Sitting at the counter on the next visit, watching the cooks slice up more heavily marbled slabs of pork, I think we just got a bum cut.) I was predisposed to like the ingenious oxtail–beef cheek burger ($12), now available only at lunch, and created by molding long-braised shreds of two of my favorite cuts of beef into a patty held together by braised and puréed tendon. Its beef-deep flavor was impeccable, but I chafed at the faint gumminess; lose the collagen-rich binder and the illusion, and you'd have a fine pulled-beef sandwich.

But the potato-oyster stew ($12) was both smart and satisfying — a deconstructed chowder, really, where the sultry, just-poached oysters were twice as unctuous as the cream broth and where half the bowl was covered in potato foam, a sort of savory marshmallow fluff. What made the dish were the garnishes: the grassy-tasting rye croutons submerged below the surface, the flashing green flavor of the parsley leaves. And it took the server a couple of paragraphs to describe how beets and black rice became chunks of "blood sausage," but I enjoyed the dish for its complexity more than its construction: the sweet earthiness of the beets, the wintry char of the roasted brussels sprouts, and the pluck of pickled kohlrabi strands. It was telling that the most straightforward dish on the menu — farro ($16) stir-fried with root vegetables, a spoonful of smoked chicken breast, and a slow-cooked egg that melted into the sherry vinaigrette — seemed the most timid.

That last meal: Phenomenal. For one, Hickox's new desserts were spectacles in themselves. Her cheesecake in a jar, topped with successive layers of poached quince and toasted-tea crumble ($9), was twice as enjoyable as her predecessor's goat-cheese cheesecake, which I'd tried before. Even more exquisite were cubes of dark-chocolate crunch ($9), salt flickering amid the sweet, with translucent chocolate tuilles rising out of the dense cake and a rosemary-caramel ice cream melting next to it.

But the vegetables made the meal. Satiny baby leeks ($10) were laddered across lines of goat-cheese mousse; the sharp green bite of the leeks was braised away, but the chefs had replaced it with peppery coins of radishes, cress leaves, and elusive, dark-toned flecks of ash. Florets of twisty-topped romesco and puffy cauliflower ($12), braised in olive oil until they softened, were dotted with a bitter-bright dandelion pesto and laid on a bed of bulgur. And a pile of demurely sweet, roasted carrots ($12), pickled garlic and wood sorrel sprouting out between the cracks, was heaped on a brown-butter emulsion so opulent I couldn't help rubbing the plate clean with a finger. Proof, indeed, that the ends justify the means.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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