Traditional Swedish dishes interpreted with a fresh regional spin
APPETITE The world has become hooked on New Nordic cuisine in recent years, thanks to Copenhagen's Noma, often referred to as the world's 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 New York City's Aquavit, back in the days when Marcus Samuelsson was still its chef. I reveled in Samuelsson's clean dishes and shots of the restaurant's eponymous liquor infused with horseradish or dill. As a fan of pickled herring, cured fish, and the like, I've long been drawn to Germanic and Eastern European cuisines. Perhaps my love for Scandinavian food was a forgone conclusion. I dream of taking a trip to the region to eat lutefisk (air-dried whitefish), and breathe in crisp air during long hours of summer daylight.
But then Pläj (pronounced "play") opened in SF in June, tucked behind the Inn at the Opera and within sight of City Hall. I dined there during its opening week, and have returned multiple times since. Granted, what you're about to read is an early take. The newborn restaurant needs time to come into its own.
Yes, Pläj is a hotel dining room, and off-putting smooth jazz and clubby Euro tunes often intrude, altering the mood of a meal. But bright orange accents and fireside seating warm up the blessedly peaceful space, and service is warmly welcoming, staff attentive and gracious.
Pläj isn't so much New Nordic or Scandinavian-style minimalist. It's more reminiscent of Aquavit: traditional dishes interpreted with a fresh regional spin, 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, putting them to good use in Nordic-influenced dishes.
Working my way through every dish on the initial menu, I was happiest in the Fjord-seafood section that highlighted the best parts of Scandinavian cooking. A creative "taste of herring" trio ($12) brought fish served à la ginger-smoked soy, saffron tomato, and with coriander, chile, and lime on rye crackers. Rustic bread arrived at the table, artfully served in a paper bag.
Krondill (crown dill) poached lobster is the seafood of choice for Sundell's skagen, which is typically toast topped with a mixture that often includes poached shrimp, mayo, caviar. Beautifully reinterpreted here, lobster swam in a foam akin to bisque that was also made of lobster, with horseradish, avocado, and a hint of chili, all of it accented by white fish caviar.
Norwegian salmon belly gravlax ($9) proved to be buttery, thin slices of cured salmon over lemon crème fraîche, spicy grain mustard, and dill purée. Only the Alaskan halibut ($21) felt closer to typical: the fish came seared in herbs and partnered with shaved asparagus in a chanterelle emulsion. In a similar, though more traditional vein of meat and veg entree was the tender, porter-braised ox cheek ($22) topped with a mountain of fried onions. Other than the vibrant red, whipped beetroot the ox rested atop, the dish was well-executed, if not particularly memorable. Next time I'd go for traditional, comforting Swedish meatballs ($15), which were juicy in their pan gravy and bed of mashed potatoes, served with lingonberries and pickled cucumber that added a much-desired contrast of sweet and vinegar.
On the Hagen ("pasture") or vegetarian section of the menu, burrata ($12) was pleasant, but its presentation was similar to countless burrata plates everywhere — heirloom tomato and greens. At least it wasn't beets, which are obvious, overdone burrata companions. Barely-there aquavit in the vinaigrette could have set it apart if it was 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 cheese and black summer truffles more interesting. Equally intriguing were the potato dumpling kumla ($12), dense and doughy dumplings in brown butter sauce that were savory with onion ragout and, once again, lingonberries.
Desserts ($8) are certainly pleasing — particularly the rhubarb crumble pie — but none left a major impression. 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 crave more depth in a menu that leans toward sweet, subtle, and light cocktails. The Midsommar is promising: Pernod absinthe that delivers herbaceous notes to a Flor de Cana light rum, lime, and dill simple syrup. It was garden-fresh, a fine companion to seafood.
An all-Scandinavian beer list is spot-on, 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.
333 Fulton, SF
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