But with the opening of Pläj this summer, the food of Scandinavia gets a full tasting in this modern restaurant in the back of the Inn at the Opera on Fulton Street.
Always ready to try new cuisine, I visited Pläj (pronounced like “play”) with my food-adventurer partner Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging. The space, a mix between a contemporary café and a rustic lodge, seats 44 with a large communal table with orange-painted metal chairs.
During our meal, the service showed the signs of a new restaurant as slight awkwardness was evident in the way the host and servers interacted with each other and with the guests, with oddly timed visits to the table or miscues in the removal of plates and utensils. It was just a sign that kinks still needed to be worked out, although it wasn’t anything that marred the overall dining experience.
As for the menu of Chef-Owner Roberth Sundell, the food is broken into four sections: “hagen” (starters) “fjord” (from the sea), “beta” (meat dishes) and “godis” (desserts). The dishes aren’t considered traditional Scandinavian dishes but influenced by ingredients and flavors from that part of the world.
I found the food to be one note, offering an interesting play between savory and pickled, but often overcomed by too much sauce. A white asparagus starter ($15), for example, was nicely cooked but had too much hollandaise sauce that competed with the 63-degree cooked egg and bits of morels.
My plate of Krondill poached lobster ($18) also had nicely cooked lobster meat but was almost drowning in sauce, with only a few moments of the horseradish and white fish caviar providing contrasting flavor notes.
The only dish that seemed to really represent what I would think is Nordic cuisine was the taste of herring ($12), which presented wonderfully pickled herring in three ways: saffron tomato, coriander chili and lime, and ginger-smoked soy. A cracker served as a great vehicle to try these tasty bits of herring, although, again, sauce played a major role in the construction of this tasting.
Sandy – who has in-laws in the Minnesota area, which has a large Scandinavian community – seemed to have ordered the dishes that were really influenced by traditional dishes of the region, starting with her potato dumpling kumla ($12), served with onion ragout, brown butter, lardon, and the ubiquitous lingon berry sauce.
She also ventured to try the Swedish meat balls ($15), which she said easily bypassed Ikea’s version. She had a hearty portion served with potato puree, pan gravy, pickled cucumber and lingon berry sauce.
Our desserts (all $8 each) came out looking almost the same, a plate with a scoop of ice cream on top of our main dish and then surrounded by a moat of sauce. I loved the idea of my rhubarb lavender crumble pie with strawberry ice cream, but I found the rhubarb too tart and not much crumble or pie bits.
Sandy’s chocolate torte was like a perfect brownie, and we tried to pinpoint the taste of the scoop of “cloudberry” sorbet. It had a taste that seemed familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it. (Wouldn’t it be funny if “cloudberry” was just the Nordic people’s way of saying “raspberry”?)
While I found the flavors to be interesting, especially when it waded toward the pickled end, I found the overall dishes and plates to be rough around the edges, needing a bit more restraint or refinement to highlight the touted simplicity of Scandinavian cooking.
Pläj has some ways to go to find itself, but it’s starting from a good foundation. Hopefully it can delve deeper into its Scandinavian roots so we can really have amazing Nordic food in the Bay Area.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
Pläj, 333 Fulton St. (inside the Inn at the Opera), San Francisco. PH: 415.294.8925. Open daily from 5 to 11 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. plajrestaurant.com
Visit Sandy’s blog to check out her opinions on our dinner and her amazing photos.