Beetroot and sunchoke salad with black summer truffle, Sausalito Springs watercress, hazelnuts, and Västerbotten cheese. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
House-cured gravlax with spicy Swedish mustard, dill purée, and lemon crème fraîche. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Taste of herring with rye crispbread. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Krondill-poached lobster Skagen with whitefish caviar, horseradish, avocado, and chile. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Porter-braised ox cheek with roasted beetroot, fried onions, and horseradish. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Passing through the Inn at the Opera hotel to get to this restaurant may make you pause for a moment if you were on a date. (“Hey now, this is only date one! It’s not time to get a room just yet.”) But once you’re nestled into your table, and your little bag of sliced Acme rye bread and whipped butter hits the table, you’ll start figuring out it’s a place you want to be.
San Francisco has been sorely lacking on the Scandinavian cuisine front, with locals depending upon trips to IKEA for a Swedish meatballs fix. Chef-owner Roberth Sundell (a Swede) is here to change that, although he is also integrating local ingredients and a California style into his menu.
It’s not a standard appetizer-main dish format—I recommend going with someone who likes to share food (i.e., no convicts), so you can try dishes from a few different sections of the menu. In the “hagen” section, the beetroot and sunchoke salad was a bit spendy as far as salads go ($14), but it did feature black summer truffle and made for a killer flavor combination with Sausalito Springs watercress, hazelnuts, and shavings of Swedish Västerbotten cheese. Okay, sold.
When you say Scandinavia, of course you think of fish. I wanted one of each dish in the “fjord” section of the menu: there are raw selections like thickly cut, house-cured gravlax ($12), and for those with a taste for herring, there’s a trio of herring ($14) with combos like saffron-tomato and ginger-smoked soy. The hot dishes are quite rich, like the krondill-poached lobster Skagen ($20) in a foamy, creamy cloud with whitefish caviar and avocado, or the house-smoked caraway salmon ($18) that was beautifully pink inside, with a side of lemon crema, roasted radish, and thick ribbons of tender fennel. You will soon see this place is not afraid of butter.
Chilly weather is here, so dishes like the potato dumpling kumla ($14)—almost like two large potato gnocchi—in a bath of brown butter with lardons and lingonberries are perfect for a rainy night (just don’t tell your cardiologist). The tender Swedish meatballs ($15) in pan gravy are a must, and the hearty porter-braised ox cheek ($22) has a visually arresting presentation of hot pink mashed beetroot (plus fried onions and freshly grated horseradish). At this point, you are well equipped to throw back a lot of aquavit.
While some local chefs and savvier gourmands would scoff at things like shaved asparagus in November or the unsophisticated presentation of venison (the meat was cut into little pieces like it was destined for stew), there is a lot to enjoy about the flavor-packed food here. Many friends are raving about it; the creative food hits a lot of pleasure centers, like fat and salt. Oh yeah, and sauces. However, I’d like to see more creativity with the desserts beyond the standards of crème brûlée, apple pie, and chocolate torte.
A bonus is the full bar, and they’re playing around with the cocktails, like the watch-this-disappear-quickly Pläjer ($11) with bourbon, dried apricot cinnamon gastrique, strawberry, and a big fat ice cube. (Pro tip: the restaurant’s name is pronounced “play.” Don’t want you lookin’ like a fool.) I also really dug the homemade aquavit ($9) with juniper, lemon, and dill. There are a number of Scandinavian beers, plus some good food-friendly wines by the glass. Also friendly: the servers (I got a kick out of them on both visits).
There are some old-world and traditional elements to the intimate room—with lots of wood, chairs with arms, a carpeted floor, and space between the tableclothed tables—ditto the clientele that’s dining before an opera or symphony performance. The restaurant tried to hip-ify things with the electronica music and a big communal table in the back, but on one night, the packed table really compromised the nice atmosphere. If I came to the restaurant on a date, I’d be upset with such a boisterous party next to me. Easy there, Vikings!
Quibbles aside, I’m keeping this one in my dating arsenal. There’s a lot that I like about Pläj—it’s a unique addition to the city, and a score for Hayes Valley.