*THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED*
Your parents are in town (or even better, your in-laws!), and you need a nice place to take them where they won't complain about the noise, the food has to be spot-on (would I send you to a crappy place? Never!), the menu has to have something for everyone and be representative of our fair city, and an impressive wine list would be a bonus. You don't want your server to have an eyebrow piercing or tattoos on their knuckles that say "DON'T MESS." No vertical food, foams, or experimental fusion. One sure bet in the dining safety zone is ~PLUMPJACK CAFE~ in the Marina.
You won't find any hen parties, a raucous bar, or mariachis, but you will be greeted kindly and seated in an approachable room done up in muted hues of sea green, taupe, and putty. How soothing, you'll feel better already—even if your mother-in-law is on your last nerve, and you've only known her for ten minutes. There's a coat of arms/shield motif that you'll find on the backs of the chairs and above the wall doubling as a wine rack. (Servers are sans shield.)
The floor is plushly carpeted, with tables looking out onto the street, plus some slightly obscured tables with banquette seating in the back. The room strikes a comfortable stance of being proper without feeling stuffy, and calm while still registering as slightly energized. People are definitely chattering, just not yelling. On the night I went, there was a good mix of blue-hairs with businessmen, well-coiffed Marina couples and even a prissy aunt-like figure with a table of well-behaved young ladies, all ordering a brigade of salads.
The menu, by Chef de Cuisine Jeff Smock, is upscale Californian cuisine with a smattering of Italian and French influence, with a strong seasonal focus. In fact, he writes a new menu each month. One constant that remains is the trademark tuna cone appetizer ($13). Three sesame cones arrive in a special little metal contraption, holding a winning combo of yellowfin tuna tartare, with apple, avocado, and topped with yuzu crème fraîche and ginger tobiko. There's a reason the cones are on every table: they rock. The funny part is watching everyone's different techniques as they try to eat them—some try to daintily nibble from the side (one of the well-behaved girls), while others practically pop the whole thing in their mouth at once and chomp it (one of the businessmen). I say attack, otherwise you'll just make a mess, but do it with two bites.
When I went in early spring, the menu featured spring pea soup ($9) with mint pesto and pine nuts. It was a little under-salted and heavy for me—blame it on the potato that it was thickened with. However, it gave me a chance to try one of the trio of different salts sitting on the table. Each table has a clever little tower of salts in undulating stacking holders, including a ruddy Kauai salt, a pink Australian Murray River salt, and a Normandy stone-ground salt. Go nuts.
I was much more enamored with my Dungeness crab cakes ($12), a meaty cake crusted in panko crumbs, with a dollop of citrus aioli on top. The accompanying salad of shaved fennel, brightened with tangerine rind (and essence) and micro greens added a nice counterpoint of acidity and tanginess. Was paired with a fab Riesling–what it was, I cannot tell you because my handwriting was atrocious on that particular entry in my little notebook. Doh.
Sidebar here: our waiter, David, was one of the most attentive servers I've had in a long time. In fact, the entire room is run by a bunch of hawk-eyes. Invisible hands, swift service. Anyway, this guy has been there for some time, and knew the wine list like he wrote it. I also watched one of the other servers and noted the same qualities. Gotta love a tight ship.
The springtime bounty continued with a risotto ($18) of spring peas, favas, green garlic, and white and red spring onions. Loved the dollops of goat cheese and the spray of fried leeks on top. A vegetarian would be beyond thrilled with this dish. As a carnivore, I adored it. Then again, Smock might have used chicken stock for the risotto. Well, I imagine not, since it was the sole vegetarian entrée. I didn't confirm. I am now fired by the vegetarians.
Now I'm really gonna be fired by the vegetarians, because I am about to extol the virtues of the duck "duet" ($27) and the free-range veal chop ($28) on the menu. The hands-down winner of the evening was the sliced duck breast served with an excellently crispy yet succulent confit of the leg and thigh (so I'd actually consider the dish a trio). The duck came with sautéed broccoli rabe (one of my favorites) and a carrot and shitake sformato, all topped with a very au courant huckleberry-duck jus. Why au courant? Maybe you should take a peek at Michael Bauer's blog, because he beat me to my intended little missive about the trendy berry that seems to be making appearances on menus everywhere these days.
What is funny about this berry is that it should come with a warning label: my dining partner and I both had serious dining-foul incidents with it. Mine: whilst cutting my duck, my knife pricked a berry and it sprayed out its dark juice onto the white tablecloth. Great. Real classy. The table looks so nice now. But then my poor dining partner topped my little run-in, and managed to get one that sprayed the front of her white sweater. Berries on a rampage, seriously. It felt like a rendition of the blueberry pie-spewing scene in "Stand By Me." (Well, not really.) Moral of the story: watch out for that huckleberry. "My huckleberry friend?" Uh, no. Just Moon River and me. Well, and an '03 C & L Pinot Noir.
Sorry, musical digression.
Back to the meat. I don't normally go for veal, but this preparation was gorgeous. The chop is initially pan-braised, and then a brandy reduction is brought into the picture, and the chop is then simmered in the oven with caramelized cippolini onions that are later draped upon the slices of veal once it's plated. My glass of John Anthony '03 Cab only made the entire thing all the more luxurious. Man, what an exceptional wine. So elegant.
Okay, to the desserts. While having the cutest name ever, the strawberry patch ($8.50) was like the three bears: granted, the milkshake was tasty, but what isn't there to love about a strawberry milkshake? And the tartlet was just kind of boring, like something you'd find at a prix-fixe brunch buffet, while the pannacotta was just right. The butterscotch crème brûlée ($8.50) had a layer of sugar on top that was so thick I could have ice skated on it. So where should you steer your dessert spoon? To the El Rey molten chocolate caramel cake ($8.50), darling. Drizzled in caramel, with lavender ice cream hanging on its arm. Seriously one of the tastiest chocolate desserts I've had in some time. Deeeeelish.
A couple cool things to note about PlumpJack Café:
- you can get valet parking at Greenwich and Fillmore Streets in front of the Balboa Café.
- each Wednesday, you'll find a special farmer's market spring tasting menu.
- on Mondays, PlumpJack Cafe offers free corkage on screwcap wines. They promise no one will look at you funny. Except your mother-in-law, perhaps.
3127 Fillmore St.
Cross: Filbert St.
San Francisco, CA 94123
Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm
Dinner nightly 5:30pm-10pm