Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dinner by Chef Sean Brock at Plum Restaurant in Oakland

Hope y'all are having a great Memorial Day weekend. Mine started out lovely when I made a reservation last night for a special 5-course dinner at Plum in Oakland's Uptown.

Plum is the East Bay casual yet refined dining spot of Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's celebrated Coi. While the restaurant has generated a lot of interest under the watchful eye of Chef Charlie Parker, Patterson has decided to use it for occasional charity dinners showcasing some guest chefs from around the country. Last night, a dinner raising funds for the Larkin Street Youth Services featured Chef Sean Brock of Charleston's McCrady's and Husk.

Brock has garnered much attention for his restaurants because of his goal to locally source all his ingredients to create his elegant Southern dishes. The locavore approach, of course, marries nicely with the cuisine at Plum, which emphasizes local California ingredients.

The Plum dinner was fully booked, with the five-courses going for $75. I arrived and took my seat at the restaurant's long wooden bar counter, giving me a front row seat of all the chefs in action, including Parker (who looked like he was expediting the courses for the evening, and seen in bottom left of the above shot) and Brock (top right), who was in charge of the two main courses of the five.

Dinner started with two courses from Parker. The first was a chilled pea soup that was poured at the table into a bowl with lovely local wildflowers (the popular nasturtium), Parmesan cheese, mint and radish. (Sorry, I still feel awkward stopping the server from pouring while I get my camera out so with these soup photos, you only get the end result after the pour, which does sometime ruin the beautiful presentation.)

Despite the chilly evening, the cold soup was still refreshing with that spring-like flavor of the pea (which included some full peas that weren't pureed) and the nice crunch of the radish and creaminess of the Parmesan.

Second course was a tray of eucalyptus-smoked potatoes with artichokes, shallots, green garlic and dill. This was such a fun dish to eat because of the differing textures. The smoked potatoes did have a nice smoky flavor although don't know if I could detect that the smoke came specifically from eucalyptus leaves. Artichoke hearts are always lovely to eat, and so were the grilled green garlic, but there were a couple of ingredients on the plate that added to the complexity but weren't listed on the menu.

There were these thin vegetables that looked like they could have been very thin asparagus. But they were pickled and a bit crunchy. Being a pickle fan, I love this added ingredient. There was also a white foam that was very creamy, but I couldn't tell by the flavoring what it was made of. Everything on the plate pulled together nicely for a real celebration of California spring (again, despite the fall weather we've been having).

Then we moved onto the courses from Chef Brock, starting with this amazing Carolina catfish dish sitting on cornbread puree, field peas and crawfish "chowchow" and topped off with crispy pig ears.

The field peas were cooked like a French cassoulet, very comforting and creamy, although a bit sweet because of the chowchow (which I guess is a type of Southern-style relish). I didn't really detect much of a crawfish flavor, but that didn't matter since I enjoyed the catfish filet that was nicely golden brown. As you can guess, though, the winning ingredient was the crispy pig ear pieces on top that were such a nice added texture.

I had pig ears recently at San Francisco's SPQR, but these were done so much better. The SPQR's version was a bit chewy, but all the ones made by Chef Brock last night were definitely crispy, shattering with each bite for a resounding crunch. I'm sure it was deep-fried to get this perfect texture, but that was fine because I reasoned that they were just a few pieces and not an entire dish. (Although I probably could have eaten an entire dish featuring crispy pig ears.)

The fourth course was a crispy pork shank served with samp grits, wild ramps and asparagus. The pork shank looked almost like a breaded elongated croquette, with the somewhat shredded pork interior giving it more substance. The sauce on the plate, again, seemed to lean toward the sweet side (I think Chef Brock has a sweet tooth) but luckily that was balanced by the other ingredients and flavors, including a nice garnish of pickled shallots (like I said, I love pickled things) that help cut into the heaviness of the pork.

Last course was a lime custard dessert served in a bottled jar like a parfait, with gingersnap crumble, blueberries and condensed milk cream. I just dove into this custard, which had a balanced tart flavor and light creamy texture. It was a nice ending to this primarily Southern-themed dinner.

I really enjoyed the journey from California to Charleston in this special tasting menu, providing a nice contrast in styles of the two chefs while noting the commonality in vision about the food they serve. I like these special charity dinners (a more expensive and fancier version took place the night before at Coi) and look forward to seeing who'll be visiting next.

Plum Restaurant, 2214 Broadway (near Grand Avenue), Oakland. PH: 510.444.7586.


Foodhoe said...

That sounded like a great meal! For some reason I'm wondering what cornbread puree is like, polenta? I don't think I've had crispy pigs ears either, how fun and if it's for a good cause, even better!

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, the cornbread puree was like polenta, or maybe grits. And I bet you'd like crispy pig ears. Maybe try it at SPQR since this Plum menu was just a one-time thing.

Claudine said...

Hi there - long-time reader, first time commenter... we made it to Plum for the Sean Brock dinner as well - I agree with you that the dishes were a little on the sweet side. Not usually my preference but my husband and I felt that everything was still so well-executed and fantastic. Cheers!

Single Guy Ben said...

Congratulations Claudine for taking the plunge and commenting! I love hearing from long-time readers! And so funny that you were there too! In your photo on your blog, you can see me dining alone at the counter! Surprised you didn't notice me with my big camera. But then again, I try to be discreet. :)

julieako said...

I like how you don't interfere with the waiter by taking photos, and I am sure they appreciate it.

Claudine said...

Ben, we were in the furthermost table right by the door, so perhaps I didn't have a great view of the counter-seat patrons...

Carolyn Jung said...

Mmm, the crispy pork shank looks sublime. I can see the use of the sweet accompaniments since pork does go so well with that side of the flavor spectrum.