Monday, August 27, 2012

Dinner at Pläj

Pläj is a Scandinavian restaurant that opened recently.  I normally wait a while longer before checking out a new place to give it time to work out kinks, but the reviews I've seen so far have all been very, very positive, from both the critics and the Yelpers.  And my frequent dining companion, Emil, is Swedish, and has been very excited about the menu.  And they have a deal on Scoutmob for $10 off, and you know how I like freebies these days.  And they are open on Mondays, and have a menu that won't suffer from typical Monday lack of fresh stuff issues.

So, last Monday night, I got together a group to check it out.

The menu has several categories: hagen, fjord, beta, and godis.  Everything is described as bigger than small plates but smaller than entrees, designed so that you order a few things.  Every review I read beforehand said to share a bunch of things.  So, we did, basically ordering everything that anyone in the group wanted.  For some of dishes, it was quickly apparent when they arrived on the table that our group of 5 couldn't possibly share them.  Since we said we'd be sharing everything, and the server brought us share plates and put everything in the middle of the table when it arrived and clearly understood our plans, I wish she'd pointed out in advance that some of them wouldn't be sharable with so many people, and advised us to order two of those.

Service in general wasn't great.  My water glass was empty more than it was full.  There was a jug given to us to be able to re-fill our water glasses, but when she found it empty, the server just took it away and never replaced it.  One person did not have a bread plate.  When we ran out of bread, she came to clear the bread plate, and didn't ask if we wanted more (which we did, to soak up sauces!).  There were some very long lags in the service at numerous points, from initial time to order, to time to receive drinks, time to order dessert, etc.  The restaurant wasn't busy, so I'm really not sure why there were so many delays.  It turned into a much longer meal than I expected.

The restaurant is on the smaller side, with six seats at the bar, and 44 seats in the restaurant, made up mostly by a bunch of 2-tops, a few bigger tables, and a large table in the back of the room.

The most interesting moment of the evening for me came when I went to use the bathroom.  I washed my hands, and then looked around to find a paper towel or hand dryer or ... something to dry my hands with.  I didn't see anything.  Hmm, was this the Swedish way?  I continued looking around the lovely bathroom, baffled.  Finally, I went to just attempt to use a tissue, when I realized that there were two Kleenex boxes on the shelf, one larger than the other.  Aha!  One box was Kleenex brand paper towels!  I had no idea that they made these.  The box looks exactly like a Kleenex tissue box.  It is totally crazy.  Anyway, sorry for the digression, this just amazed me.

I don't have photos or formal tasting notes from any of the (many) drinks that the group consumed, but the cocktail list was really interesting.  Drinks included ingredients like dill simple syrup, thyme, and lavender.  I scored Emil's Tulip cocktail (sparkling wine, ligonberry concentrate, angostura bitters, lemon twist, $11) when it was far too sweet for him.  I thought it was refreshing, and the ligonberry flavor paired well with many of our dishes.  Emil and one other member also had to try every offering on the aquavit section of the menu.  They seemed to enjoy them.

The food was all good, although I think mostly just not my style.  Many of the dishes were just not things I'd normally order, and I didn't care for most of them.  That said, the two dishes I was most excited about (a savory and a dessert) were really quite good, and the prices were really reasonable.  The ingredients seemed high quality, the execution was fine, so my dislike really was just personal taste.  The others in my group seemed to really like the restaurant, and are already talking about going back.  And Emil gave it his seal of approval in authenticity, although, obviously upscale and modernized.  I'd go back, but I'm not in a rush to do so, and next time, I'd probably stick to just ordering what I wanted.
Potato dumpling kumla, onion ragout, lingonberry, brown butter, lardon. $12.
I'd read a lot of positive reviews of this dish, so we ordered two of them, which was a good decision, as each dish contained two dumplings and two onions, which would have been very hard to split 5 ways!

The dumplings were really interesting.  I was expecting something more like a gnocchi, whereas these were more like potato cakes.  They were crispy on the outside and very creamy and like mashed potato on the inside.  Really fun textures.

The pieces of onion were highly caramelized and delicious.  I'm a sucker for caramelized onions, and potato and onions go together oh so well.

The ligonberry sauce added both sweetness and tartness, and reminded me somewhat of spreading cranberry sauce on mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving (everyone does this, right?)

The little pieces of lardon were smokey, and added a good salt component.

The only part of this dish that didn't come together for me was the brown butter sauce.  It just seemed oily and flavorless.

I didn't love this dish, but the inside of the dumplings, with a little of the ligonberry sauce, was pretty tasty.  My 5th pick of the night, 3rd for another, 4th for another, but second to last for two others.  I probably wouldn't order again.

$12 was a fair price for an appetizer of this size.

Taste of Herring: saffron tomato, coriander chili, lime, ginger smoked soy. $12.
This dish falls solidly in the category of things I'd never normally order, but Emil was very excited for it.

I missed some of the details when the server described it, but there were three different preparations of the herring, three different colored baby potatoes, rye crackers, and a bunch of other edible garnishes.

I really liked the flavor of the rye crackers.  One of the herring preparations tasted really fishy to me and I didn't like it at all, but the other two seemed fairly fresh.  But, this just really wasn't my sort of dish.

My 8th pick of the night, but the clear winner for everyone else - the favorite dish for 3 of the other diners, and the second favorite of the other.  I certainly wouldn't order again, but this is clearly just personal preference.

$12 was a very fair price for the amount of fish.
Cured Norwegian salmon belly gravlax, spicy grain mustard, dill puree, lemon crème fraiche. $11.
The salmon in this dish was pretty good, flavorful, fresh tasting.  But, being the sauces lover that I am, what really wowed me was the accompaniments.  The dill puree was fantastically flavorful.  The lemon crème fraiche was slightly tart, creamy, and had a strong lemon flavor.  The dill, the lemon, and the salmon all combined very well.

Once the salmon ran out, I eagerly used my bread to soak up the rest of the sauces.  There was nothing earth shattering about this dish, but it was solid.  We all placed it pretty middle of the pack in our ratings: my 6th pick of the night, 4th for two others, and 5th for the other two.

And again, a good value, $11 was a very reasonable price for 8 pieces of salmon.
Krondill poached lobster Skagen, white fish caviar, horseradish, avocado, chili. $18.
When this dish arrived, we quickly realized that there was no way for 5 of us to share it, and ordered a second one.

This dish went the way of pretty much all lobster dishes for me.  I wanted to love it, but I am underwhelmed by lobster.  Sure, it is good, but I find fresh crab to be soo much tastier.  I basically always just want the lobster to be crab.  But that isn't the fault of this dish, nor Pläj.

Anyway, the lobster was tender, well cooked, with a variety of different types of meat.  The sauce was creamy and flavorful.  I skipped the little avocado cubes because of my allergy.  I again used my bread to lap all the sauce up.  This sauce is what prompted us to request even more bread!

This was was top pick for one diner, the second for another, the third for another, my 4th, and the 6th for the other.

$18 did seem a little high given the fairly small amount of lobster in the dish.  I probably wouldn't order again.
Swedish meatballs, potato puree, pan gravy, lingonberry, pickled cucumber. $15.
You can't go to a Scandinavian restaurant and NOT get the Swedish meatballs right?  I'd actually read a lot of negative reviews of these, but everyone really wanted to get them, so we did.  Of all of the courses, this was the easiest to split, coming with exactly 5 meatballs.

The meatballs had a good crust on them, and a really great flavor, reminding me more of sausage than of meatball.  I believe they were made from ox.  I did think they were on the dry side, although that wasn't too big of a deal given all of the other elements on the plate with which you could coat the meatball.

The potato puree was very creamy, basically just liquid mashed potatoes.  Meat and potatoes?  Check!

The lingonberry sauce was again an interesting component, bringing in tartness and sweetness all at once.  Like with the potato dumplings, I liked the ligonberry and potato pairing.

The pickled cucumbers were surprisingly tart.  They didn't really seem to go with the dish, but I really liked them.

I'm not sure why reviews of these were so negative, although none of us loved the dish, they weren't bad.  I'm glad we tried them.  Four of us ranked this 7th of the evening, and the other ranked it 8th.

Again, price was right, but I doubt I'd get again.
Caraway smoked salmon, roasted radishes, shaved fennel, watercress, lemon aioli. $18.
This was the dish I was most looking forward to (besides dessert of course).  I've been loving salmon lately (well, I've been loving very specific salmon dishes lately).

The moment I cut into the salmon, I knew we were in for a treat.  It was beautifully medium rare.  Tender.  With a fantastic smoky flavor.  Just delicious.

And then, there was the lemon aioli to drag it through.  Another incredibly flavorful, absolutely delicious sauce.  And of course, salmon and lemon go together perfectly.

There were also some roasted radishes.  I'm not entirely sure I'd ever had cooked radishes before, and I didn't really care for them.  They reminded me of turnips.

There were more little baby potatoes on this dish, well cooked, but just potatoes.  They were tasty with the aioli.  The shaved fennel and watercress were fairly forgettable.

This was by far my favorite dish of the night, and besides the herring that everyone else loved, clearly the winner for the night, as two others ranked it second, and the other two ranked it third.  It was a really amazing piece of fish for $18.  Would certainly order again.
Charcuteri: fennalar-salted lamb, syltrulle-cured pork belly, wild boar salami, lamb belly, spicy gooseberry jam, grilled rye.  $16.
I was pretty stuffed at this point, and don't really love charcuteri, so I mostly skipped this.  The chili spiced gooseberry jam was really interesting and delicious, I loved the spice in it.  The grilled bread was also really good.  The others were avoiding it because it looked (and was) incredibly oily, but I wanted to soak up more sauces from the other dishes, and we'd run out of plain rye bread, so I tried it.  It was indeed oily, but also rubbed with garlic, and was slightly crispy, and quite tasty.  I'm not really sure how it would have paired with the meat, but it was very good with the sauces!

The others didn't love this, with 3 of them ranking it last, and one ranking it 3rd to last.
Rhubarb lavender crumble pie, strawberry ice cream, vanilla sauce.  $8.
There are few things I love more than warm pie|crisp|cobbler|crumble|etc and ice cream.

This was an interesting take on a pie, fairly deconstructed.

The vanilla sauce was warm, creamy, and fun to drag everything through, but didn't have a particularly strong vanilla flavor.

The strawberry ice cream was creamy, and had a nice fresh strawberry flavor.

And the "pie" ... this was some tart, cooked chunks of rhubarb and some absolutely delicious, buttery, chunks of crumble.

I loved dragging a chunk of crumble through the vanilla sauce and scooping up some ice cream with it. Sweet yet tart, hot and cold, crisp and creamy, just everything coming together at once.  Not mind blowing, but very enjoyable.

My favorite of the desserts, and second favorite dish of the night.  4th pick for one other, but 3rd to last for another (the other two didn't rank as they didn't really have any).  I'd get again.  $8 was a good price for a dessert at a restaurant of this calibre.
Cardamom spoon crème brûlée, lime-mint marinated strawberries.  $8.
Oh yes, they had a crème brûlée on the menu.  Clearly, I had to get it, no matter how full I was.

You know me and crème brûlée.  I have very specific desires from a crème brûlée.  This one passed the first test with flying colors.  I tapped on it.  Solid.  I tapped even harder.  Still solid.  Yes!  It had a really thick hard shell on top.  One of the best top layers of a  crème brûlée that I've ever had, with a really deeply caramelized flavor to it.

The custard itself however was very, very watery.  Even more runny than a pudding.  I'm not really sure what was going on there.  It was pleasantly warm, and had a nice subtle cardamom flavor.

The lime-mint marinated strawberries on the side were absolutely delicious.  They were sweet, but in a great way.  They were soft.  The mint added a freshness.  Delicious.  I'd love a strawberry shortcake made with these!  I'm really not sure how they were supposed to go with the crème brûlée, but they were so tasty, I didn't really care.

Overall, this was a mixed bag.  The strawberries on the side were awesome, but this was supposed to be about the crème brûlée, which had a fantastic top, but strange consistency.  My second favorite dessert of the night, and third favorite overall.  The others were less into it, with one ranking it second to last, and another ranking it right in the middle of the pack.  The other two refrained from ranking as they didn't really have any.

I'd get it again, and $8 again seemed about right for a dessert here.
Cloudberry sorbet.  $3.
One of the other desserts came with cloudberry sorbet on the side.  We were intrigued by the sound of it, but didn't want the full dessert.  So we asked just for a scoop of the sorbet.

This was the worst dish of the night for me.  Cloyingly sweet.  I like ice cream, I like sweet, but this was just not very good.  I'm also confused by the term "sorbet" as it seemed to clearly contain dairy.  It was full of gritty seeds.

Would not get again.
Scandinavian and local cheeses, rye bread, pumpernickel and current flatbread, orange elderflower jam, honey apricot jam.  $14.
I'm a dessert girl, and was too busy eating the "real" desserts to pay much attention to the cheese plate.  I did try the different jams, but I didn't take any notes on them, and don't really recall much about them.

The others all had this, and all ranked it 4th to last.
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