A line of chefs connected to Chez Panisse had pretty much colonized Oakland in the last decade — helming places such as Dopo, Adesso, Camino and Pizzaiola — until Daniel Patterson moved to town.
Patterson, creator of Coi in San Francisco and Il Cane Rosso, a market kitchen in the Ferry Building, has firmly planted his restaurant group’s flag in the East Bay with the cutting-edge, if moderately priced, Plum and adjacent Plum Bar, both a block from the sumptuously restored art deco Paramount Theatre. And he has just opened Haven in Jack London Square.
Patterson’s sensibility is as singular as Alice Waters’. They both kneel at the altar of local ingredients, but Waters prefers cooking them traditionally to make them taste better than anyone could imagine, while Patterson is drawn to using new techniques, playfulness and surprise to explore their nature.
He reaches further into the pantry for scents and spices to make his point. But you always know what you’re eating. Patterson’s cooking is always grounded.
At Plum Bar, he applies this vision to cocktails and bar food, served in an airy room with a high, unfinished wood ceiling and polished wood floors and furnishings. The expansive walls are papered with varnished pages of poetry. Votives twinkle in a structure that descends from the ceiling over the bar. Music is a presence. Typical of Patterson, the decor is both modern and warm.
Cocktails ($10) built with house-made infusions and syrups, seasonal fruit juices and peels, house-grown herbs and the complete spice cabinet — not to mention arcane spirits — have morphed into a food of sorts.
I love these complex cocktails. They go down like fresh lemonade on a hot day, but pack the wallop of a martini. Plum Bar executes them with commitment, down to the size of the house-cut ice cubes and the scent-delivering shape of the glasses.
A small group can eat its way through the whole Plum Bar menu. I’d start with the falafel flatbread ($11), a predictable dish, I thought, until I tasted this version on a soft, spongy, cooked-to-order flatbread about one-fourth-inch thick, which caresses crunchy falafel dressed with yogurt, herbs, lettuces, a green olive relish and crispy fried lemon slices. The flavors blend while the textures stay distinct.
A charcuterie plate ($10) looks like an abstract flower arrangement, with every colorful bit — fragrant purple mustard and jewel-like root vegetable pickles — precisely placed. Each precious slice of pate, terrine and salume finds a match — though the little bowl of warm crispy pork bits, like porky popcorn — stands alone.
A mini cast-iron skillet of delicate cornbread ($7) comes with red pepper jelly. A mound of wispy greens ($7) hides thinly-sliced apple and toasted pistachios, a salad that goes with everything.
But when it comes to the bar food icon, a dry-aged burger with fries ($16), I’m not onboard. The burger was overpowered by purposely stinky melted cheese, a flirtation with the concept of rot that fell flat. Though I did like the skinny fries dusted with pimenton, smoky Spanish paprika.
Patterson works collaboratively with head chef Ron Boyd and bar manager Todd McKean. They are all on the same mission — to invent, to push convention, to discover, while keeping the comforts of the neighborhood bar and the organically grown reassuringly close.
Patricia Unterman, author of many editions of the San Francisco Food Lovers Guide, publishes a printed newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 2216 Broadway (at Grand Avenue), Oakland
Contact: (510) 444-7586; www.plumoakland.com
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to last call Friday-Saturday
Price range: $5 to $16
Recommended dishes: Grapefruit gimlet, falafel flatbread, charcuterie plate, cornbread with red pepper jelly, green salad with pistachios and apple, house-made ice cream
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted