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The fruit of his labors

By Josh Sens photographs by lara hata | March 24, 2011 | Story

Through his cooking at Coi—his Michelin-kissed restaurant on the edge of North Beach—and his periodic musings in the New York Times and in this magazine as well, Daniel Patterson has gained a reputation as a thinking man's chef, a culinary star for the cerebral set. He has also emerged as the apron-clad conscience of a region, decrying city policies that he says stifle San Francisco's neighborhood restaurants and raising the alarm against what he regards as the rut of rustic California cuisine.

All the while, Patterson has kept busy expanding his reach, first with Cane Rosso, a smart rotisserie in the Ferry Building, and now with Plum, a fine Oakland restaurant that stands as his proof: The chef talks the talk and walks the walk. In his move across the Bay, Patterson has settled in a city that he sees as friendlier to small restaurants and established a base from which to stick another fork in Bay Area figs-on-a-plate clichés.

Though Plum is far from a clone of Coi, a restaurant with a formal mien and $145 prix fixe dinners, it could pass for Coi's more casual cousin; the food derives from the same DNA. Meat has its moments (a roasted pork shoulder, say, served with squash purée spiced with an exotic hint of vadouvan), but the menu, as at Coi, is vegetable-centric. Like so many chefs, Patterson sanctifies the seasonal and local, but he's not so pious as to believe that pristine products should be left untouched. Carrots are cooked sous vide, then grilled on a plancha. Though sweet enough to stand alone, they're more compelling once the chef has worked them over: crunch from breadcrumbs, punch from pickled garlic, sour notes of sorrel softened by brown butter. When a beet salad trots out, it's spruced up with rye crumble, pickled rose hips, Cara Cara oranges, and leaves of roasted endive laid over the beets like a light winter coat.

Plum occupies a corner of the Uptown district, but it could fit just as easily into Tribeca, and not just because it serves until one in the morning. The vibe is unforced urban groovy, enlivened by a mix of young neighborhood loft dwellers and fashion-forward diners who might be aging hippies but don't dress enough like Muppets to evoke the East Bay stereotype.

The interior matches the mood and the food: It's raw-looking, with sanded wood tables roughly the color of a stone fruit's pit. Large photographs show rows of purplish spheres, arranged in a grid. At first glance, distant planets? Wait. No. Plums!

An L-shaped bar elbows around the open kitchen, lined with blocky stools that are more comfortable than they appear. To dine at these seats is part cooking show, part horticulture class. Patterson's fondness for foraging yields a Luther Burbank bounty of greens. Nutty chickweed provides cover to roasted onions and pickled mushrooms and a plucky counterpoint to date purée. Chervil peppers a dish called the Whole Duck, which is not a whole duck but a duck done three ways: a robust sausage, offset with dates; a brown butter-bathed breast; and a liver mousse—the latter two preparations sweetened with carrot purée.

An eclectic harvest (wild radish; sunflower; miner's lettuce sprouting small white flowers like Barbie's bridal bouquet) is applied to precise but unpretentious presentations. From the counter, you watch as a young cook positions ramps with tweezers, or graffiti-tags a plate with turnip purée, a creamy undercurrent for grilled sardines speckled white with horseradish foam. Patterson's cooking is not ironic, but there is a sense of play. The food is comforting and familiar, but it also fur-nishes surprise. Hence Plum's burger is not a standard burger but a rich, marbled mash of oxtail and beef cheeks. Oyster-and-potato stew, with a gentle bite of frisée and espellette, is chowder, reconstructed: oysters, plump and briny, entangled with the greens, and clouded at the last minute, through a whipped-cream dispenser, with lush billows of potato foam.

I say Patterson's cooking, but that's misleading.Though Plum bears his imprint, the chef leaves the day-to-day operations to Charlie Parker, who has stabilized the kitchen following a months-long game of pass-the-toque. Parker is a veteran of Manresa and Bonny Doon's Cellar Door Café, a grade-A pedigree mirrored by the background of the pastry chef, Deanie Hickox, who worked at Ubuntu and also at Manresa. Among her sparklers are cheesecake in a jar, with a crumble of almond Teeccino (an herbal coffee substitute) and a layer of sour cherries, and a graham cracker cake presented in components: mounds of crust and scoops of buttermilk ice cream linked with a lattice of meringue, with blood orange wedges grinning all around.

Complaints? Sure. Around midwinter, Parker implemented a five-course tasting menu, and although it delivered inventive delights (it opened with a medleyof clams and smoked bone marrow that marked a vast improvement on old-school surf and turf), its demands clearly overtaxed the tiny kitchen. The night dragged on. And on. And on. A killer meal whose pacing nearly killed the joy.

Details, details. The rhythms of a restaurant require constant supervision, and Patterson has a lot to keep in sync. Later this year, he'll have even more to do when he opens another restaurant in Jack London Square—the next outpost for a man who seems to relish all his roles: chef, essayist, and prolific composer of business plans. Plum, 2214 Broadway, Oakland, 510-444-7586, Reservations Recommended, Wheelchair Accessible, Three Stars.

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