Simple,-crafted Scandinavian fare, unusual microbrews from the far north, the mysterious spirit aquavit, and whimsically named specialty cocktails are the agenda of the new restaurant Plaj in San Francisco.
Swedish-born chef-owner Roberth Sundell said that his 50-seat venture is decidedly not in the mold of the New Nordic Cuisine restaurants that are setting the pace in global gastronomy, as some patrons assumed when he opened two months ago.
“My goal was to have a Scandinavian restaurant with fresh food and a fun cocktail list,” said Sundell, who spent the past decade cooking in places like Scottsdale, Ariz.; Manhattan Beach, Calif.; and Lake Tahoe, Nev. “I also want to bring back memories of Scandinavia to people, whether it is from their family background or of their grandmother’s meatballs.”
Likening Plaj to a place like Noma in Copenhagen, which was voted Best Restaurant in the World by San Pellegrino three years running, “is like comparing the Spanish tapas bar around the corner to El Bulli in Spain,” Sundell said.
The concept of Plaj, which is pronounced like “play” in English, is Scandinavian comfort food with organic and natural ingredients, served in medium-sized plates priced from $11 to $24. Two customer favorites are Swedish meatballs — “on the menu just for fun” — and an “incredibly popular” herring sampler with saffron-tomato, coriander-chile and ginger-smoked soy flavors, Sundell said. A more elaborate effort is his Krondill Poached Lobster Skagen with white fish caviar, horseradish, avocado and chile.
At the bar, Sundell has scouted out Nordic microbrews like Nogne O Sunturnbrew, a smoked barley wine brewed in Norway on the shortest and darkest day of the year, and Mikkeller American Dream, a well-hopped pilsner made by a Danish craft brewer who works with host breweries in Europe and the United States.
“The beer really fits the food I am doing,” said Sundell, citing his potato dumplings, meatballs and herring platter as being particularly good with brew.
To explain aquavit, a spirit beloved in the Nordic lands but little known in the U.S., Sundell uses flavored vodka as an analogy. It is traditionally distilled from grain or potatoes and tinged with herbs, spices or citrus peel. He stocks Norwegian and Danish aquavits, as well as Krogstad, a brand from Oregon flavored with caraway and star anise. He is also infusing his own house aquavits in flavors like fennel-juniper and horseradish-dill.
Specialty cocktails sport references to Scandinavian popular culture. For example, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, made with Danish gin, elderflower liqueur, egg white and bitters, is a nod to the bestselling Swedish novel. Mamma Mia, named for the hit song by the Swedish pop group Abba, combines gin with elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, and soda.
The drink called Midsommar, made with light rum, Pernod, lime juice and dill-flavored simple syrup, relates to the summer solstice celebration, a major Nordic holiday.
The names of signature drinks like The Plajer, with bourbon, dried apricot cinnamon gastrique and strawberry, and Plaj Thyme, with gin, blueberries, thyme and lavender, are simply word play in the spirit of Plaj.
“I never wanted a stuffy restaurant,” said Sundell. “I wanted a fun restaurant where people can have a really good experience but be very casual.”