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Not Just for Breakfast Anymore
With its hearty Pacific Northwest-inspired fare, the renowned Plums Café conquers dinner, the final frontier
I’m literally a latecomer to Plums Café. Friend after foodie friend would implore, “Try breakfast there! You’ll love it!” Problem is, on weekend mornings, you can’t pry me out of bed with a crowbar. So when I heard that Plums was now doing dinner, I rejoiced.
Though they’ve only been serving dinner since last November, Plums isn’t exactly a best-kept-secret ’round these parts. Proof of its legendary status is plastered on the hallway to the restroom. Adulation, accolades and awards come in frames and plaques. All correctly proclaim that this closely held, independently owned neighborhood spot does everything that a restaurant should do—and does it right. It must also be said that we, too, honored them back in 1997 for our Best Of issue.
369 E. 17th St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Region: Costa Mesa
Judging by the meal and the service I had there the other night, they are still deserving of those lauds, but now for dinner, too. The food’s distinct style is Pacific Northwest: grub devised to fortify the body in the damp weather and brisk air of Seattle and Portland. You get hints of it immediately. The soup of the night was a smoked-salmon chowder, as velvety as the usual clam, but with even more soul and flaky chunks of fish. Every crumbling cube of potato I spooned out of the bowl had an unprocessed, culled-from-the-heart, home-cooked quality. This soup was made out of love, not profit.
The popovers are airy poofs of pastry, looking like mutant mushrooms, as light as helium balloons and hollow inside. When you tear into their soft crackle, you discover the whole thing is crust, both supple and buttery. Human nature will make you want to fill it up with stuff, like gobs of the grilled-eggplant-and-roasted-garlic dip. But both appetizers do just fine by themselves.
The latter is a hot, gooey, cheesy, nuanced and not-too-rich paste of all that is good and comforting. It’s served with Plums Grill Bread—bite-sized slices of toasted ciabatta designed for scooping. The problem, unfortunately, is that they give you too much dip for the allotted serving of bread. Plums servers know this in advance. As soon as we plucked out the last crusty plank, they swooped in with a basket of warmed, sliced baguettes. Did the dip really need it? Not really; once we depleted the baguettes, we used our spoons.
Judging from the main entrées, owner Kim Jorgenson and chef Marteen Esquival envisioned that Paul Bunyan and his crew would be their dinner clients. A half-chicken is air-chilled, then roasted on the bone with herbs. On the plate, the meaty bird reclines atop a mountain of smashed potatoes that is drizzled with pan juice and garnished with flavor-bursts of whole, roasted garlic cloves.
Their veggie plate will satisfy the hungriest vegetarian lumberjacks—if there is such a thing. The produce tower starts with a portobello base, then continues skyward in a teetering, vertical stack of cheese, roasted peppers, carrots and other rabbit food, capped with another portobello. It’s richly satisfying and bold, thanks to a generous zigzag of a syrupy balsamic glaze and saffron aioli.
And for the Atkins-conscious, they do a fine plate of pan-fried sand dabs, served with barely wilted spinach they call “flash spinach” and smothered in a beurre blanc that actually tastes like something other than just melted butter.
But the dish I implore you to try is the lamburger, which I contend is one of the finest burgers in OC. Cooked to a rosy shade and speckled with oregano, the patty is slightly gamy but thrilling because of it. The bun is buttered and toasted. The tomatoes are ripe, the red lettuce leafy, and the onions grilled to a melting, sugary sweetness. A sandwich both epic and refined, it’s served with either a beehive bundle of the thinnest shoestring fries you’ll ever encounter or couscous.
So go already! Order the lamburger. Heck, order anything: Plums is serving dinner. And, yeah, all right, I’ll try to get up earlier to try their breakfast. Who wants to drive the forklift?
Plums Café at 369 E. 17th St., Ste. B, Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7586; www.plumscafe.com. Open for breakfast Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-11:30 a.m.; lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner daily, 5-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. Full bar.