On the menu at Plum Pan-Asian: Jewel in the Box sushi plate, front, and sambal shrimp.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Getting a restaurant off the ground is never easy but Plum Pan-Asian Kitchen, in the Eastside development in East Liberty, has had a particularly tumultuous birth.
Plum, which celebrated its grand opening on Aug. 17, was created to fill the space left empty when Richard Chen abruptly closed his high-end restaurant that had opened less than a year earlier to great fanfare.
Drinks: Interesting, seasonally shifting cocktails ($8-$8.50) include a nice mix of base liquors and creative, well-balanced flavors. A succinct international wine list is organized by varietal; listings include vintage. Although there are only a dozen bottles of red and a dozen white, with a few more sparkling and sweet wines, selections change frequently. Six whites and six reds are available by the glass ($7-$10). Almost half the bottles are $40 or less, and the mark-up ranges widely from less than 150 percent to at least 300 percent. A short beer list includes a seasonal beer selection, $4-$5; five sakes, including one sparkling, most offered by the glass and carafe.
And before dawn on Oct. 11, someone drove a van through the front wall of the restaurant, causing major damage to the entryway and a private dining room. Unable to repair the extensive damage immediately, the owners created a false wall inside the restaurant and put up signs directing guests to enter through a side door.
The entrance creates a faint sense of dislocation, which echoes some general confusion about the restaurant. The architect-designed dining room, with its elegant contrast of iron twigs, white leather and giant colored lanterns, sets the stage for fine dining.
But new executive chef Yan Tan's lengthy menu of appetizers, curries, stir fries and noodles that picks and chooses inspiration from six countries in Asia sends a more casual message. Prices are lower, portions are larger and dishes are generally more rustic.
Some of them are also quite good. Roti canai ($5) got one meal off to a delicious start. Roti are made by kneading and folding wheat dough into thin layers. At Plum they were like thicker, fluffier crepes that could be pulled apart in sheets. The bread was perfect for soaking up the sweet, coconut-milk-based curry.
Tealeaf salad ($7) is essentially a green salad garnished with crunchy pine nuts, lentils, sesame seeds, walnuts and dried cranberries.
Seafood tom yum goong soup ($8, serves two) was a fairly typical lemongrass-flavored, sour Thai soup, distinguished by a plentiful portion of shrimp and scallops. The seafood was so plentiful in fact (somehow, divided among four people, there was at least one scallop and one shrimp for every bowl) that this reviewer became suspicious that her cover had been blown. Other incidents that took place later in the meal left no doubt.
Despite this, service wasn't perfect. Dishes were brought to the table without serving utensils, water wasn't always promptly refilled, and there were some lengthy pauses between courses. Consequently when some dishes arrived much cooler than they should have been, no one wanted to delay the meal any further by sending them back.
The quality of meat and seafood was consistently high, and sauces tasted as if they had been freshly made. General Tso's chicken ($14) was a standout version of a take-out classic. Although the skin could have been a touch crispier, the meat was moist and flavorful, the sauce sweet without becoming cloying. The sambal sambal with scallops ($18) was another crowd pleaser, its fiery heat a good foil for the sweeter dishes. The sambal (a traditional Indonesian sauce or condiment always made from chiles and salt) was hot but not overwhelming, balanced by lots of white and green onions and a hint of briny shrimp paste, which pumped up the flavor of the scallops themselves.
A few of the most interesting dishes weren't cooked as well as they might have been. Crispy Vietnamese-style jumbo shrimp were impressively large, but the batter was thick and starchy; the shrimp, dry and flavorless.
Beef Rendang had a wonderful sauce ($16), a properly thick Malaysian-style curry with the intense flavor of star anise and cinnamon; unfortunately, the chunks of beef were more stringy than tender. Next time I'd try it with the alternative dark meat chicken ($14).
A sushi bar and an experienced head sushi chef, Jimmy Watanabe, are other additions to Plum. The bar fits beautifully into the restaurant space, which gives the dining room a more cohesive shape. Expertly prepared and elaborately arranged, the sushi at Plum is a better fit for the setting than the pan-Asian menu.
Sushi appetizers were also more refined. Beef carpaccio is typically served quite cold, but for Asian-style beef carpaccio ($11) hot oil just barely cooks the exterior of the meat, giving it a velvet-like texture and rich flavor, further enhanced by the distinctive sourness of yuzu juice.
The addition of thin slices of cucumber help brighten up seaweed salad, that staple of all sushi bars ($5). It can be garnished with a choice of shrimp, snow crab or octopus ($3), and the latter was an excellent addition. The three or four thin slices were firm and fluffy, with a saline sweetness that paired well with the cool sweet flavors of the salad base.
Nigiri, the small blocks of rice and fish, were shaped well, the lovely slips of fish hugging the expertly packed rice. The menu consists mostly of the usual panoply of fish -- yellowtail, tuna, salmon, eel, etc. -- but there are a handful of more interesting options. Sweet shrimp (raw), often called ama ebi, were served in the traditional manner, accompanied by their fried heads wrapped up in a banana leaf. The warm, crunchy, slightly gooey heads contrasted beautifully with the cold, sweet, smooth tails.
An omakase selection of sashimi (market price, $35 on my visit) included pieces of red snapper that had literally just arrived from Japan -- sushi chef Watanabe asked if we minded waiting another few minutes for our platter so he could include it. He brushed the fish with a little plum paste to emphasize its sweetness. Fresh shiso leaves, curls of daikon radish and elegantly carved cucumber and lemon adorned the plate, which included yellowtail, Tasmanian ocean trout, the snapper, albacore tuna, medium fatty tuna, giant clam and horse mackeral. Fresh wasabi is available, and it's worth paying the surcharge ($1.50). It's less spicy than the artificial version with a pronounced licorice flavor.
One of the lovely qualities of a sushi meal is that it's a bit easier to save room for dessert. Pastry chef Bill Schwerin has stayed on at Plum, and constructed an impressive, sophisticated menu. There are a few old favorites from Richard Chen -- the light and refreshing tropical tapioca ($5) and the scrumptious chocolate-hazelnut candy bar ($8) -- but some of Schwerin's newest desserts are even more impressive. The harvest moon sundae is composed of an almost savory pumpkin ice cream, a thin sweet apple-ginger sauce, and dark, crisp chocolate gingersnap cookies. Eaten together, each bite is the diluted essence of fall.
In just that way, the different elements of Plum Pan-Asian Kitchen might seem jumbled, even discordant, but taken together they combine to form a restaurant that is sometimes impressive and always fun.