Wine Country

How the PlumpJack Cafe became a fixture

There are 99 bottles of wine on the wall at PlumpJack Cafe, and then some. Although the restaurant is quite snug by the standards of its gastronomic peers (such as Hawthorne Lane and Mecca), the interior design -- a seductive blend of mocha walls, glass, dark wood, and white linen ("Very L.A.!" pronounced the Mystery Writer, an ex-Angeleno, as we were seated) -- accommodates, at the rear of the dining room, a grand floor-to-ceiling cabinet filled with distinguished cuvees. A smaller case on a side wall holds yet more bottles.

Wine is big and serious business at PlumpJack. Even during lunch, most tables seem to have a bottle at hand. This isn't surprising; the restaurant's wine list is, if not encyclopedic, artful. (And heavily tilted toward California.) But it's the prices that really jump off the (single) page. Bottles of wine that would cost $40 to $50 in most restaurants are $25 at PlumpJack. The numbers on the list read like something from an "everything must go" liquidation, or a promotional rollback to 1980 prices.

The deals on wine don't stop at the restaurant's door. Just down the block is the PlumpJack wine shop, a handsome emporium where everything from Dom Perignon (1988 vintage) to J. Lohr chardonnay is available at highly competitive prices. Gavin Newsome and his PlumpJack partners are clearly knowledgeable wine enthusiasts, and in chef Maria Helm they have a master at putting together wine-friendly menus.

Newsome's ascendant political star (he was recently elevated to the Board of Supervisors by Mayor Brown) is unlikely to dim the restaurant's luster -- or make it any easier to get in. A restaurateur recently reminded me with a sigh that a typical restaurant's run in this city is nasty, brutish, and short: seven years on average, and maybe even less of late. PlumpJack opened almost five years ago, in 1992, and by the Hobbesian seven-year calculus it should now be late in middle age -- creaking and sputtering a bit, offering two-for-one coupons in packets of junk mail.

The reality, instead, is that dinner reservations must be made three weeks in advance, and lunch reservations are necessary. Even during a midweek noontime, PlumpJack fills up rapidly. It gives every sign of permanence.

The steady crowds might appreciate the value pricing of wine, but it's the food that propels the restaurant. Like the wine list, the menu is brief and Californian in its stylish eclecticism. A bowl of roasted butternut-squash soup ($4), for instance, perfectly suited a cool, sunny winter's day. The soup's flavor was rich and deep, its slight sweetness offset by the fanciful pipings of creme fraiche across its surface.

We also liked the Caesar salad ($6), although, as the MW pointed out, "Caesar salad is salad for people who don't like salad. They can feel virtuous about having eaten a salad even though the whole thing is covered in goo." Helm's version was amply covered in goo, and delicious goo at that -- creamy with garlic and Parmesan cheese, with some croutons thrown in for crunchy counterpoint.

Prawn risotto ($13) took 20 minutes to reach the table. For once I was happy to wait, because the long interval meant that the kitchen was making the dish straight through instead of hurriedly finishing a half-cooked batch.

The resulting rice was perfectly cooked -- each grain glisteningly distinct, and al dente -- but despite the presence of roasted fennel, leeks, and herbs, the risotto seemed underpowered and bland. It also could have used a sprig of parsley or some diced tomato or pepper for a bit of color. Dishes that look bland are more likely to seem bland on the tongue.

By contrast, the grilled escolar ($13) -- a beautifully cooked fillet of whitefish described by our server as being something like a cross between halibut and swordfish -- was lively with flavor. The outside of the fillet had been nicely seared and caramelized, and it was served in a Mediterranean nest of asparagus, olives, and roasted tomatoes with a smooth sherry vinaigrette.

Since we'd forsworn wine at lunch (work remaining to be done in the p.m.) we indulged in dessert -- a tasty but grainy butterscotch creme brulee ($6) for me, and the caramelized Meyer lemon tart ($6) for the Mystery Writer. The tart's custard filling was wonderfully creamy and pungent with the Meyer's orange-lemon tang, though he found the scoop of cranberry sorbet on the side "extraneous."

PlumpJack also manages humbler dishes with panache. On another visit, a friend and I contented ourselves with soup and sandwich (for him) and pasta (for me). The soup, roasted eggplant and white bean ($4), needed a tweak of salt but was otherwise agreeably reminiscent of pasta e fagioli, the classic Tuscan preparation. And the sandwich, grilled beef tenderloin ($11) -- on good fresh bread, with grilled red onions and aioli -- was the best sandwich either of us had ever tasted.

The day's pasta ($11) consisted of fusilli and a sauce of so many ingredients that simply listening to the server recite them from memory was confusing. Ingredients included, but were not limited to, caramelized onion, toasted garlic, pancetta, tomatoes, black olives, oregano, and white wine.

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