When Pläj opened inside the Inn at the Opera in 2012, it brought with it authentic Scandinavian flavors wrapped within a modern Californian shell. The restaurant's name itself means play; accordingly chef/owner Robert Sundell has incorporated a pronounced playfulness into much of the menu here. But for a true sense of amusement you won't have to look much further than the restaurant's lengthy list of homemade aquavits, the finest in the city.
[jump] Although its been slow to gain traction in North America, aquavit is a staple of Scandinavian drinking culture. Not only is the herb-flavored spirit a centerpiece of celebration in that part of the world, it also pairs naturally with the cuisine there. The so-called “water of life” typically arrives in bottle at around 80 proof and carries with it the essence of dill and caraway. These spices resonate with the cold-smoked salmon, gravlox and herring populating the menu at Pläj.
But just as Chef Sundell infuses Californian sensibilities into traditional fare, so too does his bar program with the 600-year-old spirit. Pläj has a rotating collection of house made aquavits incorporating all manner of locally-inspired flavors. For example, a visit to the restaurant this winter would reveal several curious combinations, including Cardamom Fig — with an exotically spiced back to sustain the drink's subtle sweetness — and Pear Fennel — intensely aromatic, yet offering just a slight intimation of licorice. Whatever you pour, the components are melded with a mindfulness for the end result. It's never merely a haphazard blend of discordant parts. The $9 drinks work well as mealtime sippers, but can also form the foundation of many a cocktail, like the Copenhagen, which invites scotch into the fold.
If you're looking for a safe, beginner's approach to aquavit, Pläj offers all the classics. Linie is a smooth, 84 proof Norwegian spirit that mellows significantly from time spent in oak barrels. That aging was the serendipitous byproduct of a shipment of the spirit to Australia. The Ozzies didn't appreciate what arrived on their shores and returned it to the sender. Enraptured by what came back, the Norwegians began producing Linie — a spirit that passes the equator (“linje”) twice before bottling. A whiskey lover will find comfort in some of the tannic notes at work here.
Aquavit has a versatility that finds a perfect home at Pläj, a restaurant defined by its refusal to conform to rigid rules. No matter your standard liquor of choice, you're certain to find a flavor here that transforms those familiar elements into something decidedly more Scandinavian. There's perhaps no better way to experience a culture than through their food and drink. So if you're looking for a brief vacation this winter, pack your bags and head to Pläj. It sure beats airfare.