If you want to eat Scandinavian food in the San Francisco Bay Area, you have two choices. You can pick up frozen meatballs and jars of herring at Ikea, or you can go to Plaj, which has been serving elevated Swedish essentials for seven years. Pronounced “play,” the restaurant is curiously located in the back of a small hotel, Inn at the Opera, in SF’s Civic Center area. This cozy, inviting (and noisy) space is regularly packed with locals and visitors alike looking to experience chef Roberth Sundell’s take on the cuisine of his homeland.
During December, Plaj offers Julbord every Sunday, a collection of traditional Swedish foods regularly served during holiday feasts. The meal starts with a small tipple of glogg, Swedish mulled wine, then moves on pickled herring, then to a selection of cured meats, fish, and pates. The main course is a huge plate of meats (in slice, rib, and ball form), with a side of cabbage and anchovy-studded potatoes. If you still have room, rice pudding is on tap for dessert.
Recently I was invited by the restaurant to enjoy the Julbord feast as well as walk through its unique, Scandinavian-inspired cocktail list. Seven cocktails are currently on tap, along with an extensive selection of aquavit and, of course, wine, beer, and cider.
The menu is organized roughly with refreshing, wine-based drinks up top and moving slowly toward more intense, spirit-forward affair. Wine & Flowers (Sauvignon Blanc, Ginger & Cucumber Shrub, Seltzer) and Midnight Sun (Sparkling Wine, Cloudberry & Elderflower Liqueur, Lemon Bitter) both drink as expected, clean and bright and working well to prepare you for a big meal ahead. The cucumber in the Wine & Flowers is quite forward, with stronger ginger notes developing in intensity over time. The Midnight Sun is a lovely play on the Spritz, heavy on the lemon.
The Yellow Submarine (Tequila, Sea buckthorn, Cocchi Americano, Lemon, Ginger Beer) was an instant hit and arguably my favorite cocktail of the tasting. The bright orange color looks like Fanta and it messes with the mind, daring you to think it has an orange flavor. But it doesn’t: Spicy with ginger and loaded with herbal notes, it bounces among sweet, savory, and spice notes with beautiful aplomb and balance. Really fun.
On the other end of the spectrum you’ll find the Swedish Gold (Farallon Gin, Mustard & Dill Shrub, Lemon, Honey, Black Pepper). Yes, mustard, and the milky yellow color of the cocktail is a bit off-putting at first. The first sip of the drink is a mind scrambler. What to make of this mustardy, dill-heavy concoction that feels a bit like a sauce that didn’t make it on the plate? Well, keep sipping and enjoy it with the plate of cold cuts and it quickly finds its groove, pairing beautifully with (actual) mustard and horseradish and developing into something like an aquavit that’s been filtered through Grey Poupon. I was surprised to find myself continuing to sip on the drink as a chaser to the heavier meats on the plate, and nearly finished the whole thing. (Naturally I try to consume only a small amount of each cocktail in tastings like this.)
Idun’s Apple (Apple infused Aquavit, Lillet, Glogg, Orgeat, Lemon, Gentian-Vanilla Bitters) is the newest cocktail on the list, and it’s a holiday in a glass, complete with cinnamon stick. Again, lemon is dominant here, but the cocktail otherwise comes across like an elevated apple cider. Twilight (Demerara Rum, Vodka, Spiced Molasses, Lemon, Orange) is another fun take on holiday spice, with a curious cardamom note and a slightly sour, Marasca cherry character on the finish. I found the large cube of ice made the drink a bit too watery over time, oddly.
Lastly my other favorite cocktail of the evening was the SEIC (Swedish East India Company) billed as Scotch, Sweet Vermouth, Coconut Liqueur, Ceylon Tea Liqueur, Bitters. It’s a complex spin on the Manhattan built around Bank Note Scotch, sweet up front and lightly smoky thanks to a blend of three types of tea used in the liqueur. A lingering savory element gives this cocktail an enormous depth that I wasn’t expecting, and again I found it tough to put down.
Julbord may be over for 2019, but Plaj’s regular menu is plenty of fun as well. And hey, if you don’t have room for another meatball in your belly, you can always slide into the small bar and sip on one of the above delights before heading back out into the real world anew.