A compelling defense

by Ben on December 14, 2010 · 40 comments

in Index, Rant, Restaurant Review

It periodically surfaces that I am not a fan of brunch. You could say that I hate it. When possible, I try not to reveal this stance in sensitive situations or crowded theaters. The ensuing maelstrom and chorus of gasps may lead one to believe I have just uttered a preference for eating small children. But it’s true. In the restaurant-obsessed cities of San Francisco and New York, there is no greater repository of culinary mediocrity than the Sunday brunch.

And we are all complicit. Show me an American who pursues cutting-edge, ethnic food carts with the tenacity of a storm-chaser, and I’ll show you someone whose brunch palate does not extend beyond the parameters of an International House of Pancakes. Call me what you want. A snob. A killjoy. A Hater of America. I guarantee you, I’ve heard worse. But I have yet to encounter a compelling defense of brunch. Until now.

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“Midwest country boy meets San Francisco China girl” is the image that closes an unassuming self-description of Potrero Hill’s newest sensation, Plow, which opened its doors in late September. Longtime residents of the Potrero, husband-and-wife team Joel Bleskacek and Maxine Siu sought to fill a conspicuous void in their neighborhood’s options of sit-down restaurants that serve breakfast. In their thoughtful preparation and handling of simple American food, Plow quietly redefines what it means to eat brunch.

Brunch is a dumping ground for old, nasty odds and ends.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s famous rant against brunch begins with the contention that the meal essentially comprises rebranded scraps. Nothing embodies this claim more deeply than the standard breakfast home fry, known to the rest of us as “leftover baked potatoes.” I’ve eaten countless versions of this depressing dish, many of them accompanied by assertions that the restaurant serving them is famous as a result. French fries, please, when I am on the East Coast. Hash browns everywhere else.

At Plow, potatoes are boiled until tender, smashed, then deep-fried to order. Lightly touched with rosemary and thyme and tossed with strands of caramelized onion, the restaurant’s signature crispy potatoes are the perfect french fry in potato form, and arguably reason alone to sit down for a meal.

Weekend brunch varies little from the daily menu, save for a dedicated bakery basket containing a muffin, scone, and biscuit, all made in house. Plow otherwise serves breakfast and lunch only, meaning that no week-old dinner ingredients will suddenly appear in novelty omelettes. Instead, one can expect an evolving menu of mostly classic dishes made with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.

Brunch is punishment block for the ‘B’-team cooks.

Another volley from Bourdain’s diatribe is rendered silent here. Bleskacek and Siu declare their aspirations for Plow to be an extension of their own home. Indeed, the restaurant caps Potrero Hill’s sleepy commercial drag, one foot seemingly planted in the residential thick of the neighborhood. To further blur the conceptual distinction between work and home, Chef Siu herself is stationed across the bar, calmly preparing meals for a clientele that includes neighbors, friends and family.

Windows occupy the upper three-quarters of the north-facing facade, permitting the dining room to be filled with consistent, pleasantly indirect light. 13-foot ceilings oversee an understated interior, anchored by diagonal stripes of salvaged wood and accented with American, early twentieth-century detail. As is the food, the materials, design and labor used to build out this space are exclusively local.

Brunch at Plow manages to maintain an air of civility. The open vertical space and galley-style arrangement of tables allow seating that never feels crowded, despite the restaurant operating at essentially full capacity from about 9:30 a.m. on. The owners’ children can sometimes be seen ambling about during the quiet early hours, with knowledge that they will be reunited with their parents not long after the 2 p.m. close. If the brunch shift here is a punishment for industry veterans Bleskacek and Siu, it seems, from their warm smiles, to be a welcome one.

Brunch menus don’t vary.

This last general criticism of brunch is most often my own. The menu choices here, to be sure, are not revolutionary. But Siu brings considerable experience (Oliveto, 42 degrees) and sophistication to her kitchen, and it shows in these humble, yet consciously precise dishes. French toast, the best I’ve had in recent memory, equally partners its egg with a porous, rustic bread that maintains structure and flavor. It’s a simple quirk and subtle departure from the more custard-like interior we’ve come to expect from this dish. Lemon ricotta pancakes are characteristically fluffy and light, with a mere suggestion of citrus perfume.

Savory eaters also benefit from decisions that pull the menu slightly astray from familiar. An exceptional sweet potato duck hash topped with perfectly cooked eggs, a special on my first visit, has graduated to the regular menu on an enthusiastic customer’s suggestion. The bread pudding is also a local favorite, replete with chanterelles, yellow candy onions, treviso radicchio, and cheddar. Most menus have included at least one eyebrow-raising selection: hard potato dumplings fried in bacon fat, crispy pig’s ears with lime and green onion vinaigrette, a roasted lamb sandwich with salsa verde. Sadly, an elegant breakfast of steamed rice, Chinese sausages and eggs did not survive the menu, but Siu has hinted that future cameo appearances are a possibility.

* * * * *

Plow delivers the quintessential American meal with food that is simple, local, and consistently well executed. I will certainly take a lot of grief for softening my stance on brunch. But with food this smart, I find it hard to imagine caring.

Plow
1299 18th Street, San Francisco; (415) 821-7569; eatatplow.com
Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

* * * * *

A warm thank you to my fellow bloggers who encouraged me to write this post.

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40 comments… read them below or add one

Mariko December 14, 2010 at 1:26 am

Glad you did, because now i have even more reason to swim (or jetski) to SF. I immediately thought of Bourdain when I read the beginning of the post. I think he’d soften with your review. Personally I just like breakfast for dinner. Or dessert. #muffcakes
So whatcha gonna write for #10?

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 10:33 am

How about an epic, 2 hour long, “My Dinner with Andre”-style dialogue with Ruth Bourdain?
Looking forward to reading about your famous muffcakes!

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Mariko December 14, 2010 at 5:42 pm

If YOU write it, I’ll love it. My dinner with andre is good with the right friends, I suspect the same for your future movie. What would you call it?

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Muffcake! (a musical)

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Jackie December 14, 2010 at 2:59 am

Fantastic write-up Ben! So glad you wrote this. You write so beautifully – really compelling stuff. Also, since I’ll be in SF soon (haw-haw) this is somewhere I’m going to put on my list to visit!

Jax x

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 10:34 am

Thanks, Jax. This will be a perfect way to kick off your Bay Area Gluttony.

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Lawyer Loves Lunch December 14, 2010 at 7:27 am

I love brunch but then again, I also enjoy cupcakes so that’s not saying much. Rumor has it we’re moving to the city soon and this Plow just earned a spot on my “Yay, we live in the city” eat out list.

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 10:36 am

Brunch daaaate! It appears that I’m tackling my demons one-by-one. Cupcakes are coming up soon…

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Jean December 14, 2010 at 8:27 am

What a fun (and enlightening) read Bourdain’s book was. I still shy away from ordering the evening’s specials because of him. I must admit that I ate quite a lot of brunches in my twenties–it’s what my friends and I did–so I know what you mean about mediocrity. Glad you found a restaurant that earned your shift in attitude. Wonderful menu and outstanding review. 🙂

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 10:41 am

Thank you, Jean. For a hater, I still find myself eating an awful lot of brunches. I just pray for Spam.

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veggietestkitchen December 14, 2010 at 10:11 am

Glad you wrote it. I love reading about husband-wife restaurant teams. It feeds the dream.

Brunch is my favorite meal at home precisely for the reason you mentioned, which is that I get to eat dinner’s leftovers. What’s not to love about that? I don’t think I’ve ever gone out to brunch, but that’s because I’m a lacto-vegetarian, so the options are scant.
Cheers.

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 10:44 am

I do make it at home, even though I am clearly a ‘B’ Team cook. But I’ll take my kimchi fried rice w/sous vide eggs anyday.

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Foodie in Berlin December 14, 2010 at 10:17 am

This place looks great. We can’t even get “bad” brunch here!

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 10:44 am

That does sound like a dream. 🙂

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Sara @CaffeIna December 14, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Ben, I should invite you over for one of our home-brunches. We are big brunch fan instead and lately we have decided to stop going out for brunch and instead have it at the house of one of us (we are three couples). At every brunch everybody contributes with something and we chance the menu. No, it’s true, we don’t prepare any fancy food, but it’s not IHP pancakes either. It’s freshly squeezed juice, home-made bread for the french toast, yeasted waffles and the potatoes…are not leftovers 🙂 Or…you can just invite me to Plow next time 🙂

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Either way, let’s do it. I am tired of salivating over your blog. I need actual satisfaction.

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MetroDad December 14, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Great post. Funny enough, I always hated the brunch at Bourdain’s restaurant. Classic leftover crap. I sometimes run into Bourdain eating brunch around the city when he’s in town. Guess where? Dim sum, of course!

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Last time I was at Les Halles, the couple next to us ordered the mussels. I really had to check myself. Yeah, I saw he unlocked the secret menu at Hop Kee. Dim sum I can definitely do. Just wish there were more Asian options, generally. Thanks for stopping by, Pierre.

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Amy K. December 14, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Excellent post. I was hoping that you’d post a review…I knew I would enjoy it.

I really appreciate your description of the physical space of the restaurant as well as capturing the home-y and laid-back attitude of the restaurant. Loved the comment about the kids!

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Thanks, Amy. I was a little nervous about describing the space, but if you like it, then I guess I did OK. 🙂

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David Barzelay December 14, 2010 at 8:29 pm

We are planning on doing brunch from the start at Anagram. But wait until you see the food.

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Ben December 14, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Great name. And I can’t wait.

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sweetbittertart December 15, 2010 at 2:01 pm

What a wonderful post. I need those smashed fried potatoes right now please. Some duck hash too. You did a great job capturing the essensce of the space and the experience through your writing. It looks like such a wonderful place. The lighting in the photographs oozes morning. : )

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Ben December 15, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Here is an adaptation of the recipe:
http://tastingtable.com/recipe/ttsf_plow_potatoes.pdf
Calls for roasting, but I think I would still deep-fry them, as they do at the restaurant.

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Daisy December 15, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Awesome.

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sippitysup December 15, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Brunch is a type of comfort food for many. That is why the menu rarely varies! GREG

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Ben December 15, 2010 at 5:11 pm

I am comforted by spicy soups, fried noodles and Spam. Vary it, please!

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angi December 15, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I can’t lie. I do love brunch even though the menu indeed is the same everywhere. What can I say, I’m a sucker for anything eggy and bacony. But hey, I will also chow down on dimsum, chilaquiles, etc – I’m an equal opportunity brunch eater! Your review describes Plow perfectly – I hope the owners get a chance to read this. 🙂

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Ben December 15, 2010 at 11:43 pm

“Equal opportunity,” huh? Hey, whatever you need to sleep at night. #bloodonyourhands

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Stephanie December 17, 2010 at 11:34 am

We will have to visit so we can go there!

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Ida December 17, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I’ll be up in the city this weekend, and can’t wait to go here! It looks amazing.

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Amelia from Z Tasty Life December 20, 2010 at 6:01 am

Ben: could not agree with you more: “Just wish there were more Asian options, generally”! I too love heading for dim-sum, when possible for brunch. BUT I must say, there is something about the time and the slowness of the American brunch that does not exist here at other times of the days. When I first came from Italy to live in the US I was fascinated by this “meal”. Had the Americans finally unlocked the secret to what a good meal means? That is, sharing and sitting around a table convivially (and not eating out of a car or being rushed by a waiter waiting to bust their table for the next comers)? It was THE one meal that could be shared leisurely. Independently of what the fare was. Yes. I do like brunch…not so much for the food in itself, but because of its slower pace… Excellent, well-written review…I like the pace of it too 😉

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Serene December 24, 2010 at 1:42 pm

What a wonderful review. I might even brave the trip to the other side of the Bay to check that one out. Especially since I *love* brunch, but love new and surprising presentations of familiar food even more.

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SB December 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I haven’t ordered anything hollandaise ever since Kitchen Confidential. Cigarette butts…shudder.

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elizabeth January 4, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Confession time: during the #PFB2010 tweetup to announce the winner, I saw all the love your blog was getting as a “great find” and came here, ready to read and be amazed. Thinking I’d be able to catch up on a train ride either to or from work, I left the tab open and subsequently got so caught up in holiday BS that I ended up not reading here. Which was my loss at the time, I assure you.

I’m so glad in the end, because this is the first post I’ve been able to read of yours, and you (and my husband, for that matter) and I are kindred spirits in a way in that when we write about brunch, our reflex is to quote Anthony Bourdain. An interesting, delicious and well-priced (note–I did not say cheap) brunch is the diamond in the rough, and it’s nice to know that they do exist out there. Maybe I need to do more research here in NYC!

I love that first photo so much.

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Ben January 4, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Restaurant review was a bit of a experiment for me, and quite challenging for me to write.

My intense hatred of the brunch genre was definitely born in Manhattan, where I lived from 1989 – 2002. Though I technically did not have the brunch there, based on their lunch, I suspect that The Little Owl (W Village) would do a good job.

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Steph @Lick My Spoon January 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm

hahah love it. i’m a brunch devotee myself, i just love sweet and savory too much (read: bacon dipped in maple syrup). i’ve been in this debate many a time with a friend of mine who argues that any meal taken in the daylight on a weekend is called “brunch.” and yes, he snarls out that last word with contempt. glad you’re on your way to the bright side 🙂

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Spicy Green Mango May 8, 2011 at 1:46 am

Ben, thanks for the shout-out. I’ve been M.I.A. for some time, but I still love wandering over to your blog and seeing your lovely photography. I cannot wait to try Plow that you mention it. And I still have yet to read Anthony’s reknowned book on the secrets behind the restaurant. 🙂

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Kasey August 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm

I hate brunch for 1 simple reason: why the hell wait til 11 am to eat your first meal of the day?? I hate when I get invited to brunch and insist on eating out for only the following: breakfast (proper. 1st thing in the a.m.), lunch (also, proper. I’m ready to eat at noon). Dinner- this one I’m open to (anytime between 5-10 pm).

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Ben August 5, 2011 at 2:57 pm

I need a full meal just to get through the line.

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