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PlumpJack Café

What a Difference a (New) Chef Makes

While cozy, elegant PlumpJack Café has always had a solid reputation as a destination for dependably adult California cuisine, it's been rare within the last decade to hear tell of anything extraordinary going on within this Cow Hollow outpost of the Plumpjack hospitality empire. However, the food has risen to new heights under the guidance of chef James Syhabout, a Bay Area local who has worked in such esteemed establishments as the notoriously hypercreative El Bulli, The Fat Duck, Manresa and most recently Daniel Patterson's Coi.

Though Syhabout is still a young chef, his self-confidence is evident in the restraint he uses. Preparations are deceptively simple, wonderfully executed and at the same time innovative. The amuse bouche, a blackberry sorbet surrounded by a creamy bay leaf soup with a hint of olive oil and a sprinkling of crunchy salt, encapsulated many of the strengths experienced throughout the menu. The sorbet was finely textured and intensely flavored, the creamy herbal soup was new and exciting, the plating vibrant, and the salt and olive oil showed the chef's finesse with Spanish traditions.

The menu is full of so many temptations you may have a hard time deciding what to order. We recommend styling your own tasting menu, or in our case a chef's menu, by simply choosing the number of courses to indulge in. We began with the Tartare of Japanese Hamachi with White Shoyu with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Red Shiso & Cucumber Foam ($13). We found the yellowtail as good as you'd find in any top-notch sushi bar, and the cucumber foam, rather than being a superfluous melting mess, was a brightly flavored counterpoint. Drops of olive oil managed to extend the creamy flavor of the fish and a bit of micro shiso added just a touch of textural contrast.

The Crisp Veal Sweetbreads ($14) with curry served with a minted chunky puree of romanesco and a dab of Meyer lemon curd was expertly prepared, and offered a delicate and fragrant combination of herbs, spices and vegetables. But the Roast of Black Cod with Salsify & Clams, in Piment d'Espelette, Braised Romaine Lettuce and Fennel Frond Broth ($26) was a unique dish to savor. The earthy sweetness of the salsify, the briny clams, and freshness of the romaine was the perfect foil for the delicate cod. The fennel frond broth was so delicious it made us wish for spoons to enjoy every last drop.

We can't remember having a better-prepared dish of squab than the Squab Roasted on the Bone ($29), which was roasted to medium rare and served with crackling crisp skin. The cranberry red beet sauce and roasted sunchokes were like a riff on the cranberry sauce and roasted sweet potatoes of Thanksgiving, only so much better. We'd come back for this dish again and again.

Though the Meyer Lemon Souffle was wonderful, the Pistachio and Olive Oil Ganache with Liquid Center and Apple Sorbet ($8) blew us away. This warm, creamy and intense pistachio confection was a revelation.

Wine Director Gillian Ballance continues to provide strong yet affordable wines by the glass or the bottle to accompany the seasonal offerings. In particular the Marc Bredif 2002 Vouvray ($6) had just the right acidity to work with the starters and the "Vieilles Vignes" Raymond Bouland 2004 Morgon ($7), a light-bodied Beaujolais had an earthiness that worked equally well with the cod and the squab.

The value for quality here is tremendous, the servers polite and adept, and the food simply outstanding. This is the perfect quiet spot for a romantic evening, an intimate celebration or when you're looking for someplace special to catch up with friends or family. Really, it seems a shame to call PlumpJack a "café"; it is now a destination.

California, Mediterranean

Reservations Essential? Yes