[one_half][I]t 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.
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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.
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.
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A warm thank you to my fellow bloggers who encouraged me to write this post.
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