Roberth Sundell’s PLÄJ Restaurant (pronounced play) may well be single-handedly introducing San Francisco’s foodie set to the wonders of Scandinavian cuisine. Here, chef-owner Sundell tells us about his passion for his native Swedish cuisine, balancing his commitment to local producers with traditional ingredients, and how San Francisco may finally be ready to catch up to New York in its Scandinavian food obsession.
Why do you think it’s taken Scandinavian food so long to catch on in San Francisco (particularly as there’s been a major move in that direction in New York)? The Scandinavians have been dominating the Bocuse d’or for many years, even before Noma. I have always been surprised there are not more Scandinavian restaurants in the area. I think there is sometimes a lack of understanding of Scandinavian food — what it is, and how diverse it can be. When I was opening Plaj Restaurant, people thought it was risky. However, now that we are here, the community has embraced us and loves the unique cuisine that we offer. We are the only Scandinavian restaurant on the West Coast, but there are other restaurants in the Bay Area who are using some inspiration from the Nordic kitchen in their cooking. I hope there are more that open as I think it would make the community stronger; ideally, it would cause more and more people become interested in the cuisine.
Why do you think the Bay Area is a particularly good place to showcase this cuisine? This is a community that loves food! They are open-minded and interested in trying new things. Furthermore, there is a very large Scandinavian community in the Bay Area that is longing for the taste of home.
Your menu celebrates seasonal, sustainable seafood. How is this reflected both in the more traditional aspects of your menu, and your presence in San Francisco? What seafood supplier(s) do you use? For the most part, I use local ingredients. I shop at the local farm near my home in Petaluma (Green String Farm) at least two to three times a week for produce and specialty meats. There are certainly some challenges. For example, herring has been really hard to find, so we’ve imported that from Sweden a lot. We do use local fish from Water2Table in some dishes that we serve using a traditional technique and with Scandinavian flavors.
Is there a dish that diners have been particularly drawn to, confused by, or both? People are usually really drawn to trying the elk and herring dishes. The feedback that we get is great! They are surprised by the elk’s tenderness and how buttery the herring is. We also provide a broader culinary education that our guests love — sharing Scandinavian traditions through my personalized take on this lesser-known cuisine. We really try to make it a playful and fun experience. On the cocktail side of things, we offer a variety of options surrounding Aquavit, the essential spirit of Scandinavian drinking culture, which means “water of life” in Latin. One of our most popular cocktails, the Copenhagen, is made with Great King St. Scotch, cardamom fig Aquavit, lingonberry syrup and angostura bitters.
Do most diners have a preconceived notion of what Scandinavian food is? Do you find that often, they’re surprised? There is less of a “preconceived notion” than a general curiosity about the cuisine. Most are pleasantly surprised at how flavorful the dishes are.