Walking through the tall glass doors of Plin, I immediately feel out of place. I’m the only man in a roomful of better-dressed and older (but not old) women, all of whom likely know more (read: anything whatsoever) about food than I do.
They have attended dozens of these receptions. This is my first.
The event is a media preview for Plin, the new Italian seafood restaurant at 280 Valencia Street by chef Alexander Alioto, of the Alioto family. He opened Seven Hills in 2011 and worked at his family’s Alioto’s before that. A quick search reveals his bona fides: Seven Hills was ranked the top Italian restaurant of the Bay by Zagat in 2013, and foodies adore Alioto’s raviolo al uovo—a large pasta pocket of spinach, ricotta and egg yolk—which (thank god) appears on Plin’s menu.
That menu is one unlike others. Plin doesn’t focus on standard entrees, instead serving small, morsel-like portions meant to be shared and paired with different wines.
“The idea is to have three to four dishes and maybe three to four glasses of wine to share,” Chef Alioto tells me. “We want people playing with the food, playing with the wine. We want you to keep going and keep eating.”
The dishes, he said, will go from $6 for the cheapest pasta to $14 for the most expensive meat (lamb). Each portion weighs in at 1.5-2.5 ounces.
At the opening, the bites are cocktail-sized, appropriate to the general atmosphere. Some two dozen journalists engage in chitchat with each other as the various Aliotos make their way from group to group. The wine brings laughter and merriment; the black-clad waiters bring delectables on silvery trays.
I wolf down some raw tuna and figs on a little crunchy toast thing (a crostini, I learn later). Then I take another. They’re good, though I have no idea what “good” really means in this food-savvy crowd.
I do know, however, that it’s not the chicken liver mousse lollipops that come next. These balls of ultra-soft meat do not lure me back to the serving tray, nor do they have my companions grasping for seconds.
Some satisfying ravioli bites follow, though I don’t know whether it’s Alioto’s famed al uovo and can’t taste the egg that would give it away. My palette is untrained. Moreover, it has already been playing with four glasses of red wine.
And why not? My glass is constantly filled by waiters carrying trays of C.F. Pinot Noir and a nice prosecco. They must be under orders to liquor us up, because I can’t recall seeing a full tray out of arm’s reach. For those who prefer cocktails, the restaurant has a fully-stocked bar, rare for an Italian place. The preference for vino makes itself felt behind the counter too, however: The top shelf is lined with bottles from father Nunzio Alioto’s personal cellar.
“He’s a master sommelier, and has worked with us to create the wine pairings for our menu,” the restaurant’s manager Stephen Gentile tells me. “Those are from his cellar, and are very good.” Nunzio is actually in the room, informing those who will listen about the establishment’s fine reds and whites.
But fancy wines are not the focus, though there are reserves ranging from $400 to $5000 a bottle. Plin actually has one of the more affordable wine menus, my foodie compatriots assure me: The average is $30 for a quality (so I’m told) bottle.
As to the decor, Alioto’s mother Joanna “did all the tinkering,” choosing what would best compliment the design (completely gutted of the previously ubiquitous steel bars) done by architect Jim Maxwell.
Everything is sea-themed, and it’s obvious but not painfully so: Shimmery tiles on one wall are meant to evoke fish scales, three blue paintings with simple brush strokes portray waves, and figures of nautical creatures here and there remind you that this is, after all, a seafood place.
But the most impressive fixture is a light sculpture by Belgian artist Jan Pauwels, who I am constantly reminded has no other works in the United States. It is made up of tiny metal rods with little lights at their ends, all in an undulating pattern meant to evoke a fish’s body.
After being served pieces of soft bread pillows (of which I take two or three, despite seeming greedy), the head waiter comes around and asks us if we’ve had a good evening, staying to make small talk for a while. When she leaves, those nearby tell me that’s our cue to follow.
“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” they say, as we finish our wine and grab our jackets. We smilingly walk past the black-clad waiters and out into the San Francisco night, cool at 9 o’clock and steadily filling with groups going to various bars and restaurants in the neighborhood.
The Valencia location may serve Plin well indeed. Meanwhile there’s more competition on Valencia Street with Urchin Bistor opening up on Monday night at the old Slanted Door/Ho Wing General Store location.
Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that Jim Maxwell designed Plin’s light fixture. Jan Pauwels is the actual artist, while Jim Maxwell is the architect responsible for the interior design.