Plaj cocktails with beet-cured gravlax and herring Credit-Deborah Grossman

What do you get when you match outstanding Swedish Chef Roberth Sundell with a talented Swedish bartender in San Francisco? An opportunity to play at pairing delicious cocktails with flavorful Nordic food. The Swedish pronunciation of “play” is “plaj,” thus the name of restaurant Plaj in San Francisco’s theater district. Along with the hospitality and warm interior design touches by Chef Sundell’s wife Andrea, Plaj has gained a wide audience for its food and beverage.

Chef Roberth Sundell pairings with elk, by Deborah Grossman.

Cocktails with a hint of Nordic ingredients and a wide-ranging, well curated wine list have attracted diners to Plaj . As for me, I know that herring is a staple of Scandinavian food and I am not a fan. During my first visit, I was skittish about trying any of the several herring items on the menu. But once I took a bite of the sour cream dill herring with the Swedish Gold cocktail, I was hooked on both items.

I sampled more cocktails and food at Plaj from “smorbrod,” the amazing basket of house baked bread with caramelized butter, to the Swedish meatballs, elk, salads and a full vegan menu.   

Sundell’s philosophy on beverages reflects his style of planning the food menu. “As a chef, you have to move forward with a revolving wine list and seasonal cocktails.” Midsummer is a special time in Sweden. The sun shines the longest in the year, and certain summertime foods are used to traditionally mark it.

Partnering with his Swedish bartender Simon Vilhelmson, Sundell serves up playfully named drinks such as the “In the Sun” for the midsummer menu. Known as his “Swedish Margarita,” Vilhelmson stirs up aquavit, the signature Scandinavian caraway-infused spirit, jalapeño and Himalayan sea salt. “In the Sun” is well-balanced—not too sweet and not too spicy with lime adding a refreshing kick. I paired the cocktail with gravlax accented with mustard-dill sauce, and the savory cheese pie made with Swedish Wrångebäck cheese.

“In the Sun” cocktail (left) and the Swedish Gold, by Deborah Grossman.

Another cocktail ideal for summer is the “Garden of Sweden” prepared with London dry gin, sorrel, a bitter green, Génépy des Alpes, an herbal Alpine spirit, lemon and Absinthe. Slightly acidic, the cocktail pairs well with herring.

As Sundell says, “Herring, we always start here with a meal.” After tasting four different herring preparations from Sundell, my favorite to pair with the “Garden of Sweden” was the “salad” herring accompanied by curry apple, tomato and fennel. The Garden of Sweden” was a winner in other ways too. My companion, who doesn’t usually like cocktails became a fan of this healthy-looking green variety from Plaj.

“Garden of Eden” cocktail generating smiles at Plaj, San Francisco, by Deborah Grossman.

The Swedish Gold is a staple on the menu designed by Vilhelmson. The bartender uses a local gin brand, Farallon, with a Dijon mustard and dill shrub. This smooth and savory cocktail paired well with many foods: the Swedish meatballs, made with pork and beef, and served with a veal stock gravy; Swedish favorite lingonberry jam; and,pickled cucumber.

I also liked the “Garden of Eden” with one of Sundell’s specialties: Swedish classic toast, Skagen comprising brioche, shrimp, horseradish, caviar, lemon and dill.

Swedish Gold cocktail topped with fresh dill, by Deborah Grossman.

A special note on Plaj’s aquavit collection: the signature liqueur of Scandinavian countries, aquavit, is basically vodka made from potatoes or grain, flavored with caraway and other ingredients, served ice cold.

Gary Darst, beverage manager at Plaj, characterizes aquavit this way: “As a regional spirit, gin is to London as Aquavit is to Scandinavia.” Darst noted that each country has a different flavor profile with caraway for their aquavit. O.P. Anderson is Sweden’s best-selling aquavit. Aged six months in oak, the flavor profile includes fennel in addition to caraway.

My favorite aquavit from Plaj’s collection is Brennivin. The mouth feel is smoother and the caraway, less intense than the others. Due to its black label and liberal imbibing by Icelanders, Bennivin from Iceland is known informally as the “Black Death.”

The “Simon Says” cocktail from Vilhelmson is prepared with Aquavit, maraschino cherry, egg white, raspberry and a favorite Scandinavian flavor, licorice. The balance of the drink with the sweet notes and smoothing element of egg white endeared me to the drink.

Plaj selection of aquavit, by Deborah Grossman.

There’s no doubt I will return to Plaj for the food. The wine list is lovely, but trust that I will be cocktailing throughout my next meal. Keep an eye out for the changes to the seasonal cocktail menu.

As a side note, I recently dined at the more casual restaurant from the Sundells in Petaluma, Stockhome, a play on Sundell’s hometown of Stockholm. The bright and sunny bistro has small plates many of which are seen in Plaj, such as Swedish meatballs. Other Swedish comfort food specials such as hot dogs with fried onions and mashed potatoes on lavash bread sounded unusual but delivered a savory punch. The menu also features excellent tapas with a Middle Eastern flare including kebabs, grilled halloumi cheese with chermoula and falafel.

Alas, Stockhome serves only wine and beer. But I thoroughly enjoyed the house-made sodas, especially the cucumber mint. If I had been on my way home, I would have ordered the drink for take-out and later added vodka or aquavit from my shelf.

Stockhome Grilled halloumi cheese with chermoula and house soda, by Deborah Grossman.