Trip to Plums WIll Leave You Wanting More

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was little fanfare in 1994 when Plums Cafe opened on a busy stretch of East 17th Street. It attracted a small band of Costa Mesa customers with its limited menu of sandwiches and salads.

In those early years, I often had Saturday lunch there with friends who lived in the neighborhood, thoroughly enjoying the seared ahi Nicoise salad and the delectable lamb burger. Secretly I hoped that this fine addition to a part of town pocked with fast-food joints and chain restaurants would someday expand its menu and become the quaint, good-quality bistro-type restaurant the area needed.

Apparently, owner Kim Jorgenson shared this feeling. After her initial success, she began to enlarge the menu with more ambitious breakfast items, ranging from alder wood-smoked salmon hash to the deep-dish skillet-baked pancake called a Dutch baby. In addition, she added some specialty entrees like pan-fried Idaho trout and medallions of tenderloin grilled with mushrooms.

Soon her little restaurant was packed with customers for breakfast and lunch, so she closed for a few months to remodel, enlarging the kitchen, removing some shelves of gourmet groceries, expanding the dining room and adding more tables to the patio. When Plums reopened, it had blossomed into a tasteful 100-seat restaurant that was that rarest of things in Orange County: a relaxed, high-quality eatery lacking pretension and high prices.

The new Plums has earned much critical praise for its diverse breakfast menu. What's impressed me most on returning there after the renovation are the improvements to the lunch menu. This is no longer only a sandwich and salad spot (although you won't go wrong with either); Jorgenson is now making more substantial dishes too.

One example is the grilled salmon and fennel slaw. As she does with so many of her ingredients, Jorgenson has Chinook salmon flown in fresh from the Pacific Northwest. Chinook salmon is slightly fattier and more lightly smoked than Atlantic salmon, and Jorgenson plays off its strong flavor with a coarse whole-grain mustard crust. The grilled filet is served on a tasty fennel slaw infused with basil oil. This is a tantalizing dish, and at $10.95, it's about $5 less than comparable dishes at nearby Newport Beach seafood restaurants on the bay front.

Although Jorgenson doesn't get her Idaho trout from the wild (it's farm-raised), her fried trout entree is nonetheless a delight. The fish is thick and tender, with the bones removed but not the skin. It's fried with lemon butter and capers, and a light lemon flavor permeates the fish, while the capers add a perfect salty tang. It comes on a bed of chewy wild rice.

It's rare enough to find trout in a local restaurant, but Plums actually has two trout dishes, the other being a breakfast item, "campfire trout." It's cooked in the traditional outdoors method, rolled in cornmeal and pan-fried, and served with eggs, potatoes and two thick, crisp strips of outstanding pepper bacon from Oregon.

Jorgenson gets the delicious apple-honey sausage and pepper ham from Oregon too, along with other ingredients such as fennel, cranberries and hazelnuts. She's even featured the work of Oregon-born artists on her walls. Did I mention that Jorgenson is an Oregon native?

The prime tenderloin beef doesn't come from Oregon, however. Plums sautes two 3-ounce medallions with mushrooms and serves them on a toasted baguette. There is a delicate note of garlic mingling in the husky flavor of these juicy steaks.

Jorgenson infuses her two other meat offerings with subtle herbs and spices as well. The confetti meatloaf, served on toasted baguette bread as a sandwich, is tempered with chopped vegetables and distinct note of cumin, which gives it almost a curry flavor. The wonderful lamb burger is a meaty, slightly gamy patty brought to life with garlic and fresh oregano. The addition of aged feta cheese brings a sharp taste.

I've eaten the lamb burger many times, and after my last visit to Plums, I called Jorgenson and asked why she makes this unique burger. "I wanted to add lamb to the menu and have it affordable," she said. The lamb burger is $8.95 and comes with a salad topped with sliced strawberries and balsamic dressing.

Although Plums offers no appetizers, it does serve a soup of the day and a salmon chowder. The chowder is rich and creamy and filled with good-sized chunks of smoked salmon and potatoes, but to my taste it doesn't have the zest of a good clam chowder. I tend to be a New England traditionalist on the whole subject of chowder.

Overall, Plums has made a great leap forward by adding top-quality entrees to an already strong breakfast and lunch menu. The next step is dinner, a possibility Jorgenson is strongly considering. While it's risky to tamper with something that works so well, it would be interesting to see what sort of creative, Pacific Northwest-inspired dishes she could add to a dinner menu, not to mention what kind of wine list she could cull from the growing number of excellent Oregon and Washington wineries.

As I did years ago, I hope Jorgenson again expands Plums' offerings. I can assure her that an eager audience of at least one awaits.

Price range from $5.95 to $11.95 for breakfasts, $5.95 to $10.95 for salads, $6.95 to $7.50 for sandwiches, and $6.95 to $11.95 for grilled items and specialty entrees.

* Plums Cafe, 369 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa. (949) 722-7586. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m; Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.

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