Plum Bistro is where you take skeptics to sway them toward the righteous path. A lot of people still confuse veganism with flavorless-ness, or with food that doesn't fill you up. Those people have clearly never eaten at Plum.
It's become one of the go-to spots for both celebrities—Tobey Maguire, Common, Al Gore, Joaquin Phoenix, India.Arie, Sam Smith, Casey Affleck, and Stevie Wonder have been spotted at Plum over its nine-year history—and lesser mortals who care about how what they eat impacts the environment. Plum pop-ups in Los Angeles have attracted the likes of Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Queen Latifah.
Owner Makini Howell is famous for serving as Stevie Wonder's tour chef. When operating at that level of notoriety, there's pressure to conceive creative offerings that will distinguish a restaurant from the increasingly crowded—but not crowded enough—field of vegan eateries.
On one recent visit, I began with the huge Mama Africa Salad ($16). The star of the mound was the moist and tangy tempeh, which had a thick, almost pancake-like texture. The mix of elements—baby greens, avocado, fruit, seasoned quinoa and millet, almonds—worked like a symphony orchestra composed of unusual but harmonious instruments. There's a reason this overwhelming salad (with lemon vinaigrette and mustard aioli) stands as a Plum favorite: It encompasses so many flavors, textures, and nutrients.
I took another music journalist with me, one who formerly baked vegan goods at Wayward Cafe. She started with Trumpet Mushroom Scallops ($12), and noted how closely these mushrooms visually resembled real scallops. She also mentioned how well the sweet pea and edamame puree complemented the smoky almond topping. "An intensely savory dish needs a fresh component to lighten it up—and the puree does that here—while the 'bacon' almond crunch simultaneously deepens the umami flavors," she said. And the mushrooms were extra juicy.
For her main course, my dining companion ordered Beauty in the East ($23), and she praised it for its exceptional presentation and creative concept. She noted that the dish's jackfruit plant balls are an homage to kibbeh, creating a plant-based counterpart to the Lebanese meatballs. While they resemble pulled pork, they're fairly soft and don't yield the same bite as you would expect from their flesh counterpart. Fried chickpeas added textural contrast and a nice crunch, and the coconut-tahini sauce imparted a tang of divine creamy brightness.
My entrée, Dry Rubbed Moroccan Spiced Seitan ($23), also offered eggplant puree, fire-blasted broccoli, and toasted pearl couscous cooked in a lemon butter sauce. The couscous was excellent flavor-wise and texturally, although I wished the broccoli had been blackened or crunchy. Another drawback: The seitan possessed a sweet, cakey flavor. I'm not big on desserts, and the flavor struck a discordant note to my taste buds.
But how could I complain? Especially when The Stranger was paying for my meal. On a journalist's paycheck, Plum Bistro is more than I can afford, reserved for rare displays of decadence. But it was fun splurging on a cornucopia of luxurious dishes masquerading as "healthy options." Not to imply that this food is unhealthy, but it sure feels rich and fattening in the aftermath.
And that may be one key to Plum's popularity—its chefs conjure dishes that inspire feelings of highfalutin sinfulness within the context of comfort food.
While some vegan restaurants overcompensate, trying to appease carnivores with fleshy facsimiles, Plum instead seeks fresh ways to present vegetables, grains, sauces, tofu, and seitan. Like Stevie at his 1970s peak, Plum reinvents the familiar.