Review: Plum Alley delivers a relaxed, pan-Asian vibe

Published February 29, 2012 9:48 am

Dining out • New restaurant melds flavors through a creative lens — and delivers pork belly buns that are a work of art.
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To say that expectations were running high for Plum Alley's opening would be an understatement. Given the magic that Ryan and Colleen Lowder unfurled with their first restaurant, the popular Copper Onion, many a food lover worried about the potential of a sophomore slump. But I'm happy to report that Plum Alley is another top-notch addition to Salt Lake City's dining scene.

Rumors around the restaurant swirled for months: Would it be a wine bar? Or perhaps something with a small bites menu? Others talked of a restaurant possibly focused on pickling. The final restaurant brings all of those rumors together, and mixes them up with a helping of pan-Asian influences.

The décor sets the tone and causes a buzz the moment you step through the door. A swarm of Chinese lanterns dangle from the wooden ceiling. There are plenty of dark woods, just the right use of lighting, and the curated soundtrack is clearly chosen with care, not to mention a dash of cool. The space is equal measures trendy and relaxed. The seating continues the laid-back approach, as apart from a private area at the back of the restaurant, seating is entirely communal. There are three long communal tables in the center of the space, while the outer edges are wrapped by counter seating, both looking out into the world and into the bustling kitchen.

As you might guess then, much of the menu is built around sharing. All tables and counters are laid out with plenty of plates, napkins, chopsticks and condiments. The menu encourages ordering as a group and sharing food as it arrives from the kitchen. While waiting, you can also kick back with a drink from the restaurant's full bar, which offers a variety of interesting full-strength beers such as the hoppy blast of Epic's Copper Cone ($12 for 22 ounces), specialty cocktails, plus a modest selection of wines and sake, too.

I started out with a plate of the house-made pickles ($6). These change daily, and the vividly colored plate of potatoes, onions, carrot and gherkin I received was perfect for sharing throughout the meal and perking up other dishes with acid as needed. Not that much needed any extra oomph, mind you, as an order of two pork and crab spring rolls ($6) was devoured eagerly, arriving crispy and hot from the fryer. The same proved true of the Taiwanese popcorn chicken ($7) — 10 or so tender pieces of chicken seasoned with black vinegar and sweet soy before they were fried to perfection.

A special on one trip, two skewers of Thai meatballs ($5), were another success, fish sauce adding plenty of umami to already deliciously moist meatballs. The pork belly satay skewers ($5) were a slight disappointment by comparison. By imparting a quite vigorous char to the outside of the pork, too much juicy goodness was lost.

There was no such failure, though, in the magnificent pork belly buns ($6). Veering away from a traditional Chinese style bun, Plum Alley's bun is more reminiscent of a taco — the steamed dough serving as a wrapper and vehicle for the choice of either duck confit, pork shoulder or fabulous pork belly. The pork belly buns, in particular, were nothing less than a work of art — a generous slab of pork belly coated in a salty-shrimpy Cincalok glaze, which is then wrapped in an easy-to-grab piece of dough. For $6, you get two buns, every bite of which is unadulterated heaven.

Even items from the salad section of the menu are great to share, and the Thai larb salad ($8) is a perfect example. Romaine lettuce cups serve as the perfect utensil for scooping up the heaping of pork, seasoned with lime, chile and fish sauce. Many of the larger plates revolve around curries, which were all universally great. Make no mistake, this restaurant cooks a serious curry — good if not better than many versions around town.

Indonesian Rendang curry ($13) offered a bounty of short ribs, cooked with care for eight hours then bathed in a punchy, deep red-hued curry sauce. The Thai-styled green curry ($15) upped the ante even further, coming with a side of cooked bone marrow. Once the delicious marrow is scooped from the bone and mixed into the sauce, it takes an already spot-on curry to a sumptuously richer level. Red curry with duck and grapes ($14) was a surprising first for me, but was yet another inspired item, one I will certainly order again.

As dessert selections change often, they're written on the specials blackboard as you walk through the door. Over my visits, I tasted a number of acceptable sweets, if perhaps a touch safe. House-made ginger ice cream ($3) was competent and creamy, much like the green tea panna cotta ($6). A cardamom doughnut ($4) comes as a simple deep-fried pastry with a side of cardamom-inflected dipping sauce, nothing too controversial but again more than agreeable. I'm sure as the restaurant evolves the dessert menu will too. Here is to hoping someone manages to work pork belly in there somehow.

Despite the relaxed approach, I found the kitchen, thankfully, anything but. For an operation only 2 months old, service was very much on point, time and again. Spying into the kitchen I saw only serious, focused faces hard at work. Moreover, not only were staff members universally efficient, informative and friendly, they were genuinely excited about their food, too. That kind of infectious enthusiasm rubs off, and I'm sure it helped lead to the fun, vibrant atmosphere on each of my visits.

With such continued focus and enthusiasm, plus a clearly evolving menu, it's safe to say I'm excited. Plum Alley is a gem of a restaurant, which I expect will rapidly become a popular hot spot, and the talk of the town.

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Plum Alley

Food • HHHhj

Mood • HHH

Service • HH

Noise • bbb

Tastes of Indonesia, China, Malaysia and Thailand interpreted through a creative and playful lens.

Location • 111 E. 300 South, Suite 190, Salt Lake City; 801-355-0543

Online • http://www.plumalley.com

Hours • Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Children's menu • No

Prices • $$

Liquor • Full service

Corkage • $12

Reservations • Not accepted

Takeout • No

Wheelchair access • Yes

Outdoor dining • No

On-site parking • No

Credit cards • All major