Atelier Crenn, San Francisco
April 15, 2014
Dominique Crenn is the only female chef in the US whose restaurant has two Michelin stars. Linda and I went there for dinner on February 13, 2014.
As it was Valentine’s Day Eve, we started with Kirs Royales, which were served in antiquated broad-bowl glasses. The chef stopped by our table to say hello and pose for a photo with Linda. She grew up in Brittany and moved to California in 1988. After a varied restaurant career, she opened Atelier Crenn in 2011. She came by our table several times during our meal; we spoke to her mostly in French, which she seemed to appreciate.
The restaurant, in the Marina District of San Francisco, had recently reopened after a renovation of the kitchen, which looks efficient, even if a bit crowded. Our server said that it was designed so that the cooks could be in a line and thus less in the way of each other.
The dining room remained the same as before, plain and pleasant, contrasting with some of the complex cuisine to come.
There is no à la carte offering, only a choice between a nine-course Signature Courses menu and the seventeen-course Chef’s Grand Tasting Menu, our selection. The descriptions are on a printed card, which is left on the table. But they are not the kind of descriptions one usually gets. They are fragments of poetry written by the chef which give the atmosphere of her creations. Ingredients are described when the dishes are served, but, of course, they are difficult to hear and to remember. My comments below are based on the sketchy notes I took at the time, Linda and my recollections enhanced by the photos, and by reports from some other bloggers.
We ordered a bottle of 2011 Peay “Savoy” Pinot Noir from California’s Anderson Valley. We enjoyed it.
The first course was
Winter has come with its cool breeze
This was modeled on a Kir Breton, which uses cider instead of Champagne. It is a white cocoa butter spherical shell filled with apple cider and topped with a cassis gel. It is very liquid and must be eaten in one mouthful. Delicious.
Mellow serenades of colors licorice and orange
Under the midnight glow, I can taste the sweetness of the sea
First on the left is a sea urchin custard resembling foie gras en torchon. It is topped with local Sacramento Delta caviar. Underneath is a mild licorice base. Excellent.
Second, on the right, is an oyster with a dark, vinegary sauce underneath and dark seaweed and a white dab (the moon?) on top. This was too much garnish for a single oyster.
We were presented with charred, smokey buckwheat crackers in slots in a rock. Then a bowl of Ibérico ham broth with black truffle bits. On the right is a pile of faux noodles made with big fin squid and lardo, which added some substance and a complementary flavor, while the buckwheat crackers added needed crunch. Very good.
A gentle smell, oceanic, of yummy feeling
It may be hard to identify the ingredients in my photo of this excellent dish. In the center is a piece of sashimi of shima aji, or Japanese striped horse mackerel. Lying on top of it are two small turnips with their leaves still nicely hot and crisp from their tempura cooking. Scattered around is dehydrated coconut cilantro ice, a few hot pepper rings and other garnishes.
As the shell was found, its natural beauty made no noise
Abalone lightly cooked in its own liquid was good, but, like the oyster, did not profit from its garnishes as they were overly complicated and dominating.
The half moon, silky and smoky
A sphere of Comté cheese, topped with an apple cider gel, was presented in a small black bowl. An onion broth was poured in. This dish was intended to be reminiscent of traditional French onion soup. It succeeded in that and, like most of them, was a bit too sweet and salty.
I refreshed as I gazed at your smooth green coat
This intermezzo was a moscato granitá with poached aloe vera. Nice.
Our server told us that Dominique had become fascinated by American beef jerky and so invented carrot jerky, which is slow cooked for a long time. The two carrots were picturesquely served to us on the two ends of a mossy branch. They were circled with orange zest. One could tell that the carrots had been through a lot; they were chewy, like a jerky, and their flavor was concentrated. Very good.
Nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories
Buckwheat, quinoa, pumpkin and sunflower seeds were roasted and crisped. They were mixed with trout roe, caviar flavored cream balls and dabs of yuzukosho paste. Dashi was then poured over, which did not soften the texture of the ingredients if one ate quickly. Very good.
We were given freshly toasted slices of brioche, which were delicious and provided a contrast with the seafood chowder. The vegetables you see in the photo are resting on a transparent, edible, smoked dashi gel. When we pushed our spoons through it, the vegetables fell in and we found a complex chowder of Maine and spiny lobster, pork belly, sweetbreads, bone marrow etc. Delicious.
A walk in the forest; this was a complicated walk. (The two photos above are halves of a single long plate.) From my memory and other reports it may have included roasted, pickled, and dehydrated trumpet, oyster, chanterelle and maitake mushrooms. There may also have been Douglas pine meringue, wood sorrel oil, sage, cheese, hazelnut praline, some vinegar and some sweet. Anyway, I couldn’t note it all down when it was described to us. Good.
Alongside this dish was a cup of excellent duck consommé. There was a duck liver pâté canapé underneath a nest of corn silk with corn eggs. The twig was dark chocolate dusted with porcini powder. Its slight sweetness went well with the duck and liver. Various grains, such as a duck might eat, were scattered about.
Where the wild beauty is sleeping under frozen winter leaves
In this course the wild beauty has changed from a duck to a guinea hen. It is under baked cabbage leaves, a braised short end of a leek with its roots and a long braised leek green. Very good.
Winter has come and is full of sweet surprises
We had seen the elaborate presentation of the mignardises at the table next to us. Our server could tell that we were tiring after three and a half hours and suggested that ours be boxed up for us to enjoy the next day. We gladly accepted.
Throughout this 17-course meal Dominique was always pushing the creative and artistic culinary envelope, usually successfully, but often with much complexity. Sometimes this detracted from the dish, as in the oyster and abalone, but usually one could appreciate the extraneous garnishes visually and concentrate on savoring the ones which seemed to enhance the flavor of the main ingredients. The service was always good, but again the complexity made it hard for hard for the servers to describe the ingredients to us in a way we could remember them. The pace started out just right, but slowed down in the middle. With such small plates, long pauses are not needed. But we had a wonderful time at Atelier Crenn. Despite my quibbles, we were always interested and intrigued with what was being presented to us. Brava, Dominique.