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Atelier Crenn – San Francisco, CA

Atelier Crenn is a restaurant I want to love. One I admire and one I want to succeed.

Chef Dominique Crenn is wildly talented. And her pastry chef, Juan Contreras, served me the best dessert I’ve had in recent memory (more on that later).

Together, they are the most promising duo I’ve encountered in a long time.

The food is innovative and achingly beautiful. Dominique calls it “Poetic Culinaria”, where food, like art, is a medium of expression that stimulates one both visually and intellectually.

But perhaps I entered the restaurant with overly optimistic expectations, or maybe it was an off-night. I left the restaurant merely content, not blown away.

I can’t say I loved every dish. Over the span of 19 courses, it seemed like plates were coming from two separate kitchens: some dishes were incredible; others were mediocre. My meal, while technically sound, ended up being a roller coaster ride of highs and lows.

***

My meal started off slow. Outside of a fun Kir Breton cocktail encased in a thin shell of cocoa butter that popped in my mouth (reminiscent of Alinea), the remaining three amuse bouches were forgettable.

Things turned for the better with prawns cooked sous-vide, grilled and served over a stack of smoldering hay. It smelled intoxicating, and I reveled in how the creamy flesh hinted of smoke and brine. I ate it with my fingers. It was fantastic.

Other bright points included oysters with sake, mirin and tapioca; chewy and tender, this was a careful study in texture. And a large hollowed-out rock revealed African Rooibos tea sorbet over orange granita studded with chunks of persimmons. Taken together, it tasted exactly like Orange Twin Popsies, triggering a stream of giddy childhood memories.

And who could forget that bowl of grapefruit-rutabaga soup topped with crab and flanked by lovage snow? This was my favorite savory dish of the night. Nothing was superfluous, and every ingredient had a purpose: crab and grapefruit lent a tart sweetness, rutabaga imparted smokiness, and the lovage snow brightened.

This is what I call “purposeful cooking”, where every ingredient and element is so deliberate and balanced that adding or subtracting anything would sacrifice deliciousness.

***

So where did Crenn take a wrong turn? For one, the bread service was mediocre. Mini balls of brioche were eggy but neither fluffy nor buttery enough -as all good brioche should be. A dish of lemon sole with sage and kumquat was high on style but ultimately boring. I could see where Crenn was going with those flavors, but it ended up a bit one-dimensional, and I tired of it quickly. Likewise, pickled mackerel with verbena foam and a mound of beet powder failed to impress.

I wonder if Crenn relying too much on sous-vide or if fish is simply not her strong suit? Both plates were technically perfect (eg. the sole was moist and a bit firm as good sole should be), but they seemed boring in comparison with the rest of the meal.

And I’m still undecided on how I feel about the foie gras. Salt-brined, poached in milk, flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen, shaved in sheets, then shaped into logs, it was immensely exciting to have a foie dish that wasn’t served seared or au torchon (though I do greatly prefer the latter).

A creative concept to be sure, but in terms of deliciousness and culinary practice, it veered off path. The texture, while novel, didn’t focus on the creamy richness I love about foie. The “log” was a surprisingly large portion, and a few more bits of balsamic and fruit would’ve balanced. Or perhaps this would’ve worked better as a bite-sized amuse bouche to excite the mind and palate?

With the meal coming to a close, I appreciated Chef’s mirroring of my own preferences thus far: a focus on seafood and vegetables. So it was surprising that my final savory (and only meat) course, Venison ringed with coffee-vegetable ash and drizzled with jus, was phenomenal.

Venison often takes on an intensely pungent gamey flavor if even a touch overcooked, but this was clearly not the case. This impossibly tender cut arrived perfectly rare, with its clean, slightly grassy taste melding seamlessly with the bitter ash and black garlic puree.

Here Crenn is at her best. Certainly there was molecular gastronomy involved to create this dish, but it was merely informed by modernist techniques, not dominated by it.

***

While the savories were a hit or miss, the desserts were uniformly flawless.

Pastry Chef Juan Contreras is a humble and ridiculously talented man. His work is reminiscent of the desserts I had in 2009 at WD-50 by Alex Stupak, arguably America’s greatest pastry chef.

Perhaps it is because they both worked at Alinea, but Contreras’ desserts exhibit that same whimsy and playfulness, high on spectacle without sacrificing flavor.

Imagine my surprise when my petite server, Mandy, brought over an entire eucalyptus plant -pot and all- onto my table. I stared at it for seconds before realizing I was supposed to reach in at one of the fallen branches, which acted as a lollipop stick for a disc of eucalyptus, lemon, and honey blasted with liquid nitrogen. It was sublime.

But nothing prepared me for the trompe l’oeil that arrived next:

Visually, it was a pear fallen in the snow. Pear sorbet was shaped and spray painted with edible paint to look like a miniature pear. Dehydrated vanilla bean was used for the “stem”. This was served with sage granita, yogurt snow, and edible flowers. Sage prevented the dish from getting too sweet. Yogurt snow melted on your tongue. Each bite of the snow and granita crunched audibly between my teeth – I suspect Contreras added something to give it more crunch.

The pear was also served with quince tea infused with cinnamon, vanilla bean, and star anise (brewed in a table-side siphon). Alternating cool bites of pear with hot sips of tea was ten minutes of pure bliss, and the experience resonated for days weeks to come.

***

Numerous times during my meal, Chef Crenn came out to chat, ask how my meal was coming along, and graciously gifted my table with extra courses out of the kitchen. It always speaks volumes to me when Chefs speak directly to diners. Not for the glam or even worse, the “celebrity chef” factor, but because talking to diners builds a connection between the kitchen and the dining room. It adds perspective and understanding.

Yes this meal had its share of touchdowns and fumbles, but I want to stress it again: I don’t remember the last time I’ve encountered a chef with so much potential or a restaurant I’ve wanted so badly to succeed.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to return, but it will be interesting to see where how Dominique develops as a chef and where she takes Atelier Crenn in the coming years. I truly wish her and her crew the best.

* Other opinions:
- Both Jonathan Kauffman of the SF Weekly (review) and Michael Bauer of the SF Chronicle (review) agreed with most of my thoughts, though in comparison, my meal did have a greater percentage of hits than misses.

- On the contrary, Chuckeats and Tomo, whose palates and writing I respect, both adored their meal at Atelier Crenn more than I did.

** I remember reading somewhere that Dominique Crenn often rocks Margiela? He’s one of my favorite designers of all time. The similarities between her food and Margiela’s clothes (very conceptual, trompe l’oeil, etc) are uncanny.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful post on a meal that wasn’t particularly glowing.

    February 10, 2012
  2. Amanda K #

    This was thoughtful? It read like a 7th grader’s book report. I haven’t ever seen such wannabe amateur writing.

    February 10, 2012
  3. one word: glad i didn’t go. another word: saison!

    February 22, 2012
  4. Cathy and Cynthia: Don’t get me wrong. This meal was quite good, certainly better than many -if not most- of the fine dining options in Los Angeles. There is vision and talent, but I did feel like certain courses sometimes veered too far into the “food as art” movement.

    I believe food should first and foremost be delicious. Everything else is secondary.

    I tried my best to write a even-handed review, focusing on both the strengths and the weaknesses… constructive criticism is good, no?

    However, based on comments and emails I’ve received, it appears many believe I found this meal simply average? That is certainly not the case.

    February 24, 2012
    • I’m sure it was a wonderful meal. But, like you, many feel that it veered more towards “art” then explosive flavors.

      February 24, 2012

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