After a few amuses, an expectation stretched, flavor combinations dared, the downbeat of molecular meals drops – and it always pops! One bite, as always instructed, where the slightest resistance breaks with an explosion of flavor, its startling intensity foreshadows more surprise. Jaws clench down, cartoon eyes bulge, and smiles expand – a collective we have been waiting for this! At Atelier Crenn, the Kir Breton, served as the final amuse, pops with intense cool apple cider and sparkles as it engulfs the mouth – appearances are deceiving and the unpredictable fun.
Much has been written about the renaissance in Bay Area dining, a mere two years after David Chang emasculated the city with “figs.” Brilliant in its caricature, the scathing sound-bite nailed the problem with dining in the area. More Italian than French, rustic romanticism over technique, the region never embraced molecular gastronomy1, with only a few rare flirts (Winterland anyone?)2 But technique is sneaking in through the back door.
And that’s what makes Atelier Crenn surprising – it is unabashedly molecular but weaves in a more natural narrative. It is an enchanting vision that feels right at home here, in the new San Francisco.3
Dominque Crenn plays chef and artist, not scientist, for her public persona; her menu is not dinner laboratory, fits and starts, it is tasting menu. Experiments are left in the kitchen. Dinner is the successes.4 An organic quality resonates with each plate, balancing the technical elements with what some might call a feminine touch. There is coherency throughout, an album instead of a patchwork of singles and filler. It is enjoyable molecular as opposed to the often painful vanity molecular.
Intense, concentrated flavors streak in and out of the menu; textures play with the release of flavor, while never falling into artifice; and temperature contrasts are used very effectively, recalling the days of yesteryear’s Ludo Lefebvre’s Bastide. Liquid nitrogen is a recurring technique but never in an extreme or jarring fashion. One might argue the meats have a same-ness, all sous vide on this visit. Plating is en vogue landscape, sprawling from end to end, claiming air rights too, but it is a useful device for picking through Crenn’s deconstructions. She is not afraid to use many ingredients, but never does it veer toward the showmanship of showcasing 20 ingredients on a plate for the sake of featuring twenty-one.
This was one meal in late November. TomoStyle was in town, and after raving about Crenn’s Test Kitchen dinner in LA, Atelier Crenn seemed like the obvious choice.5 The pictures comprise a variety of dishes from the table, including some vegetarian offerings. The waiter convinced me to stick with the normal menu but a vegetable menu is automatic for the next visit.6
Pear custard, pumpkin seed & foie gras pearls
Trout skin, caviar
Fried yuba, daikon
From the first bite, Crenn defied expectation by serving liquid nitrogen pearls of spiced pumpkin seed and foie gras. All too often, such pearls would be too abrasive, freezing and icy; but the cool pearls slowly melted in the mouth and blended into the sweeter pear custard, seasoning it and adding lusciousness. The variables here were dialed in and one could appreciate that initial texture contrast, and range as the pearls melted, with the custard. It sounds simple, and even obvious, but it is often a disappointing technique.
A barely warmed oyster, poached in sake and beurre blanc, was served on a bed of tapioca and sake cubes. Here, the shifting texture between oyster flesh and tapioca gave the dish its textural focus. But why gelee the sake in cubes? Cool, they let out a small bright burst with each bite, re-invigorating the flavors with each chew. It was delicious. The attention to detail was most impressive7 – proportion, temperature, and sensation were thought through carefully – a repeating theme throughout the meal.
Oyster, sake, tapioca
Buckwheat soba gnocci, umeboshi, green onion
With the first warm course, a salty ginger broth and a tart, salty dollop of ume were tempered by light, but comforting, buckwheat soba gnocci. Abrupt at first, the dish provided counterpoint to the creeping sweetness of the previous dishes – a re-set. And, again, it was the details – the charred scallion, adding bitterness to mix of spicy, salty, and sour; the fragrance and tang of the umeboshi pulling the elements together; and fried scallion roots with their complementary soft crunch.
Ocean and Land was perhaps my favorite dish of the night, and it once again showed the technical attention to detail, while still allowing for randomness and variation. The smokiness from the sturgeon pearls lingered as they melted, and built over the duration of the dish. Mustard seeds and fried capers gave the dish crunch. Red onion gelee was sweet with a cool bright touch. Horseradish puree kicked every few bites. Maybe the wagyu was unnecessary since its fat wasn’t warmed, rendered, and tender; but its relatively light flavor allowed the other elements to tug and pull the dish into different exciting directions.
Potato “Mémoire d’enfance”t
Carrot, aloe gel, thyme, mint
The explicit palate cleanser is under-utilized in long tasting menus – jolt the palate, shake it up, and re-focus for the flavors to come. Concentrated in taste (one is reminded of Sean Brock’s Carrot essay on Ideas in Food), the mint burst through the sweetness and intensity of many, many carrots. The soothing coolness of the aloe gel took over the aftertaste. Not a literal pop, but quite a surprise.
Suggestive of edible sculpture, the foie gras log is a visually arresting example of Crenn’s Poetic Culinaria. A cold foie dish rarely disappoints, although some are clearly better than others,8 but how often is it best of show? The foie is poached in milk and then flash-frozen, presumably in liquid nitrogen, shaved thinly and it is then allowed to melt again, forming the bark. Each bite is light and airy, more suggestive than substance, but it is (quickly) cumulative, and its heaviness does build by the end. Vanilla dabs perfume the foie, a natural complement to this lighter version, while apple and balsamic add needed acidity. But it was the cocoa nibs that completed the dish – a nice crunchy bitterness and suggestions of a fatty chocolate milk.
Walk in the forest
Here there is a nod to Quique DaCosta’s experiential Living Forest – one of my all-time favorite dishes. Crenn has tapped into DaCosta’s ability to create experience – his forest is not a representation, it arguably is a forest – and Crenn flirts with the concept here too. The trumpet, maitake, and chanterelles were pickled or cooked, so each bite had a different foundational texture, with some bites vinegar charged, and all of their earthiness enhanced by the pumpernickel soil. The meringue was too sweet by itself but its pine flavor further invoked the concept, and blended nicely when mixed. But it was that bitterness of the charred meringue that kept it all together, walking a path through this forest.
Silky trout, sous-vide, showed that Crenn succeeds with more straight-forward, embellishing enough to keep her food interesting. The smoked buckwheat cous cous lent just the right note of texture, pickled red onions foiled the richness of the fish, and the mussel lemon foam brightened with brine and tang. Simple at first glance but no less accomplished than previous dishes.
Steelhead trout ‘basquaise’, lemon, bottarga
Guinea hen ‘thailandaise’, coconut, cilantro, basil, ginger, chanterelles, bok choy
Goat belly & loin & leg, salsify ‘pasta’, grapefruit, yogurt
And then there were desserts. Rarely does dessert blend into the meal, continuing themes and styles, often opting to veer directly off to the standard canon of dessert instead. Pastry has resisted the shifting styles of savory. But Juan Contrera’s dessert carried the meal in a seamless fashion with the same proficiency and attention to texture and temperature. He is one to watch.
The pear dessert is a stunning representation of, and transportation to, Fall – a fallen pear on a bed of early snow. It is poetic, beautiful, and harmonious with the larger tasting menu. The snow yogurt, a technique loved by too many chefs without regard for abrasive temperature and texture, melts instantly into just-creamy enough while the pear sorbet, shaped as a pear, provides a nice bright balance of acidity. Sage granita rounds out the background flavors. Alternating cool bites of the pear and snow with sips of the hot allspice infusion created a vitality on the palate. This was one of my favorite desserts of 2011.
Pear, sage, yogurt
Upon receiving the bonsai tree of treats, we asked why this last gesture so often disappoints? Parisian temples will shamelessly haul out conspicuous amounts of chocolates and treats but rarely are they as good as the better chocolatiers in town, sometimes just steps away. And yet here was a large collection where every piece had merit – pate de fruit, caramels, nougats, marshmallows, madeleines, and more. Mentioned before, quite a few times, attention to details, from beginning to the very end.
TomoStyle described this dinner as a “fairytale” – and it indeed had embellishes and touches that do not seem real – there is something special here. The experience has similarities to Quique DaCosta, the last meal that enchanted me. The execution and attention to details were very strong. When reading other reviews, most are gobsmacked by the creativity of the food. But it is inventiveness where Crenn can make the largest strides – to create styling and dishes that are completely of her own vision.
Atelier Crenn is one of the best restaurants in the country, firmly in two Michelin star territory (despite being awarded only one.)
1 – Or “modernist cuisine”, which surprisingly has not been trademarked. Quite a few people say “molecular gastronomy” doesn’t mean anything; and yet does it mean less than modernist cuisine? I think molecular gastronomy perfectly conveys the high-point of El Bulli-era cooking – the juxtaposition of two words, and worlds, seemingly at odds – science with the senses, while still firmly placing it in a haute cuisine context, where the methods have now trickled down to casual eateries. It captures the time and it’s an easy short-hand for discussion. Modernist cuisine denotes nothing, and perhaps that’s what its adherents appreciate; it is a rolling wave, encapsulating any group of trends since Escoffier or before, and to the desert chic of the last tribe on a dead planet, a thousand years from now.
2 – Which has always surprised me. Here in the land of tomorrow meets today, the food culture has a particular strong conservative bent. Entire industries are being ripped apart by deflationary economics, technology is unequivocal faith, and, yet, dining is still dominated by a very conservative view on food and restaurants. It’s an interesting schism between work and play.
3 – This is not to suggest Atelier Crenn is the only one; anyone that has eaten at noma, or read the cookbook, knows the cuisine owes as much to the countryside as it does to Ferran Adria.
4 – How many people truly enjoy entire meals at WD-50 or Moto? Both are doing important work but there are just as many misses as hits. Cutting edge work lends itself to this sort result (a meal at El Bulli was not 40 courses of bliss) but, as a paying diner, it’s sometimes nice when the chef edits themselves. Just as there is currently too much emphasis on “in the moment” cooking with naturalism and micro-seasonality, the molecular crowd places too much emphasis on rapid iteration and failing fast, mantras of the technology field, at the customer’s expense.
5 – I was not wild about Crenn’s food at Luce, where she earned one Michelin star. I should have known better than to assume her own food would be the same as that of corporate sponsorship, from a hotel.
6 – I feel obliged to support chefs offering creative vegetable menus but there is something telling that I still find it hard to automatically choose it. The contradictions of the human mind.
7 – Veal Cheeks and Michael Bauer both complained that execution was not as high as it could be. Both reviews are over 6 months old and, based on my two recent meals, Crenn may have really stepped it up. Execution was flawless, as mentioned before. Flavors were pin-point; textures were thought out; and temperature contrasts were often masterful.
8 – Until the other night, The French Laundry’s torchon was my gold standard for its creaminess. But Justin Cogley, at L’Auberge Carmel, served a roulade of foie fras poached in almond milk – and it was creamier and tastier yet – without the supplement!