Well Dined


Atelier Crenn – San Francisco

While we were in San Francisco visiting family, Jasper and I wanted to have a nice date night to ourselves to try one of the many Michelin rated restaurants.  We choose Atelier Crenn, a 2-star restaurant with a seasonal and locally sourced menu written in the form of a poem.  Yes, it is a little bit silly and pretentious to present your menu as a poem, but chef/owner Dominique Crenn seems to have some reasons for doing it.  Crenn hails from Versailles, France, where her father had a painting workshop (called an "atelier").  She considers her restaurant to be her own artist's studio (hence the name), with the plate as a blank canvas, and the ingredients as the paint.  So perhaps we can consider it to be more artsy than pretentious.  And it did provide a fun game to try and figure out what would be in the next course based on the poem.

From the website: "Poetic Culinaria: Atelier Crenn, a painting. An empty white canvas. With tools... a brush, paint and a vision, creativity is given its breath. Here, from this place, the artist can suggest emotion. A lasting moment from childhood... little drawers of heartbeats."

Crenn seems to be inspired by her childhood and her father, whose paintings decorate the restaurant.  Playfulness and nature are the overriding themes of the menu we received, which I have copied below:

Summer has come and is full of sweet surprises
Under the midnight glow, I can taste the sweetness of the sea,
hear mellow serenades of colors licorice and orange
I touch the earth and play
Where the broad ocean leans against the Spanish land,
I remember an oceanic feeling
Here, the earth proffers its juicy, vermilion gifts
and above, the half moon floats, silky and smoky
In its cool, milky light,
the forest still radiant with possibility
Nature rejoice! chasing childhood memories
Feeling the black sand under my toes, I dreamed of
these creatures' languid movements
Walking deep in the woods, as the earth might have something to spare
bird song, see the water rippling from their visit
a token of the summer
Summer has come, the sea beckons
sweetness, bounty, thanks

I mentioned that we made a game of trying to guess the next course - a diversion that was necessary because of the extremely long wait in between courses.  I understand the need to pace out a long tasting menu, but this was excessive.  We were there for 4+ hours and I was literally falling asleep between courses.  I'm not sure if that is the usual pace, or if the kitchen was struggling because they were hosting a wedding in their private event space.  Luckily the food was excellent and so beautiful that we continued to get excited with each new course.  So let's break down the courses!

"Summer has come and is full of sweet surprises" - a white chocolate shell filled with apple cider and topped with cassis gel, meant to be a fun take on the Kir Breton cocktail.  I really enjoyed this - both the taste and the way it instantly broke on the tongue to release the liquid center.  A fun start.

"Under the midnight glow, I can taste the sweetness of the sea," - oyster poached in its own liquid.  Forgettable, sadly.

"hear mellow serenades of colors licorice and orange" - urchin torchon with caviar, licorice root, and yuzu foam.  So good (obviously).

"I touch the earth and play" - roasted salsify root dipped in a cauliflower and white chocolate puree.  Unexpected and surprisingly delicious.

"Where the broad ocean leans against the Spanish land," - thin, noodle-like strands of squid and lardo in an iberico ham consomme with truffles.  The squid was soft with just the right amount of chew, the lardo melted on the tongue, it was boldly salty - excellent.

"I remember an oceanic feeling" - shima aji sashimi with beet "snow".  Very good.

"Here, the earth proffers its juicy, vermilion gifts" - shiso sorbet, poached tomato in tomato broth with basil.  I wasn't overly impressed with this course.

"and above, the half moon floats, silky and smoky" - a take on French onion soup with Comte cheese, apple cider gelee, onion marmalade, and charred onion broth.  Enjoyable, but not super memorable.

"In its cool, milky light," - a frozen palate cleanser - I can't remember the flavor!

"the forest still radiant with possibility" - a dehydrated carrot jerky, served to look like a slug on a branch.  They are very proud of this, it apparently took them years to figure it out and days to make it.  I thought it was creative, but not really worth all the effort and fuss, even though the carrot flavor was intensified.

"Nature rejoice! chasing childhood memories" - a bowl of toasted (fried?) grains and seeds (quinoa, flax, sunflower seed, pumpkin seed) with trout roe and frozen pearlized sturgeon cream, and a dashi broth poured table side.  This was very interesting with the crunchy seeds, the broth starting to soften things, the salty pops of roe, and the frozen pearls.  All kinds of texture and flavor going on.  I'm inspired to try to make something like this at home (good luck, right?).

"Feeling the black sand under my toes, I dreamed of" - a thin piece of raw wagyu beef, rolled and served on "edible soil" made with squid ink and garnished with mustard seeds, apple gelee, and horseradish.  Very good.

"these creatures' languid movements" - lobster bisque with poached lobster, bone marrow dumplings, and crispy sweetbreads served with sea grapes and pickled onion.  I loved it!

"Walking deep in the woods, as the earth might have something to spare" - this is THE signature dish of the restaurant: a variety of mushrooms prepared in different ways (pickled, roasted, dried) and served with a pine meringue and pumpernickel crumbs (among other toppings).  This was fascinating - so many flavors going on, so different and new.  Jasper doesn't really like mushrooms and I am not that big of a fan, but this was the favorite for both of us.  Really just superb.

"bird song, see the water rippling from their visit" - tender guinea hen with crispy skin, topped with napa cabbage and baby leeks.  Very good protein dish, but again not the most memorable.

"a token of the summer" - a "salad" that was actually a bite-sized banyuls vinegar meringue topped olive oil gelee and micro herbs and greens.  Interesting and fun.

At this point, there is an optional cheese course.

"Summer has come, the sea beckons" - a test tube looking vial filled pineapple consommé and blue-green algae - fun!  Also a wafer with matcha & seaweed - interesting, but not great.  And lastly - a beautiful bowl of ocean-looking shapes.  Sorbet in the shape of a mussel shell, rice pudding, foam and crumbles - there was a lot going on and I couldn't keep track of it all.  But the flavors were grapefruit, green tea, and seaweed and it was heavenly.  Definitely the standout of the sweets.

"sweetness, bounty, thanks" - mignardes course with sea salt caramels, macarons, marshmallows, pâtes de fruits, nougats, coffee-milk chocolate ganache, and sesame crisps all served in various wooden vessels.

*phew* That's a lot of food!  As I mentioned, the pacing was too slow and it took too long - but it was beautiful and fun and innovative.  Sometimes the creativity got in the way of flavor, but not often, and there were some real standout dishes.

If you have the time and money, and appreciation for art and cuisine - this is quite the experience.

One Year Ago - Best Ever Lasagna Revisited
Two Years Ago - Orange Teriyaki Chicken Kebabs with Quinoa
Three Years Ago - Panko Crusted Salmon

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