I love food, I love the arts, and given my choice I prefer the more freely flowing and less constrained versions of each – it is probably why artists like Dali, chefs like Gagnaire, and bands like Mars Volta all rank highly on my favorites and also why I tend to find tweezered and “precious” food more appealing than a pile of meat and potatoes on a plate. Further taking into my account my fascination vegetables of all sorts and particularly with unique produce prepared in remarkable ways the decision to visit Atelier Crenn seemed obvious yet some detractors gave me pause…
Located in Cow Hollow near the Presidio, an area I had not really explored much during my previous visits to the Bay, Dominique Crenn’s first solo restaurant since leaving her post at Luce (second solo restaurant overall) is billed as “Poetic Culinaria,” yet according to some the experience was more style than substance – a concept offering too much pretense, too little food, and at too much an expense – while others billed it as perhaps the most avant garde restaurant in the Bay; a definition much more appealing and enough to justify a last minute change of schedule when I moved Cyrus to lunch and called Atelier Crenn to schedule a late Saturday visit.
With reservations at 8:00pm and ample parking available my arrival in Cow Hollow would precede my reservation by a couple hours and taking the time to browse the area I really liked what I saw – a number of eclectic artisan shops, small bars, organic food stores, and plenty of young people out with friends or pets enjoying the lovely weather. Returning a few items to my car and grabbing my jacket (a personal choice, not necessary as the restaurant seemed more business casual than formal) I finally made my way to the understated restaurant approximately 15 minutes early and entering the earthy space of beige, wood, and woven lamps was greeted by a man named Daniel who would turn out to be my server for the majority of the evening.
Led quickly to my seat, a nice two top with a direct view of both the kitchen, the center service island, and the majority of the room my comfort was assured, my water preference confirmed (still over sparkling,) and within moments I was presented the wine list and the seasonal menu to peruse – a menu that even to the experienced diner requires a bit of explanation as the right consists of a prix fixe while the left is comprised of a poem and a list of ingredients included in the dishes eluded to in the lines above; “ Sitting on the coast, the waves roll in. A new salinity brings hints of afar. A place of riches, Of towering trees. Stop, Pause. Scales glisten in the distance, like a rare Asian gem. My mind is at peace, the waves recede.”
With no cocktails striking my fancy and not particularly interested in wine it would be perhaps five minutes before Daniel would return and after explaining I’d prefer avoid the beef on the menu a substitution was agreed upon and with service professional and cordial despite the occasional gaff (twice my still was topped off with sparkling) Dominique stopped by to greet myself as well as a pair of elderly folks sitting beside me before the tasting began – a tasting that would thrill and amuse not only myself, but the two decidedly non-gourmands beside me throughout the next two and a half hours.
Beginning first with a single bread service – a “welcome” according to Daniel – Brioche started the night on a single simple note of warm butter; a childhood recipe according to Daniel and the sort of thing I rather wish they’d have served as part of a proper bread service as it was not only delicious but light and given the quality of the pastry half of Crenn I can only imagine a proper bread basket would be superb.
Moving next to the first of two amuses bouche Chef Crenn would again arrive tableside to describe the course as “Corn Pudding with fried crispy quinoa, freeze dried corn, consommé of corn and coconut” and while nearly everything that followed this was good to great, this was perhaps my second favorite course of the evening. Beginning first with the corn pudding – think creamed corn in flavor yet with a nearly panna cotta mouth-feel and the lingering sweetness of coconut – the dish was subsequently topped with a warm crystal clear consommé dotted with puffed quinoa and crispy corn – a sweet/savory balance whose texture punctuated the smoothness of the pudding. Showing right away that this was a meal that would walk a careful line in balancing flavors, textures, and temperatures this amuse would only be topped by that at Commis for best of the trip.
Following the corn in short succession a single bite would arrive in the form of “Kir Breton” a play on traditional Kir Royale with non-alcoholic apple cider in a white chocolate cocoa butter shell glued to the slate with cassis reduction. Instructed to pick up the whole slate and remove the candy from the plate closing one’s mouth before biting down the dainty chocolate shattered giving way to a mint-tinged burst of cider as the cassis pokes through with its characteristic sweet notes – a refreshing bite that would serve as my first of many experiences with Pastry Chef Juan Contreras’ Alinea honed skills throughout the evening.
Having omitted the beef and caviar dish that my neighbors received next, my substituted selection would be a dish that has been present on Crenn’s menu from the start – a course entitled “New Potato ‘Memoire d’enfance’” featuring potatoes roasted, cut, and seared served with Potato puree, peas, mint, compte crisps, and a liberal grating of salt. Showing off the lateral presenting style that would dominate the majority of Dominique’s plated landscapes this beautiful dish began with the potatoes – five rounded confitted fingerlings with a crunchy exterior giving way to a center harkening tater tots – and sprawled across the plate with peas both solo and in the pod, raw and cooked, plus the aforementioned mint, crunchy cheese (think cheeze-it made of compte) and light crystals of salt flaked from the block. Restrained and beautiful this was precisely the sort of vegetable presentation I love and expected when I made my reservation.
For my second proper course of the menu (and my first official item on the seasonal tasting) I would receive “Oyster Japonaise,” a Sake and Mirin Poached Kusshi Oyster with sake gelee, lemon foam, crème fraiche, and sea beets. Generally underwhelmed by oysters I went into this dish with the same expectations as usual, yet much to my surprise this was actually a very intriguing presentation of the briny bivalve with the bitter sake and sweet mirin detectable only as a light finish as the oyster bust in my mouth. Complimenting the oyster without overwhelming it the use of lemon and crème fraiche was a familiar combination that served ample foil to the Jello-esque sake gelee while the shredded sea beets added a peppery textural component.
With my neighbors now one dish ahead of me the next course arrived with great anticipation and as expected it proved to be outstanding. Entitled “Foie Gras Log” and described as frozen and shaved with poached pears, fresh pears, roasted pear puree, vanilla pudding, and thai basil gel infused with cocoa nibs this marvelously textured liver literally melted in the mouth – so much so that I actually requested some bread crisps to go with the sous vided, frozen, and shaved preparation – while the accoutrements walked a tightrope between sweet and savory, neither overwhelming the other and both acting to highlight the subtleties of the foie.
Having now caught up to the table next to me as they sipped their wine and became more loose and conversant with both the wait staff and myself the follow up to the Foie Gras would be my favorite dish of the evening, a dish that like the potato dish is always present but variable depending on seasonal produce, a dish called “A walk in the Forest” and a dish that despite its beautiful presentation was entirely upstaged by its aroma, a mossy bloom kindling memories of my childhood growing up in Woodland Court. Moving past the intoxicating smell, what arrived on the plate before me was again a visual and textural terrain inhabited by no less than four types of mushrooms (hon shimeji, lobster, chantrelles, and king trumpet) prepared in no less than four manners (raw, dried, pickled, and pan seared) resting atop toasted Douglas Fir meringue “soil” along with hazelnuts and chickpeas plus a variety of herbs and what tasted distinctly like notes of morel. Entirely focused on creating an experience reminiscent of the dish’s title while encouraging diners to take a step off the path to explore the varying combinations I’d encourage anyone still hesitating to visit Atelier to make a reservation based on this dish alone.
At this point thoroughly impressed by everything coming from the kitchen while the ancillary servers assisting Daniel continued to make minor gaffs (no silverware until requested for the upcoming dish) my next bite would arrive from the hands of Chef Contreras described as “Untitled Intermezzo of Apple, Basil, Fennel, Celery, and a hint of Melon.” Featuring varying shades of light green and constituents in the form of granite, meringue, ice cream, and compressed fruits the flavors and textures of the intermezzo were certainly more interesting than the title and as each of the described ingredients poked through the bitter veil of the celery to varying degrees I found this to be a suitable if not particularly traditional palate cleanser with the overall effect somehow reminding me of a frozen Waldorf Salad.
With everything going swimmingly at this point the next dish to arrive, literally something which swims, would prove quite the opposite and as a matter of fact, “Salmon Basquaise” would prove to be one of the worst things I’ve put into my mouth in the last five years. Described as sous-vide line caught salmon with roasted red pepper coulis, carrot paper, carrot puree, fried ginger, smoked buckwheat, tomato, and a pearl onion plus a light dusting of Bottarga I knew from my first bite that this dish was not going to work…the salmon was mushy and when paired with the bottarga quite literally had the taste and consistency of fishy mashed potatoes. With this bad base and no crispiness to the skin, the vegetal composition of the plate proved equally confounded with the intensely acidic flavors of the tomato and red pepper completely overwhelming everything else. Not wanting to complain but clearly not eating with the zeal that the staff had come to expect and stopping well short of a clean plate before setting my fork and sauce spoon down Daniel arrived and eyeing the plate cautiously removed it from the table and returned it to the kitchen only to re-present minutes later asking “So, and please be honest, the chef wants to know what you thought of that course?” and after explaining my thoughts about the taste, consistency, and balance he apologized not once, but twice (unnecessarily) and promised that the next course would be better.
Watching my neighbors enjoy their salmon and feeling bad that my experience for whatever reason was entirely different there would be a slight delay in the arrival of my next course and during that time Daniel would arrive again to ask if it would be okay if the chef presented me another course to “make up for” the salmon and after explaining that this really wasn’t necessary he suggested that “she insists” and to that I agreed with Daniel stating the makeup course would arrive after the tasting’s main course of “Thai Style Guinea Hen” with Basil Soil, Interpretations of Coconut, Chanterelle mushrooms, bok choy, cilantro, ginger – a dish that would immediately pull the evening back on track and perhaps more importantly place me back in the chef’s stream of consciousness. Beginning first with the bird – again sous vide but here to great effect given the hen’s rich flavor and low fat content I thoroughly enjoyed the protein both on its own and when paired with the subtle accoutrements each acting to highlight but not overwhelm and particularly the coconut and bok choy doing an exemplary job.
With my neighbors on both sides moving on to desserts it was at this point that Chef Crenn would present tableside with yet another apology (really unnecessary) and after some discussion of why I disliked the dish she returned to the kitchen only to arrive moments later with a dish entitled “Suckling Pig” and described as ‘parts of the pig’ including Head Cheese, Loin, and Confit of Belly with pickled beets, baby radishes, summer beans, gremolata of black olive, lemon, and garlic; a substantial departure from the subtleties of the hen to be sure. Beginning first with the pork itself, all three presentations were as good as expected – the head cheese gamey, the loin lean and tender, and the belly a crackling skin over melting fat and a ribbon of protein. Moving next to the accoutrements, though a bit heavy handed with the olive the vegetal arrangement including some of my favorites and I particularly enjoyed the manner in which the peppery radish and sweet/sour beets shined in their fresh clean flavors while the garlic and lemon were relegated to a minor supporting roll.
Having asked about the cheese cart before the meal it was explained to me that the board was “small but perfectly aged” and at $15 per two selections or $30 for all four I opted to try one new and one personal favorite in the form of Cana de Cabra and Barely Buzzed, respectively. Beginning first with the Barely Buzzed – good as always with the nearly 2oz wedge perfectly accented by the coffee and pairing nicely with the accompanying violet flower honey and walnut currant bread crisps. Moving next to the Cana, a creamy goat’s milk cheese from Spain with a slight fruitiness beneath the springy texture and buttery notes I personally found the cheese to be a bit less flavorful than I’d expected on its own but when paired with the honey it opened up nicely allowing some of the woodsy tones to shine.
With the pastry kitchen now taking over for the rest of the evening Chef Contreras would deliver the next three “platings” and having heard some complaints from friends about “serving trees and branches” I’ll just start off by saying that from someone with Alinea roots I personally loved the effect – an interactive and zen-like approach that engaged the diner to think about the composition of the dish and the chef’s inspirations. For the first dessert a palate cleanser entitled “Essence of Eucalyptus with eucalyptus, lemon, honey” was delivered with the descriptor “my take on driving into the city” and with the flavors of each ingredient appearing in waves as the tablet dissolved in my mouth I’d be lying if I said it replicated my experience driving into the city, but it was a wonderful setup for what came next.
Again served by Contreras with a big description of the methods in its production and an even bigger service piece in the form of a recently sanded and aromatic log (see also Alinea’s Venison preparation from February 2009) “Olive Falling from the Tree” would prove to be every bit the spectacle that I’d assumed and with Extra Virgin Olive Oil Ice Cream served on the branch and Black olive cake, lemon ice, fennel jam, and nougatine of toasted almonds forming a sweet meets salty balance the combination proved to be impossibly light while each flavor shined – particularly the nougatine with its intense sweetness and the airy black olive cake that formed a slightly bitter counterpoint while notes of the ice and jam were relegated to bass notes on the palate.
With the log removed my final bites of the evening would arrive on the roots of one of four live Douglas Fir Bonsai trees and after a lengthy description and suggested order of eating I set out on a slow degustation that rivaled any mignardise tray I’ve experienced beginning with Blood Cedar pate de fruit and progressing through Strawberry Coriander pate de fruit, Kalamasi Marshmallow, Salted Caramel with Maldon Sea Salt, White Chocolate Ganache with Blood Orange, Milk Chocolate Ganache with Passion Fruit, Walnut Nougatine with Cocoa, and finally a shard of 72% Dark Chocolate with Gold – a brilliant progression highlighted particularly by the smoky dense nougatine and the zesty jam of both pate de fruits.
With the fir returned to the kitchen Chef Crenn would stop by one last time to thank me for coming to visit and on hearing I was considering relocating to the Bay Area she plainly asked if I’d be back – a question to which I responded “absolutely” with a resultant smile, slight bow, and “Merci” before she returned to the kitchen. With check paid and a copy of the menu in hand I sat for a bit and chatted with Daniel about the restaurant, some of the quirks in service, and some of the critiques I’d heard from others before walking in the door and he noted that he and the chef had also heard similar critiques, many of which had already been addressed (small portion sizes) and many which will undergo continuing changes in near future. Insisting again that mistakes happen and others seemed to enjoy it as he apologized a third time for the fish I assured him that I’d had a fantastic evening overall and that of my many fortunate dining experiences over the last several years it was hard to think of any single place where food art and science met so closely with nature; “Alinea meets L’Arpege” was the comparison I made and while neither the food nor the service were on par with either those are some pretty lofty standards for a restaurant merely one year old.