Atelier Crenn, San Francisco
Atelier Crenn is a one-starred Michelin restaurant. This was one of my highly anticipated meals of my trip to San Francisco that I even made it as my first meal when I got off the plane from NYC. I have read many reviews from various newspapers and magazine (and was highly recommended by a palate I trust ChuckEats) that rhapsodize Chef Dominique Crenn’s food is creative, enchanting, beautiful food that tastes delicious.
Chef Crenn earned her status over the years, especially her previous tenure at Luce at the InterContinental, earning Michelin stars for two consecutive years. She might be a familiar face to those who watch Food Network within the past two years with Iron Chef America (Battle yogurt).
When I arrived for my dinner reservation, my dining companion and I were greeted by Chef Crenn since she was by the hostess stand. A bit surprised to see the chef in the flesh, we said our hellos and she walked toward her kitchen.
The entire front of the house worn professional suits. They had a professional yet friendly demeanor and are very knowledgeable in the food, as they will be your sole source of information of what you will be having for the evening.
The restaurant’s decor looks and feels natural and minimalist yet cozy. Warm wood tables, a recessed ceiling that hangs a mat made of delicate reeds and branches, a comfortable banquette along the screen covered windows, and the intriguing antique light bulbs on the walls.
There are two tasting menus, the shorter 5-course $95 and the chef’s grand tasting menu (about 12 courses) for $160. Both menus do not list what will be served for the evening but poems that reflect the season and the fare. We opted for the grand tasting menu since we’re celebrating my graduation of my Master’s program.
We started off with a glass of Jean Babou Crémant de Limoux, Réserve L’Authentique NV ($14 per glass). A clean, smooth sensation with vivacious bubbles. There’s flavors of pear, peach and toast overtake the palate that lingers. It went along nicely with the amuse of yuba, daikon, and orange mayonnaise. Crispy, crunchy with undertones of bitterness to cut the creamy dots of bright orange flavored mayonnaise.
The next amuse was inspired by the cocktail Kir Royale. These orbs were made of thin white chocolate shell, filled with liquid crème de cassis (a blackcurrant liqueur) and sparkling cider, and topped with a cassis gel. All you have to do is pop it in your mouth – and don’t open it while chewing. It was a creative aperitif to start the meal.
The first course of rutabaga and grapefruit tea, rice cracker with togarashi, and uni was gorgeous already. The bright yellow, slightly bitter tea worked wonderfully with the delicate uni (sea urchin) that was dotted with Osetra paddlefish caviar, sweet, smoked butternut squash, lovage and tarragon. The crispy, slightly spicy rice cracker made this dish complete.
The next course Oysters looked like a serene little pond of bright green, beige and white with a side of oyster leaf sprinkled with sea salt (eaten first and it does tastes like an oyster). It’s poached oysters from Washington state with sweet compressed cucumber spheres, sake gelée, elderflower, seaweed, lime-juniper foam, and poured over with compressed wheatgrass juice. Each bite range from delicately sweet and floral to creamy with a touch of salinity from the oyster. A clean, wondrous dish.
The third course of peas, carrots and coconut is pretty self explanatory. I would have never thought of pairing coconut (the white crumbles) with those two spring vegetables work. But it really did. It was paired with warm whole wheat, rolled oat rolls to sop up the pristine, sweet pea juice.
According to our server, this course of seasonal vegetables with quinoa, beets, radish, daikon, and onion is considered Chef Crenn’s signature dish and one be able to eat it only during spring. It’s sweet, crunchy, touches of bitter. The incredible depth of flavor and texture from these vegetables didn’t make me miss meat and I wouldn’t mind being a vegetarian if I could eat this everyday.
The course of abalone, onion marmalade, pearl onion, ramp emulsion, bonito was landscaped, so to speak, with sea kelp and seasoned salt on the side. It looked like a beach in a heavy stone bowl and I never had abalone that tasted so intense before. This mollusk was gently smoked to bring out its meaty flavors and it was incredibly tender while the onion components created depth and enhanced the sweet flavors.
The intermezzo was a frozen, large stone bowl that’s filled with shiso granite, ginger, and apple. The shiso granite created a refreshing backdrop of mint-like flavors. When the granite is eaten with the frozen dome of ginger and tart apple sorbet, it’s a bracing, frozen bite to waken the palate.
Easing into the next verse of this edible poetry, we start with a simple plate of baby turnips with a trio of salts: Maldon (a large-flaked salt from England), lime-flavored Maldon, and an Australian pink salt. It’s an interactive dish that we could mix, match or stick with one salt to flavor the mostly raw turnips. I prefer using the Maldon and pink Australian salts for the bulbs to enhance the root’s sweetness and the lime-flavored salt to tweak the natural bitterness of the stems and leaves.
The fish course of this meal was the minimalist plate of madai, fried madai skin, ayu on a banana leaf. The buttery, mild fillet of madai was gently flavored with lemon zest. The fried madai skin topped with briny, juicy orbs of trout roe reminds me of a delicious fish flavored rice cracker. The ayu was sous vided and briefly blowtorched prior to serving that imparted a subtle smoky flavor to this sweet fish.
Progressing to the heavier proteins, we have shaved foie gras served with warm, fluffy brioche rolls (seen here). The foie gras was frozen then shaved into logs, dotted with vanilla pudding, apple puree, pickled porcini mushrooms, and large crumbs of chiffon cake. It’s a mixture of cold, creamy, crunchy mingled with sweet, with touches of tart and earthy. It’s the lightest and one of the most delicious cold foie gras preparations I’ve eaten by far.
The actual meat course we had for the evening was called “Black Ocean”. Slices of Wagyu seared beef, dotted with foie gras, sitting on black “crumbs” made of honey ash, ume, black garlic, and smoked sturgeon. Black tuile is a wild rice cracker made with squid ink. The wagyu was sublimely tender, salty (in a good way) and had a hint of smoky flavor. The black ocean of crumbs created this background of sweetness to balance the flavors and the tuile added a crisp texture. It was wonderful.
To prepare our palates, Chef Crenn walked out of her kitchen with this heavy, stone bowl that contained the tall Eucalyptus plant. She handed each of us a stem and said these are Eucalyptus lollipops. The strong medicinal scent of eucalyptus felt like it cleared my head and with the creamy, frozen lollipop, my palate to prepare for dessert.
If you haven’t played the video above to introduce you this captivating dessert created by the pastry chef Juan Contreras, click the top photo of the two (or CLICK HERE). This dessert was inspired by coal & ash. The clear glass plate contained a dessert of eggplant and honey with frozen crumbles of cashew and mint “ash.” The smoked wood tea poured into the vessel below to create an aromatic experience.
The dramatic wafting of the tea captured the attention of neighboring tables. Some even pulled out their smartphones to snap a photo of this dessert (and it happened to other tables who did have the chef’s grand tasting menu). Beyond the cold stream of clouds this dessert was simply amazing. I almost could not believe it’s a dessert partially made of eggplant. In all, it tasted sweet, nutty, smoky and refreshingly minty at the end.
At the end of the meal, Chef Juan Contreras walked out with this log of mignardises with a stone plate with chocolates. Since my video clip got part of his introduction of what’s served on the log, it’s ginger-passion fruit marshmallows, macarons of rose and moss-pistachio, traditional salted caramels, pâtes de fruits of raspberry and another fruit. The chocolates were cylinders of 33% chocolate ganache, infused with cocoa and white chocolate and cardamom, both encrusted with a crispy chocolate caviar, and the thin shards were 72% Venezuelan chocolate with its edges gilded in edible gold.
At the end of the meal, I have asked if I may photograph Chef Crenn. She graciously came out despite the fact it’s a very busy Friday night dinner service and let me take a photo of her in her kitchen.
This meal was certainly one of my top three meals. The creativity of Chef Crenn, pastry chef Contreras, and the rest of her team of chefs make this restaurant absolutely solid and progressive. If this restaurant doesn’t get at least two-stars for the 2013 Michelin SF guide, I would lose a lot of faith in that famous brick red guide.
To view more of my photos of this meal and the restaurant, please scroll through the slideshow below (or click through my Flickr set):
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