The Kir Breton.
The foie gras “log” with pickled morels, kumquats.
Carrot sorbet, aloe vera gelée, quinoa.
Crennologie (apple, cucumber, fennel).
Pork “à la Thailandaise.”
The pinesicle; photo by Clement Hsu.
Front dining room; photo by Clement Hsu.
A friend and I were recently talking about Patti Smith, and poetry, and how fewer people seem to groove on poetry these days. Sometimes you stumble across a piece that will really resonate with you and give you pause, from a glimpse of beauty from Rumi to some riffs from a young poet badass. Sometimes you scratch your head, aware that you are totally missing something as you read it (or listen to it). Or maybe you kind of get it, but not entirely (like what happens with a weird or badly told joke).
No one ever said poetry was easy to grasp. But it certainly has its place. And sometimes it is the prettiest way for something to be said.
When chef Dominique Crenn left the corporate hotel restaurant world (Luce), you could see her next project (in the former PlumpJack Cafe space) was going to be her dream baby. She had her Michelin star stashed in her chef’s coat pocket, and her Iron Chef win tucked into her knife bag. (And, being the artiste that she is, I’m sure a few leather-bound journals of poetry were under her arm.)
Her restaurant, ~ATELIER CRENN~, is many chefs’ dream baby. It’s intimate and well appointed, built around a tasting menu format, with a wicked talented staff, a pastry kitchen that doubles as a lab, and a patio with enough room for some rather honking liquid nitrogen tanks. You know she labored over every decision: the tables, the forks, the menu font. Both Crenn’s website and menu proclaim: Poetic Culinaria. It gives the diner a hint about the stanzas that are about to come.
Diners have the option of a tasting menu ($125) with 11-plus courses, or 3 courses ($62), or 4 courses ($72). Vegetarian? There’s a menu for you as well ($95). The tasting menu can be a time commitment, so be sure you’re dining with someone you find fascinating for a few hours. (Fortunately the chairs are as comfortable as they are chic.) But if you can pony up for it, it’s the way to go for your first visit. This is not a heavy and butter-laden tasting menu that will have you feeling overly full and lethargic when you push your chair back from the table. Both times I left feeling comfortable and sated—a bit energized, even—although bigger eaters may not agree.
The tasting menu began with a warm but dry bite of pain au lait (an odd first impression—next, please), and then an amuse of frozen yet fluffy green pea “soup” on a spoon, a palate-awakening explosion of green pea, mint, and Thai basil. It was the opening salvo we were looking for, and was all about fun with nature … and liquid nitrogen.
The Kir Breton is a play on Dominique’s parents’ birthplace (Brittany): a frozen sphere of creamy cocoa butter topped with a dollop of crème de cassis, and cider contained within. It’s a capricious bite—you have to pop it into your mouth all at once, like pani puri.
And then we got hit with the carrot dish, a little something from the vegetarian menu. The supple quenelle of carrot sorbet that had seen some time in a Pacojet packed a wallop of that unmistakable carroty flavor, and veered into the sublime with the base notes of aloe vera and elderflower gelée on the plate, and crisp quinoa. I have never had aloe vera in a restaurant before. I sat there, pondering the wispy, delicate flavor and texture. These are the kinds of dishes that give you pause. They read like flavor poetry. You totally get it.
And then there’s the foie gras “log.” Like the pea amuse, this is another example of the kitchen putting some science to work to make things taste and feel amazing in your maw. The textured ceramic plate featured a long cylinder of foie that looks like shaved pieces of creamy bark. My notes about how the kitchen made it went like this: foie gras, poached in milk, sea salt, H20, frozen, shaved. Sounds simple—but assuredly, it so wasn’t.
This dish had it all: pickled morels and thin kumquat crisps that cut the fattiness of the creamy foie, dots of vanilla pudding, leaves of pea shoots, and a crumble of almond nougatine. It’s a beautiful dish, so artfully composed on the plate. You know the kitchen spent a while plating that thing. Tweezers and squeeze bottles in effect. On another visit, the kumquats were swapped out for pickled cherry slices, but the texture of the foie was less flaky. Still mightily delicious, but not transcendent like the first time.
A few of the dishes—while featuring harmonious and creative flavors, and gorgeous presentations—left me feeling unmoved. In those moments I feel like the kitchen is holding back a little bit—yes, there is the goal of making something soigné, or elegant, or refined. Perhaps they’re getting distracted trying to balance everything in the complex presentations. But the most memorable dishes are remembered for their flavor (and not necessarily for their looks).
Like the pork “à la Thailandaise” one evening, a luscious cube of pork belly in a compressed lettuce cup with little half moons of kiwi compressed in cucumber juice, plus a creamy dressing of coconut and French curry, and macadamia. And the pairing with Abbaye de St. Amand, a Belgian blond ale flavored with juniper berries? Groovy. The stage was set. But where was the Thai heat component? Don’t be afraid, I can take it. Spicy can be soigné.
And then the kitchen unloads the Crennologie, an intermezzo of apple, cucumber, and fennel, a napoleon of frozen textures and bright flavor. Beauty. More, please.
I am loving the wave of creativity we are seeing in San Francisco kitchens right now, and Atelier Crenn is definitely part of the vanguard. Atelier is an apt name—the kitchen is constantly tinkering, evolving, trying different techniques and plating, adjusting with the seasons and the produce they’re getting from their relationship with Gouge Eye Farm near Sacramento. You can feel the intense focus just seeping out of the kitchen, overhearing an occasional bark from the chef de cuisine. It’s not one of those restaurants you visit once, tick off your list, and call it a day.
And with the tinkering can come missteps, like some compressed asparagus one evening that was terribly salty (why compress it at all?), overripe avocado, or ramps that were over-pickled and tried to dominate a dish (I gave them a little shove to the side of the plate with my fork—back off!). So, non, the cuisine is not perfect. Sometimes a little distant and wandering. But it’s also fascinating, and personal, and revelatory, and in many ways, lovely. And it’s a place I will return to.
There are many dishes I am not mentioning here: the smoked farro and mushroom consommé, the Arctic char in an uni and carrot emulsion, tender lamb sweetbreads, the ruby red pigeon. Suffice it to say, I don’t want to write a 3,000-word review dissecting each dish ad infinitum.
My experience with the tasting menu wine pairing option ($68) was a bit up and down—some pairings highlighted a dish so seamlessly, while a couple others were distracting. There’s a part of me that just likes to open a bottle of something (or, er, maybe two) to ride through a tasting menu in places like this. I like to pay closer attention to the dishes, without the whir of glassware with each course, while getting to know a bottle of wine really well. Whatever your pleasure, the skilled staff can make strong recommendations from Will Brajnikoff and Chris Park’s (quirky) list.
And I haven’t even told you about the desserts! Whoa, what a show. Pastry chef Juan Contreras is doing some wild stuff. I kind of don’t want to give it away—the element of surprise when servers bring sliced logs topped with textures and flavors of lemon and olive oil to your tables, Douglas fir frozen gelato “pinesicles,” an epic bonsai mignardises scene … it’s quite fantastic. Cue the dry ice. Sure, the carrot “cake” left me a bit puzzled (it was fanciful, but the overall texture of the dish was gummy), but just the same, Contreras is a bright new comet in our pastry world.
The restaurant has a minimalist elegance to it, with soft tones and clean lines, and many elements are an ode to nature, with smooth and beveled wood tables, and tribal-looking light fixtures that look like nests descending from the woven reed ceiling, which Dominique says is evocative of fences you’ll see at French farms. There’s artwork from her father, and handblown light fixtures along the wall are delicate and beautiful, as is the glassware. French, of course. (Degrenne.) And as the night went on, the atmosphere of the room got livelier, with guests talking about their meals, sharing bites, and even chiming into conversation with other tables. (If you want a quieter experience, request the back room.)
It’s a churning sea of chaos outside, the infamous Triangle of Cow Hollow, teeming with off-the-chain 20-somethings who just wanna do shots and party and hook up. Atelier Crenn’s location is not unlike the paradigm of COI on Broadway, an island of class in a sea of strip joints and weekend thuggery.
Your cab driver may have a hard time finding the restaurant (just go by the street number—there’s no big sign to look for). But once you’re inside, nestled into your chair, and your first glass of Champagne has been poured, you’ll be having your own kind of fun. Starting with some Kir Breton shots.