Every once in a while, I walk into a restaurant space in San Francisco that makes me say, “Wait, whoa, we get to have this?” I had that feeling when I first saw The Progress, and Quince, and Saison. Sightglass too. And now, taking in the crisp, clean, white, modern lines of PETIT CRENN, it makes me happy to see this place taking a stand against all the reclaimed wood and boring chairs and safe colors that are holding our city hostage. I grinned at the glossy and white resin pieces on the walls (by Lucky Rapp), with French phrases in cursive.
It’s more seaside restaurant than stark gallery: elements like the walnut tables (held over from the space’s previous incarnation as Bar Jules), pillows in varying shades of taupe and off-white, pendant lights suspended from white rope, ceramic cider boules (made by Issa Pottery in Sausalito), and antique silverware help create a feeling of rootedness, ease, and warmth, with a nod to Brittany’s maritime roots (echoed in the staff’s jaunty blue-and-white striped aprons).
Since this is chef-owner Dominique Crenn’s casual offshoot, her Michelin two-starred Atelier Crenn’s $200-plus tasting menu has been swapped out for a family-style, prix-fixe menu, which is $72 (inclusive of gratuity).
I went in for a soft opening dinner last week (it officially opens tonight) for a closer look. The family-style format means you will be dining with strangers, and while some couples will enjoy the unexpected conversation and experience, reserving a table for a group of four may mean you get your own table. Seatings are for 6pm and 8:30pm, and the food comes out in waves to all the tables at once. (My friend and I dined with another couple, happily who I already knew, but there was a funny moment of “aha!” when you realize you are sharing a table and dining with others. Crenn is trying to create a fun dinner-party vibe. Let’s play along.)
The menu is written on the wall on a blackboard, a nod to French bistros (and Bar Jules!), so you don’t need to order anything—just sit back and let it happen. Crenn’s roots are in Brittany, so she wanted to reconnect with the food of her childhood and showcase seafood, vegetables, and a simpler style of cuisine. She pays homage to her mother and grandmother with this location (Atelier Crenn was in honor of her father). Her executive sous chef, Aaron Thayer, was previously sous chef at Atelier Crenn.
The menu unfolds beautifully, starting with a classic, baby radishes with salt and butter, followed by Morro Bay Miyagi oysters with smoked tomato gelée and sea beans, and the silkiest rolled omelet with tarragon. Hopefully you have ordered your bubbles by the time the gougères filled with clouds of Navarrais cheese appear.
I went crazy for the stylish ice bucket designed by Tina Frey (it’s going on my wish list), which our bottle of sparkling chenin blanc from Vouvray’s Vincent Raimbault ($52) got plunked into. Personally, I found the list of Champagnes to be far too spendy (the least expensive bottle was from Hubert Paulet for $130), so be sure to check out the “Not Champagne” section of the wine list if you love bubbles but don’t have a big budget.
You’ll also see a list of five ciders (local and French), but I’d like to see at least one poured by the glass, especially considering how extensive and fabulous the by-the-glass selection is (17 in all). Francophiles will enjoy navigating wine director Courtney Humiston’s French-heavy list (with many natural wines), and there a few other European (Italian, Austrian) and California selections as well.
Back to the parade of dishes. There was a tureen containing escargot with a spoonful of mushroom broth and chanterelles, and fortunately there is some bread by Josey Baker on the table, which you will use to mop up the cheesy goodness from the blistered cauliflower gratin with Espelette and smoked bread crumbs (many ingredients get a kiss from the Argentine-style grill). Our table was totally taken with the simplicity of the cabbage with shallots and charred leek vinaigrette.
And then the main event comes out: a Passmore Ranch fire-roasted trout for two, filled with huge leaves of sage from Crenn’s farm, grilled lemon, and thyme, and topped with a cider sabayon. The savory part of the meal concluded with a Little Gem salad and the surprise of slices of a washed rind cheese from Brittany.
And then our table was delighted with the Meyer lemon mousse and lemon granita layered into little hollowed-out oranges, with a flick of fennel pollen (Crenn said her mother used to make this dish, orange givrée, for her). The finale of mignardises signals the end of your dinner party, and it’s time for the next seating to take your place. The meal moves at a good pace, and it’s fun to lose track of the menu and forget what’s coming next.
A few notes: be sure to alert them to any dietary restrictions 72 hours before your reservation. Obviously the menu will change with what’s in season and available. You can request the chef’s table (room for six, $120 each), and there are 10 seats at the bar facing the open kitchen, where you can come by for a glass of wine, oysters, and other à la carte selections (5pm-10pm, no reservations needed). To repeat, seatings are Tue-Sat at 6pm and 8:30pm, reservations required.
Petit Crenn will eventually morph into an all-day café in September, serving a light breakfast (pastries, omelette français, and oeuf à la coque) and lunch (crêpes, tartines, and salads); we’ll keep you posted. 609 Hayes St. at Laguna, 415-864-1744.
You’ll get to see chef-owner Dominique Crenn at your table more than once. Photo: © tablehopper.com.