Walking into Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn’s new casual restaurant in Hayes Valley, PETIT CRENN, is like a breath of fresh seaside air. The clean lines and chic white palette (which includes glossy artwork by Lucky Rapp, curvy modern chairs, and pendant lights suspended from thick rope) do a lot to make guests quickly feel all easy-breezy. It also has one of my favorite place settings in the city, hitting a delightful note of soigné vintage.
You’ll smell a hint of smoke and feel the heat from the busy grill in the kitchen, especially if you’re sitting at the counter, where they offer an à la carte menu to walk-ins from 5pm-10pm. You can come by for the silky omelette ($18)—given a Japanese touch with a whisper of dashi alongside the fines herbes—or a deeply satisfying poached egg with warm chestnut vinaigrette and burnt bread ($12) and a glass of wine off wine director Courtney Humiston’s mostly French 14-glass list.
The main event is the prix-fixe menu ($79, including gratuity), written nightly upon the blackboard (provoking a swift remembrance of the space’s former incarnation as Bar Jules). Seatings are at 6pm and 8:30pm.
Be sure to get a glass of bubbles in front of you before the gougères filled with clouds of Navarrais cheese and topped with pickled shallot appear. Your palate will be sparked with the different oyster preparations that arrive next, from smoked tomato gelée and sea beans to grains of paradise and candied fennel mignonette.
You won’t find any meat here—the menu highlights seafood and is Crenn’s homage to her seaside home of Brittany (and to the cuisine of her mother and grandmother). Which also means the famous Breton butter will appear on the table, with customized Josey Baker bread, which you will lustily dunk into the leek cream sauce at the base of a huge bowl of mussels.
The main event is a whole wood-fired trout for two from Passmore Ranch, grilled to juicy perfection and topped with cider sabayon—your server will debone and fillet it for you at the table. It’s a welcome touch that contrasts the mostly absent feeling you’ll note regarding service throughout the night—they’re so busy rushing out food to the tables (along with the kitchen crew in their jaunty striped aprons) that some basics can slip through the cracks, like your glass being filled and plates cleared. Timing between courses can also be a little erratic—hopefully you’re dining with interesting people and won’t care too much. (I can see this all getting tightened up as the restaurant progresses.)
What I do love is the family-style format that really brings your tablemates closer together—it feels like you’re having a smashing (and generous) meal at your friend Dominique’s house. For the full experience, there’s also a chef’s table with room for six, $120 each. (Crenn’s executive sous chef, Aaron Thayer, was previously sous chef at Atelier Crenn.)
I also j’adore the vegetable-centric menu, like a blistered cauliflower gratin with Espelette and smoked bread crumbs (or a cheesy/crusty potato gratin), or cabbage with shallots and charred leek vinaigrette, or sweet roasted carrots with sumac, hazelnuts, and yogurt.
At the end of the meal, your table is served a salad of bitter greens, refreshing and crunchy with radish, persimmon, and other seasonal additions. You’ll also be presented with a slice of a sticky washed-rind cheese from Brittany off a platter. The menu is a study of simple things done well and leaves you feeling grounded and nourished on many levels. (You can order additional dishes off the à la menu, but you really don’t need to—you’ll walk out of there very sated.)
I had a diner with me one night who was vegetarian, and the kitchen took such good care of her. Just be sure to alert them to any dietary restrictions 72 hours ahead of time and they’ll make adjustments.
For dessert, a Far Breton aux pommes hit our table with three spoons. It was like a room-temp clafoutis with apples in it—simple, homey, and rustic. (Although I have fonder memories of the bright orange givrée from my first visit.) The mignardises—butter cookies, bitter chocolate truffles, and caramels—are a final flourish, but you won’t linger long with the wave of 8:30pm diners hawkeyeing your table from outside.
The restaurant is now serving breakfast and lunch, making it accessible to those who want to enjoy the chic atmosphere over buckwheat crêpes and trout tartines. The chic-yet-comfortable dining room. All photos: © tablehopper.com.