Atelier Crenn- San Francisco, CA

There is a place in San Francisco called Atelier Crenn.  It is a restaurant, a gallery and a workshop where a gifted artisan creates edible landscapes of ocean, forest and garden- breathtaking plates of ‘poetic culinaria’ where one journeys not only through metaphoric compositions of vibrant colors and shapes, but also through literal translations of intense ripe flavors.  It is a place of beauty and splendor, much like its chef Dominique Crenn, whose creations show us an honest appreciation of nature’s bounties while confidently impressing with her unique gift for stunning artistry.  Intricate arrangements of perfectly prepared elements reflect deep thought and careful intention, drawing us into its alluring imagery that ultimately intoxicates with bold flavors and seductive aromas- each plate, a sonnet that celebrates life, and each bite, an elixir of life.

I have been graced with Chef Crenn’s presence a year ago when she took me by the hand and led me into her world of provocative wonder at, what was for me, the best of the Test Kitchen dinners- a poached egg blanketed in a coat of winter truffle snow, lightly fired venison frolicking in a meadow of pea shoots and buckwheat, and a sloping hillside of quinoa and quince, all a thought provoking inspiration.

This time she leads me down, down into the rabbit hole, to another one of her enchanting fairytales. The journey begins at Table 21, the best table in the house with a direct view into the kitchen where Crenn orchestrates magical symphonies of hot and cold, vegetables and meat, and savory and sweet.  In the minimalist dining room, service flows effortlessly by a tight team operation that elevates the experience to supreme excellence, attention given to each wanton crumb that may threaten the perfection of the poetic fantasy.  There is a palpable feeling of genuine love for the craft by all working at Atelier Crenn, an infectious love that emanates from its inspirational source, the chef, which transcends throughout the evening to create one of the most memorable dining experiences.

Pear, Pumpkin, Foie Gras

An amuse of fall flavors descends onto the table, cold foie pearls tickling our tongues and mingling with the sweetness of pear cubes.  There are spiced pumpkin seeds and crispy bread, textural contrasts to the luscious creamy pear custard.

Trout Skin, Caviar, Rouille

Nestled within a carpet of fallen autumn leaves is a crispy trout skin chicharrón, curled at the edges, crackling with delightfully unrelenting vigor with bursts of salty trout roe and saffron rouille flavors.

Yuba, Daikon, Orange

There are more playful textures for our palates to take pleasure in, a fragile frame of crispy yuba that shatters into a million delicious pieces around pickled daikon ribbons that are tightly bound like balls of knitting yarn.  There are orange aioli dots and edible flowers of purple and yellow, signature adornments that find their way throughout the tasting dinner to remind us of the grace and finesse of this gifted female chef.

Kir Breton

Three perfect white orbs are served for the next course, delicate thin spheres of white chocolate with crème de cassis reduction nipples, worthy of a centerpiece at a Mad Hatter’s party.  Dainty little morsels they are, Crenn’s rendition of Kir Royale in a mouthful- liquid filled chocolate so delicate that we are instructed not to grasp them with our fingers, but to raise the slate up to our mouths- yet an explosion of sparkling draft cider from the collapsed chocolate shell is anything but.  It is at once shocking, exhilarating and arousing.

‘Le Jardin’

A terrarium of vibrant vegetables comes next, some pickled, some fresh, some erect and some draped, an elegant microcosm interspersed with pearly puffed quinoa and crispy wild rice that gives the root vegetable medley a touch of playfulness.  There are parsnips, beets, radishes and carrots, a real life garden almost too beautiful to eat, but once consumed, demands a nod to the chef who has treated these vegetables with the utmost love and respect.

Oyster ‘Japonaise’- Sake, Mirin, Tapioca, Sea beans, Crème fraîche

Kusshi oysters are poached in sake and beurre blanc then served, still warm, under a cloud of Meyer lemon foam and tarragon leaves.  The briny treasures dance in a splashing ocean of slippery tapioca pearls and sake cubes while on land, just by the shore, a crunchy twig of salicornia releases subtle nuances of salinity.

Soba gnocchi, Ginger, Ume, Galanga

Buckwheat soba flour rolled into bite sized gnocchi are pillowy soft, saturated with a hearty ginger consommé that is accented with droplets of ume purée, a salty but comforting broth that we sip, quietly, to the last drop.  Crenn has a way with her dishes, a style of relaxed confidence and subdued ingenuity that I really love, where every detail is a thoughtful character in a romantic fable- from the scallion that is seared just the right amount to enhance the broth, to the shrub of crispy fried scallion root that sways like fan coral.

‘Ocean and Land’- Wagyu beef, Smoked sturgeon, Red Onion, Capers, Cornichon

Crenn’s rendition of beef tartare strews its components across the plate- shaved cornichon curled ever so gently, a black sesame chip resting at a perfect slant to catch the light and red onion gel cubes placed just so- movement and migration from ocean to land.  Each bite of Wagyu beef is a different experience depending on which components find their way onto the fork- it may be a jolt of horseradish custard that pierces upward through my nose, poached mustard seeds and fried capers that elegantly crunch under my bite or a potent smokiness that melts, then permeates into my palate from the smoked sturgeon pearls.  It is a splendid dish that dances on the plate and comes to life in my mouth.

Carrot Sorbet, Aloe, Quinoa, Micro Thai mint, Pansies

Just when I think that the dinner cannot get any better, Crenn serves a glass plate of carrot sorbet, a creamy quenelle with the sweetness of a hundred carrots and the brightness of a thousand summers.  It is augmented with contrasting textures of slippery aloe gel and crunchy fried quinoa, an altogether delight of intense flavors and joyful textures that finds its way into my sweet spot and lingers, lovingly.

Foie Gras ‘Log’- Apple, Vanilla, Cocoa Nib, Balsamic Vinegar

Foie gras is poached in milk, flash frozen, shaved and allowed to slowly melt to form a fine network of miniscule cracks on its surface that resembles a tree bark.  The longitudinal shavings continue to melt in my mouth into liquid gold, mingling with tart balsamic gelée and dots of apple and vanilla purée that are ever so perfectly sweet.  Crenn, in signature style, keeps the textures alive by garnishing the foie with a crispy coconut wafer sprinkled with cocoa nibs in this dish where I find the only criticism of the entire tasting dinner- that there is too much foie (quantity, not quality)- which speaks volumes about the experience.

‘Walk in the Forest’- Champignons, Pumpernickel, Pine, Hazelnut

Crenn takes us on a walk through a serene forest where a medley of mushrooms rests on a soft carpet of burnt pine meringue, bruléed to exquisite bitterness.  There is a tinge of vinegar in the background, just the perfect amount to balance the intense concentrated earthiness of the tossed fungi- chanterelles, maitake and royal trumpets.  Follow the markers of purple pansy petals along the woven path to the majestic king of the forest, a dehydrated royal trumpet mushroom sliced paper thin, standing tall and proud over the only forest that I wouldn’t mind getting lost in.

Trou Normand- African Rooibos

Suited waitstaff with serious expressions appear like a funeral procession bearing heavy stone coffins that are set on the table with a deep thud.  Yet once opened, there is life inside, and it is a beautiful life, one that evokes childhood memories of a creamsicle with sweet orange granité, African rooibos tea sorbet made light and smooth, and honey sweet chunks of winter persimmons at their peak.

Steelhead Trout ‘Basquaise’- Romesco, Olive, Pearl Onion, Lemon

Sous vide steelhead trout is perfectly rare and delicately moist, a handsome specimen of fish flavored with rich romesco mussel foam and adorned with crown jewels of pickled red onions, smoked buckwheat and dehydrated picholine olives that turn to ash at the gentle touch of the fork.

Guinea Hen ‘Thailandaise’- Coconut, Cilantro, Basil, Ginger, Chanterelles, Bok Choy

Tender cuts of guinea hen are sexy in a Thai preparation with luscious coconut custard, lime and cilantro purée, bok choy and a dusting of snow white coconut powder.  The flavors are solid, but once again, Crenn’s mastery of textures refines the dish as the crispy poultry skin crunches between my teeth as do the little shards of fried Thai basil crumble that ultimately steal the show.

Goat, Salsify, Lentils, Butternut squash, Grapefruit

It is a celebration of goat 3 ways and many have come to partake in the festivities.  There is a log of tender butternut squash topped with a dollop of yogurt and a crispy rice saffron chip.  Ruby Red grapefruit cells glisten like dew drops over fresh radishes, and crispy quinoa is sprinkled over strings of fresh salsify pasta like confetti.  Lentils- oh the lentils- they are cooked in a generous pool of butter and stock to get that ideal hearty consistency and flavor.  Two cuts of goat loin are delicious, but the fatty cut of goat belly, topped with a thin layer of crisped skin, simply melts in my mouth.

Cheese Board

There are 4 types of cheeses, from a Tomme de Belley to a wedge of soft Sofia with blue ash streaks that go particularly well with a smear of honey.

Eucalyptus, Lemon, Honey

Atelier Crenn’s talented pastry chef Juan Contreras steps up to the plate for the remainder of the tasting dinner where we see his talent come to life in breathtaking desserts that are inspired by nature.  Eucalyptus, lemon and honey lollipops are kept cold at the base of a eucalyptus arrangement, its astringent aromas released into the air as we grab a branch that doubles as a lollipop stick.  The cool creamy disc melts with ease inside my mouth and a wind tunnel of frigid tingling freshness forms in my nares as I deeply inhale and exhale.

Pear, Quince, Sage

A beautiful Japanese siphon coffee maker joins us at Table 21 and the fire is turned on to start the dessert consommé.  Hot water percolates up from the indigo flames of the bunsen burner into the glass above, slowly darkening into a rich amber hue from the gradual infusion of vanilla beans, cinnamon, allspice, star anise, citrus peels and pansy petals.

Autumn turns to winter- the change of the seasons drops the first layer of powder snow onto a carpet of red leaves- edible hibiscus leaves of tawny red and spoonfuls of bright pink quince granité peek through a layer of soft yogurt sage powder.  The powder has quietly settled onto the sloping edge of a pear, or rather a pear sorbet shaped into a miniature pear, pristine, frosted and beautiful enough for a Christmas ornament.  There are subtle flavors of brown butter that deepen through each consecutive sip of the warm consommé, and within each icy spoonful of this sensational dessert comes a delightful little crunch- phyllo dough sliced so thin that it is barely visible to the naked eye, baked and incorporated into the mound of blissful sweetness.

Mignardises

Mignardises and petit fours always seem like an afterthought at restaurants, a final course offered for the sake of ritual only, ultimately disappointing with uninspiring bites that fall flat.  For the first time in my life, I feel genuine delight and absolute joy- Contreras’ smorgasbord of delectable mignardises are just as incredible as his desserts.  There are kalamansi marshmallows under a bonsai tree, French nougats too, and blueberry and ceylon pate de fruit, raspberry and cinnamon pate de fruit and the best of the bunch, Maldon sea salt caramels that are oh so heavenly.

There are cookies and lemon zest madeleines too.

And dark chocolate boards, chocolate passion fruit ganache, chocolate marshmallows and coffee cream cylinders coated with crunchy white chocolate balls.

How is it that this decadent meal can be so consistently excellent, course after course, with the only single criticism being a pompous one of too much foie gras on one plate?  Crenn is a master of flavors, extracting the purest of flavor profiles and essences from each ingredient and carefully presenting them in unison to manifest her romantic inspirations.  There is a thoughtfulness of textures, be it crispy capers and poached mustard seeds that crunch ever so delicately, hints of fried quinoa juxtaposed against silken sorbet or a gush of carbonated liquid from a slowly melting chocolate shell.  Her food is engaging and captivating, creating a delicious fantasy where we are allowed to be its hero, navigating through each course and evolving, together, with her visions.
Thank you, Chef Dominique Crenn, for this exquisite meal- I hope that upon my return, Atelier Crenn will be awarded with the 2 Michelin stars that I believe it deserves.

Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore Street                                                                                                         San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 440-0460

Random trivia: Did you know that the collective name for a group of guinea hens is a ‘confusion’?

Pizzetta 211- San Francisco

While New York City and Chicago are famous for delicious pizzas, out on the west coast the city of San Francisco (and its vicinity) is quietly gaining a reputation for being a pizza capital of its own.  Little Star Pizza’s deep dish pizzas, Pizzaiolo, Pizzeria Delfina, Emilia’s, Flour & Water, Pizzeria Picco, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Pulcinella and Una Pizza Napoletana, formerly in the East Village in NYC and recently reopened in SF, are all tough competitors on the SF pizza scene.  Pizzetta 211, a tiny store in the Richmond district, has been satisfying pizza cravings since 1999, long before artisanal pizza became a trend.  I found my near perfect pizza and pizza joint in this unassuming charming restaurant that only has 4 tables and 4 counter seats.  During rush hour you may have to wait outside in the San Francisco chill for a while, but on the afternoon that I went, it was only half full and I cozied up to the counter in front of the tiny kitchen to watch the chefs make my pizza from scratch. 

Pizzetta 211 was opened by Ria Ramsey and Sher Rogat, neither whom are formally trained chefs, but both with a passion for food with an emphasis on local seasonal food, sustainability and quality ingredients.  Maybe it’s their laid back personality, or the fact of having women in the kitchen, but I felt an instant ease and comfort in slipping into my seat and watching them construct my pies.  There was no loud music, no chaos, no rush and no attitude- just a relaxing time in this peaceful pizza haven as they poured their hearts into each vegetable and drop of oil that garnished the pizzas. 

The small countertop is filled with fresh seasonal produce, from heirloom tomatoes and mission figs, to locally cured olives and brocolli rabe.  Pizzetta 211 has a few classics on the menu like a simple basil, tomato and mozzarella pizza with a choice of pepperoni or white anchovy, but most of the pies change weekly, and one mustn’t become too attached to any one creation. This is easier said than done, as I myself am left yearning and fantasizing about the 2 pizzas that I had, almost to the point of torture. 

Each individual order begins with the preparation of the crust, a smooth white dough that the chef stretches and shapes by hand with a delicate, unaggressive feminine touch.   The first pie, a piadine, is drizzled with olive oil before going into the oven, after which it becomes beautifully decorated with baby romaine, dry farmed early girl tomatoes, applewood smoked bacon and shavings of pecorino cheese.  The thin crust is perfect for me, evenly cooked through to the center, withstanding the vegetable juices and olive oil well, and not becoming soggy at all.  The consistency is doughy and chewy enough to give substance, but unobtrusive and undistracting from the fresh ingredients on top.  Its texture is soft and supple, like a woman’s body.  Its flavor is light and delicate, creating the perfect base upon which the main characters can take center stage and shine.  This pie is mostly about the farm fresh salad, but each bite reveals a perfect hint of smoked bacon to add richness and roundness to the flavors.  An amazing, well thought-out and delicate pizza that reflects the grace and beauty of its female artisans. 

The farm egg, house made sausage, pimento pepper, fontina and cilantro pesto pizza shows a more robust and daring side to Pizzetta 211.  The crust is baked a little more, crispier at its brown edges while still maintaining a pleasurable chew in the center.  It too holds up to the layers of moist ingredients in the center, like the creamy fontina cheese and sunny side up farm egg that paints the rest of the pizza a golden yellow with its rich oozy yolk.  The homemade sausage chunks with the slightest hint of spices are amazing, as are all of the other components of the pie which each serve their purpose.  Nothing is out of place, and everything is in perfect balance. 

Other pizzas on the rotating menu that week were a rosemary, fiore sardo cheese and pine nuts pizza, and a roma tomato sauce, savoy spinach, feta, red onion and nicoise olive pizza.  The latter I witnessed being made for a table in the corner, with a barely there thin spread of tomato sauce topped with just the right amount of cheese for an unaggressive and classy presentation to enhance the star ingredients.  At Pizzetta 211, a cozy homey nook run by 2 exceptional women, I found my perfect pizza in the sensational piadine.  The only imperfection is that I will likely never see it again.  But then again, ‘even imperfection itself may have its perfect state’ (Thomas de Quincey). 

Pizzetta 211

211 23rd Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94121-2008
(415) 379-9880

Random trivia: Did you know that pizzerias represent 17% of all restaurants in the US?

Pizzeria Delfina- San Francisco

Thin crust, stuffed crust, deep dish, hand tossed, brick oven, wood oven, Neapolitan, Sicilian- pizza has come a long way from the topping-less flatbreads that were considered peasant food in early Greece and later in 16th century Italy.  We owe it to Queen Margherita of Savoy for taking a liking to these crusty delights, for it is in honor of her pizza cravings that the first pizza with cheese and toppings was created, the famous Pizza Margherita with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil that represent the colors of the Italian flag.  Pizza became a popular street food in Naples, Italy where it was initially enjoyed as take out food wrapped in paper, but when Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba opened what is regarded to be the first pizza restaurant, pizza culture took a huge turn for the better.

The arrival of Italian immigrants to the US in the late 19th century brought this wonderful culture to our country, first in New York City at Lombardi’s, and westward ho through Chicago where the deep dish pizza was born.  Pizza chains like Shakey’s and Pizza Hut popularized it as the new American comfort food, only second to hamburgers, while Domino’s made it more accessible.  In the last decade pizza has gotten a face lift with gourmet toppings in upscale restaurants, like the famous smoked salmon and caviar pizza at Spago’s.  With the diversity of pizzas and infinite choices of styles that we have today, everybody has a specific preference for how they like their pies.  Pizza wars and pizza debates, unlike the Cold War, will likely never end with peace and resolution.  

Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco is a popular favorite among pizza connoisseurs, praised for their Neapolitan inspired thin crust pizzas.  Craig and Ann Stoll opened this pizzeria in the Mission district in 2005 next to their Italian trattoria called Delfina, and later a second restaurant in Pacific Heights.  I recently dropped in for a visit at the Mission location, a contemporary space done in sleek urban design.  Outdoor seating will guarantee some interesting people watching, but the indoor dining room and bar seating will get you a first hand look at the action that goes on inside the open kitchen.

A large chalkboard on the main wall shows the daily specials, which may range from broccoli fritti and chilled tripe to oven roasted mussels with garlic and chile.  6 Neapolitan style pizzas like Margherita and Quattro Formaggi are staples on the menu, while 2 pizza del giorno rotate with seasonal ingredients.

An antipasti called ‘crazy melon’ is interesting, large juicy watery wedges of yellow and red watermelon dressed with chili, mint, feta cheese and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.  Chile flakes accentuate the sweetness of the watermelon, making it a perfect refreshing dish for those hot summer nights.

Pizza Napoletana with tomatoes, anchovies, capers, hot peppers, olives and oregano is what the server recommended for us Delfina virgins.  The pizzas are baked at 770° in a gas-fired brick oven, creating an evenly crispy thin crust right through to the center, with puffed edges and charred blisters.  I appreciate the center not being soggy, and I like the consistency of the slightly chewy thin crust, but I’m not one for blackened edges or blackened toppings, and the tomato sauce’s strong acidity kills the balance of flavors for me.

Clam Pie with cherrystones, tomatoes, oregano, pecorino cheese and hot peppers comes with the clams successfully untorched, but with bigger balls of charred blisters at the edges of the crust.  While many favor the thin potato chip crunch into the hollow cavities of the popped blisters, I am a member of the chewy clan, and this pizza doesn’t quite satisfy my needs.  In this pie too, I find the spiciness and acidity of the tomato sauce to dominate and asphyxiate the clams.

For every person there is a uniquely perfect pizza, one with distinct flavors, certain crust characteristics, just the right amount of sauce, an uncompromising ratio of preferred toppings and a personal approach to table manners.  I know many who rave about Pizzeria Delfina as their quintessential pizzeria, but this was not where I found my dream pizza, and thus I continue my journey through more pizzerias in the world.

Pizzeria Delfina

3611 18th Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

(415) 437-6800

Random trivia: Did you know that watermelon is a vegetable, and not a fruit? It is related to cucumbers, pumpkins and squash.

Prospect- San Francisco

There have been many high profile restaurant openings in San Francisco this year, from Chef Corey Lee’s Benu, to Saison, Commonwealth and Prospect just to name a few.  Prospect opened on the ground floor of downtown San Francisco’s Infinity Towers condominium on July 2010 from the team that runs the highly successful restaurant Boulevard- Chef Nancy Oakes, Pam Mazzola and Kathy King.  Heading the kitchens of Prospect is Boulevard’s former chef de cuisine Ravi Kapur, who brings American regional flavors infused with French and Asian influences much like at Boulevard, but with a more casual style.

Prospect is modern and urbane, done in dark brown tones and sleek wood, from the canopied square bar by the front entrance to the expansive dining room that seats 120.  Cylindrical chandeliers float down from the tall ceilings of the dining hall, above the banquettes and tables from where diners can watch the city life through the large windows that run along Folsom Street.  On an early autumn weeknight, every seat in the house was full, even the communal table and the bar that seats up to 45.  While the crowds never ceased to fill every seat throughout the evening, the courteous and professional staff always stayed on cue with service.

Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining provided our wines for the evening, beginning with an enchanting 1990 Domaine Ramonet Chassagne Montrachet Morgeot.  The chef’s tasting menu began with a Green Goddess salad featuring coarse cuts of Armenian cucumbers, coined Persian cucumbers, buttery avocados and basil, all tossed together in a creamy and refreshing caper vinaigrette with a hint of anchovy.

Yellowtail crudo was enjoyable, a luscious piece of fatty hamachi gently draped over a crispy rice cracker.  The airy seaweed cracker gave easily to my bite, releasing a faint hint of wasabi aroma that augmented the richness of white miso aioli dots that decorated the surface of the fish.  Shaved radishes and pickled cucumbers brought vigor to the flavors and textures in this yellowtail dish that was architecturally beautiful but structurally flawed for graceful consumption.

Softshell crab, shiitake mushrooms, shishito peppers and shiso wrapped shrimp were  deep fried in a tempura batter and served in a yellow curry, miso and coconut milk sauce.  Japanese and Thai flavors intermingled in this delicious dish to create a happy marriage of complex yet complementary Asian flavors.  Crunchy sugar snap peas, baby shiitake caps and red microshiso garnish were all vibrant, making for a successful tempura curry that Gary from Vealcheeks especially enjoyed.

Pulled pork and gelatinous chunks of pig trotters were stuffed into panko-crusted packets of porcine delight, blanketed by long ribbons of summer squash and accents of capers, pickled celery, dill, mint sprigs and lemon basil.  Meaty chunks of Maine lobster were a heavenly adjunct to the pork, and savory lobster aioli served as an incredible accompaniment, but the heavy flavors of the dish needed an extra sprinkling of capers and pickled celery.

The single stand out item of the evening for me was the lamb’s tongue, a slowly braised and quickly seared half of juicy tongue that only needed a gentle push of the fork to cut.  The lamb loin wasn’t so impressive, nor was the romesco sauce made with roasted red peppers, almonds and sherry vinaigrette that tried to dominate the meat.  Poached Italian butter beans, briny green olives, and hints of purslane, artichokes and parsley were amazing, but none could compete with the intense savor and velvety texture of the tender tongue.  None, except for the bottle of 1978 Domaine Robert Arnoux Vosne-Romanée that Steve provided for the evening.  A special wine with an aged dark brown tint, aromatic with hints of berries and spices despite a tuft of mold growing on the outer layer of the cork, gliding down my throat with the ease of silk to leave a long finish.

 

Pastry chef Elise Fineberg, formerly of Citizen Cake and Jardiniere, started us with a refreshing bowl of pink pearl apple granité with blackberries, raspberries and whipped crème fraîche.

The table swooned over Chef Fineberg’s contemporary dessert of goat’s milk shortbread topped with dulce de leche, chocolate ganache and butterscotch, plated with hazelnut vanilla bean ice cream, toasted hazelnuts and root beer honeycomb on a bed of chocolate crumble.  The flavors were too rich and sweet for my taste, but I loved the assortment of textures and the playfulness of having these classic American sweets condensed into one beautiful plate.

The expansive industrial space at Prospect was beautiful, the service was impeccable and the vibe was merry.  The tasting menu had high notes and low notes, but overall it was well thought out and enjoyable.  Chef Ravi Kapur was just as I thought he would be- courteous, down to earth and humble at first, then vivacious and a tad eclectic upon deeper conversation- just like his food at Prospect.  Prospect is certainly off to a successful start, but I would like to see more boldness and a bigger splash of adventure and creativity in the flavors, something that would break apart from the delicate tameness that I tasted.  To quote my eloquent dining partner Gary of Vealcheeks, our experience at Prospect that evening was ‘more magical in theory than in practice.’

Prospect

300 Spear Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 247-7770

Random trivia:  Did you know that there is only a 4 day window to eat soft-shell crabs after they molt their hard shells and before they begin to rebuild their shells?

Benu- San Francisco

The evening began with a walk through an enclosed courtyard centered around young Japanese maple trees, just starting to take on a hint of red at the jagged edges of its pointy leaves.  I sat on the bench for a moment to admire this delicate portrait of early autumn.  Time stood still in the minimalist zen garden, and I held my breath for fear of disrupting the silence.  I was in the entrance of one of the most highly anticipated restaurants to open this year in San Francisco, Benu.

Reservations were already booked months ahead by the time Benu opened in early August, as diners were eager to be the first to see what James Beard Award-winning chef and owner Corey Lee had in store for his first solo venture. Numerous Michelin starred restaurants in England, France and the US stud his impressive résumé of 15 years in the culinary world, but none as impressive as his last stint as the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry.  During his tenure at The French Laundry, the restaurant was named the ‘Best Restaurant in North America’ by Restaurant Magazine and received 3 Michelin stars.  A natural progression for this gifted chef was to part from the nest and fly with his own two wings, much like a benu, a mythical sacred Egyptian phoenix after which the restaurant is named.  With the help of French Laundry colleagues as sous and pastry chefs, and a team of experienced designers, architects and purveyors, Chef Lee finally made his vision a reality.

Positioned opposite the serene garden is a large window into the kitchen where one can see the distinct teachings of Thomas Keller- a clean, well organized, immaculate kitchen in which the polished steel countertops shine with pride and glory.  Once inside, save for the dramatic crossbeams that intersect above the center island, the interior space is bare and simple, creating a neutral gray slate to set the stage for the colorful kitchen creations.  The tables are placed far enough from each other to promote a feeling of privacy and intimacy, and for the first time in what seems like decades, I can enjoy a quiet dinner conversation without raising my voice.

The $160 tasting menu begins with a box of paper thin toasted nori and sesame lavash, and head sommelier Yoon Ha presents our first bottle of wine, a 1998 Les Monts Damnés Sancerre that our dinner host Steve of Opinionated About Dining has graciously provided for our special occasion.  Steve, Chuck from ChuckEats, Lesley and I raise our glasses to this new experience together.

Thousand year old quail egg

A preserved quail egg, a common Chinese delicacy, finds its way onto a spoon as a small bite with microcelery and pickled ginger root.  The bite lasts for a fleeting 3 seconds, but the complexity of flavors linger on the palate, at first sour and ultimately earthy.

Tomato- dashi, summer blossoms

A beautiful study in layering of flavors, textures and colors using tomatoes.  A skinned red cherry tomato slips into a refreshing bath of tomato water augmented by a tinge of dashi, bashfully covering its naked body with an orange nasturtium petal.  The bright yellow tomato spherification is at first solid, then quickly bursts through its delicate membrane to become an herb laced pool of liquid inside my mouth.  Within seconds it all transforms into a faint fruity waft of air that permeates through the back of my palate.

Geoduck Clam- seaweed, raspberry-bonito vinegar

Thinly sliced geoduck clam tossed with white and green seaweed, while good, hardly seems like a congruous piece for a fine dining tasting menu.  The raspberry bonito vinegar foam that softly blankets the tender clam does little to make this dish sexy.

Caramelized Anchovy Gelée- peanuts, lily bulbs, chili, basil

Crispy baby anchovies, or chirimenjako, are tossed with cubes of caramelized anchovy gelée, crunchy peanuts, tender white lily bulbs (yurine), squiggles of red chili and microbasil.  The gentle feminine curves of the lily bulbs stand out against the more distinct dramatic shapes of its cohabitants in this beautiful dish that is more about colors, shapes and textures than the flavors that seem scattered.

Veal Sweetbreads- yuzu, carrots, pickles, mitsuba

Breaded veal sweetbreads are delightful, little brown nuggets of buttery richness that go particularly well with the pickled daikon radish, ramps and carrots.  A dollop of sweet carrot purée, a hint of yuzu aroma, a mitsuba leaf that looks like it floated off of a shedding winter tree- I imagine a backdrop of raked sand for what looks like a zen rock garden.

Eel- feuille de brick, avocado, crème fraîche

Moist eel with avocado purée rolled in a delicate thin sheet of feuille de brick pastry is sultry and sexy, the logo-stamped sheet wrapped around the base making it look like a cigarette resting on the side of an ashtray.  The eel roll is deep fried to a thin crisp, crackling under my bite ever so slightly.  The avocado crème fraîche topped with lime zest tempers the oiliness perfectly, and I fully enjoy this eel bliss.

Risotto- sea urchin, corn, lovage, black truffle

My favorite course of the evening is a perfectly executed black truffle risotto, studded with kernels of sweet corn and sprinklings of green lovage.  Small specks of black truffle release a powerful and intoxicating earthy aroma that titillates my sense of smell and stimulates my appetite.  Little slick orange tongues that are sea urchin melt effortlessly in my mouth, leaving a sweet creamy savor with a hint of saltiness on my palate that sends an instant pleasure signal up to my brain.

Monkfish liver torchon- turnip, onion, mustard seed relish, cherry brioche

A translucent endive hugging the circumference of a silky cylinder of monkfish liver, a blot of bright red cherry sauce against a muted palette, a shiny brown nut seemingly placed at random, a quartered turnip laying on its side, dark green herb spears at skewed angles facing due east and south- by this point of the meal I begin to understand Chef Lee’s artistic style, one that evokes effortlessless and randomness, but only through precision and calculation.  The flavors on the other hand, don’t quite reach this level, and I find the liver torchon, especially with the buttery brioche, too heavy, rich and even a tad musty.

 

‘Shark’s Fin Soup’-Dungeness crab, cabbage, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard

Thin shavings of carrots and faux shark’s fin made with a special gel are strewn over a plump segment of Dungeness crab meat embedded in a base of black truffle custard.  An intense meaty consommé made from Jinhua ham jus is poured at the table, intermingling with sprinkled bits of dried Jinhua ham to create a powerful deep salty flavor that goes well with the earthiness of the truffle custard.  Multiple layers of umami leave a long finish on my palate.

Sommelier Yoon Ha pours a decanted bottle of 1996 Emmanuel Rouget ‘Les Beaumonts’ Vosne Romanée 1er cru for the table as he compliments Steve on this choice of red.

Abalone vol au vent- spinach, artichoke, garlic, lemon, roasted chicken jus

Abalone on a bed of creamed spinach encased in a flaky puff pastry comes with a garden of beautifully prepared artichoke hearts, sweet pearl onions and earthy chanterelles. Candied lemon peels and parsley impart a light freshness to this otherwise robust dish.  The abalone is firm and difficult to cut, and not prepared as the tender buttery mollusk that I anticipate it to be.

Pork belly- fermented pepper, cucumber, perilla

Luscious pork belly is augmented by contrasting textures of crunchy cucumber balls and tender gelatinous sea cucumber.  Hints of fermented pepper and bitter perilla come through the sweet sauce that coats the meat.  The dish is good, but less appreciated by our full bellies and near-satiated appetites.

Eight Treasures Duck

Duck meat is tightly and neatly wrapped around a potpourri of seven treasures of gingko nuts, pine nuts, foie gras, black truffle, duck confit, breast meat and gizzards.  The eighth treasure lies in the sprinkled gold leaves that shimmer against the black slate.  While the concept of this course is fascinating, the orange flavors in the sauce are overpowering and the table cannot move past the first bite.

Sweet Rice Sorbet- pine nut purée, pine needle-infused honey

Multiple shades of white, each with their own distinct flavor and texture, present as the first dessert course.  A leaning sugar disc mounted on malted sweet rice sorbet, melting into a cloud of pine nut purée with a dollop of pine needle-infused honey on the side, work well as a refreshing palate cleanser.

Huckleberry sorbet- yogurt, lemon curd, vanilla sponge

The beautiful crimson huckleberry sorbet pops against the white yogurt foam, canary yellow lemon curd and vanilla sponge cake.  Fresh huckleberries and huckleberry sauce add more tartness to the sensational dessert while cookie crumbles give a crunchy texture.

Chocolates

Chocolates served on a custom designed multi-tiered platform come from La Forêt Chocolate in Napa Valley, created by former Pastry Chef de Partie and principal chocolatier of The French Laundry Wendy Sherwood.  Dark chocolate truffle, walnut, crème brûlée and toasted sesame are all spectacular.

Impeccable and attentive service in a serene dining space so peaceful that you feel like you’re in your own private bubble makes for an exclusive experience at Benu.  One can see careful thought and intention in every aspect of the restaurant, from the zen garden to the minimalist interior, the beautiful lacquer box that holds the lavash and the custom made plates that frame the edible art.  Chef Corey Lee’s sense of aesthetics are appreciated in every calculated millidrop and millifleck that subtly yet purposely decorates a dish.  His attention to detail and meticulous execution is respectable, and through each successive dish one can begin to understand the gifted artist in him.

Overall the tasting menu was good, with some individual dishes standing out as spectacular, yet somehow as a whole I find myself struggling to praise it as an amazing and memorable meal.  All of the elements are in proper order at this blissful zen institution, but I fail to attain culinary nirvana.  What is lacking is passion, fire and personality, elements which are understandably difficult to fully express in the first 3 months of an opening.  With time, I trust that Chef Lee will find his element and blossom into the powerful and awe-inspiring phoenix that his restaurant is named for.

Benu

22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 685-4860

Random trivia:   Did you know that Jinhua ham, produced in the Zhejiang province of eastern China, is one of the most famed dry-cured hams in the world alongside Spanish jamón ibérico and Italian prosciutto?  Its history dates back over 1,100 years, and it is highly regarded for imparting umami to soup stocks.