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’?

Test Kitchen- Dominique Crenn

Test Kitchen was one of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles in 2010, revolutionizing the culinary scene with its unique restaurant concept.  Every night was a pop-up night where different chefs took center stage for 1 to 3-night engagements to experiment with upcoming restaurant projects and new menus, while renowned mixologists paired the revolving menus with creative cocktails.   This new style of dining captivated flighty Angelenos, especially with its line up of celebrity chefs like Michael Voltaggio and Marcel Vigneron, and local darlings like Walter Manzke and TiGeorges.

Like many enthusiastic diners, I was hooked on Test Kitchen- who will be cooking next, and what exciting dish can I sample?  During its 3 month run I enjoyed 14 unique dinners, representing all facets of the culinary rainbow- from Vietnamese green papaya salad, Peruvian anticuchos, Haitian goat fricassee, Baja Mexico’s chocolate clams and Japanese pickled vegetables to microwaved spongecake with berry spherification.  It was a joy to see all of these talented chefs pour their hearts and souls into beautifully plated dishes, and there was one dinner that topped them all, one of the final dinners by Chef Dominique Crenn.

I was excited to meet this Michelin starred French female chef who has built quite a reputation, as Esquire Magazine’s 2008 Chef of the Year, as Indonesia’s first female executive chef, as the winner of a Michelin star for 2 consecutive years as executive chef of San Francisco’s Luce, and mostly recently, as the sensation that dominated Michael Symon on Iron Chef America in Battle Yogurt.  A stunning beauty with deep brown eyes and a fierce passion for her craft, Crenn is one of those extraordinary people that you only meet once in a blue moon.  She is not only charismatic and friendly, and undeniably talented in what she does, but also dedicated to supporting the delicate balance of our environment by fostering locally sourced seasonal food sources.

In a recent TEDx event, she preached what she practiced when she shared her vision of using food and art to honor nature as our ultimate nurturer, and her dedication to serve as an ambassador for the sustainable food movement.  In her preview dinner for her new restaurant Atelier Crenn, her poetic tribute to our beautiful earth proved to be the most memorable and delicious dinner at Test Kitchen for me.

After an amuse bouche of baby beets, radishes and turnips served raw with a hint of pesto, a duo of Kumamoto oysters arrived on a bed of sea salt, flash poached and topped with uni foam and Meyer lemon ‘cloud’.

The second course was a delicious marriage of eggs and truffle, a perfectly poached egg nestled comfortably in the arms of a decadent truffle emulsion and dressed with micro greens.  Their holy union was celebrated with a sprinkling of pure white truffle snow and a showering of dehydrated wild rice that added a wonderful contrast of textures to the creamy dish.  ‘Eggs and truffle’ was such an amazing dish, that we special ordered another round.  I couldn’t imagine anything being better than this, until the next course came.

Crenn’s food doesn’t try too hard- it doesn’t have to.  With her command of flavors and ingredients, she understands that good food is about preserving the inherent natural flavors of the ingredient, without overwhelming it with condiments or accessories.  Many chefs forget the ‘simple is better’ concept, overutilizing foams, dots, sauces and a variety of other components to impress diners with colors, 3 dimensionality and flair.  For the first time in my life, I felt as though I tasted real venison, lightly flamed, rare, tender and pure, like it was always supposed to taste, and it melted in my mouth.  Pickled pea shoots, cauliflower shoots and baby radishes had just the right amount of oil and vinaigrette coating, the rye sauce was perfectly tart and creamy, and a blanket of buckwheat imparted a sensational texture to the dish.  It was refreshing to have this simple and delicate venison dish without the overwhelming sweetness of berries with which it is usually paired.  I was confident that this was the single most successful and delicious dish in Test Kitchen history, until the next course came.

Veal sweetbreads, creamy and rich, were served with bone marrow discs, hickory smoked then breaded and fried.  Both sat in an oxtail bouillon with garnishes of micro celery, leeks and turnips.  This rustic meat dish surprised us all, as it was even more delicious than the previous dish, and the reason was simple- everything tasted like nature intended it to taste like.  Vegetables had the sweetness and bitterness of dark brown mineral rich soil, and bone marrow was cut to the perfect size with just the exact amount of breading to augment, not weigh down, its flavors.  The key element was the bouillon, a comforting broth with a touch of acidity, an understated presence and an intense flavor.  Crenn’s food was simple, graceful and honest, and I couldn’t imagine the final dessert course being better than this dish of perfection, but I was wrong.

The winter grain porridge, a completely new type of dessert, was the creation of Crenn’s pastry chef Juan Contreras.  Red Peruvian quinoa cooked in chamomile tea, tossed with poached quince braised with Tahitian vanilla, hazelnut milk, nougatine, kumquats, micro chamomile and hibiscus flowers, were arranged at a slant as a soft bed of earthy colors, evoking an image of a sloping hillside garden in spring. A hint of honey ice lay hidden underneath the soft mound of sweetness, each bite introducing a new combination of warm, cold, chewy, crunchy, light, sweet and fluffy.  I felt like I was digging my spoon right into the ground and enjoying the fruits of mother earth’s labor, and I couldn’t feel happier at that moment.

Inventive and modern, yet at the same time familiar and comforting, Dominique Crenn’s preview dinner for Atelier Crenn kept getting better with each course.  It had been a long time since a meal filled me with so much joy.  With food tasting like it was supposed to, and light simple ingredients, my body felt healthy and happy at the end of the meal, unlike others that drive me into a debilitating state of food coma fatigue.  This was one of the best meals that I have had in my life, and it made it even more perfect to know that it was prepared by a woman who takes an active stand in fulfilling her social responsibility as a chef.  At Atelier Crenn, which opened last month in San Francisco, we will no doubt see her grace and elegance breathe life into each plate to create beautiful ‘poetic culinaria’.

Atelier Crenn

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

Random trivia:  Did you know that chamomile, the national flower of Russia, was used by ancient Egyptians as an important ingredient of embalming oil for mummification?

12 sensational dishes of 2010

The food and beverage industry in Los Angeles saw its share of culinary trends in 2010, from pop-up restaurants, a return to good butchery, local sourcing of food (locavorism), Asian comfort food, a celebration of bacon, mezcal cocktails, house-made charcuterie, head-to-head competition on TV shows, good old fried chicken, snout to tail diningwholesome pies in lieu of cupcakes, celebrity chefs opening up shop in tinseltown, and food and restaurant wars.  It was a busy but fruitful year for me, navigating through these food trends and traveling around the world in search of delicious nibbles.

Through it all, there were 12 dishes that left a strong impression on both my palate and my heart.  I had many delicious dishes this year, but these 12 dishes that I selected had something else that made it truly special.  Food is an expression of a chef’s love and an extension of a chef’s soul.  When a chef cooks from the heart with genuine care and intention, that essence comes through in his or her food, and speaks directly to the diner.  Through personal interactions with these special chefs, I was able to taste, smell and see the beauty of their creations with a higher level of respect and understanding.  Behind each dish was a talented chef with a radiant smile that I will never forget.

Deep fried fugu- Chef Kenzo Sato, Shigeyoshi (Tokyo, Japan)

Despite its 2 Michelin star status, there is no pretentiousness or attitude at this humble 39-year old restaurant in Tokyo.  I have been coming here every year for the last 6 years, of course looking forward to the meticulously prepared food, but more eager to see Chef Kenzo Sato’s lovely smile.  His warm hearty laugh and funny stories are the finishing spices to each delicate dish that is prepared in front of me in the open kitchen.  There is a special comfort and security in coming here, for he knows my likes and dislikes, and prepares a sensational omakase meal according to my palate.  I never have to order or remind him of what I want- it is already understood, and the highlight of each experience comes in my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, the deep fried puffer fish dish, which he saves for me.  It goes without saying that it requires a special license and tremendous skill in preparing the poisonous puffer fish, but it takes special love and thought to prepare this simple but comforting dish of fugu.  The best pieces are from the head, with thick wedges of white tender meat juxtaposed against gelatinous jiggles of fat fugu lips.  Chef Sato smiles as he watches me attack this dish, waiting to resume conversation until I am done licking my fingers clean.

Sea urchin tostada with pismo clams- Sabina Bandera Gonzalez, La Guerrerense (Ensenada, Mexico)

To this day, that life-changing satisfying bite into the crunchy tostada generously topped with sea urchin, heaps of freshly shucked pismo clams, avocado and home-made ‘Chilito Exotico’ salsa, haunts me.  My body craves it, my mind obsesses about it, my dreams are dominated by it.  Matriarch Sabina Gonzalez, who has been operating out of a small food cart on the street corner of Ensenada in Baja Mexico for more than 30 years, creates each tostada to order, smothering it with fresh offerings from the local Baja waters and topping it with motherly love.  It’s a family affair, and her daughter comes down from San Diego on the weekends to shuck clams and oysters as the master cocktailer.  Each bite releases a splash of ocean breeze inside my mouth before the distinct savory spices of the pineapple salsa kicks in.  This is pure Baja, and it doesn’t get any better than this tostada, followed by a big hug, both from Sabina.

Octopus carpaccio with nopales- Chef Javier Plascencia, Cebicheria Erizo (Tijuana, Mexico)

Photo of Javier Plascencia courtesy of Barbara Hansen, of Table Conversation

It wasn’t just the fun geometric shapes or the vibrant color palettes in this octopus carpaccio that won my heart, but the innovative concept of compressing octopus legs into round sausages and slicing them thin to reveal wheel-like cross sections that impressed me in the cebiche themed restaurant of accomplished Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia.  The gelatin coating around the octopus legs acted as a natural food glue to keep the circles together.  The tender octopus slices in ponzu sauce were given a unique Baja twist with the contrast of buttery avocados and crunchy, slimy nopales.  A refined and beautiful dish with unforgettable textures and delicious flavors is sure to be an industry secret, I thought, but I was struck by Chef Javier Plascencia’s openness about sharing his secrets.  ‘Shoot me an email and I’ll send you my recipe’, he told me, ‘and let me know when you come down to Tijuana, I’ll make sure to be there for you’.  Really?  The amazing thing about this incredibly handsome and kind chef is that he actually means every word that he says.  And with 7 amazing restaurants under his belt and a highly successful run at Test Kitchen where his fig leaf wrapped short rib dish was deemed one of the best dishes of the year by Jonathan Gold, he still maintains the same level of approachability and humility.

Chocolate, cassis, vanilla and passion fruit macarons- Thomas Haas, Thomas Haas Patisserie (Vancouver, Canada)

As a fourth generation German Konditormeister, or Master Pastry Chef, Thomas Haas was genetically destined to become a sensation in the pastry world, and his talent is evident in every tasty morsel of chocolate ganache and chewy caramel.  At his namesake patisserie in Vancouver, he creates a peaceful haven of sweets where one can enjoy a warm cup of herbal tea with sandwiches, tarts, cakes and chocolates while shopping for hot chocolates and cookies.  I went in for his famous chocolates, but was swept off my feet by the perfection of his macarons, especially the passion fruit macaron.  A perfect crunchy outer shell that gives way to a soft moist merengue, leading right into the flavorful center filling- the textures and flavors were spot on in these delicate little bundles of joy.  Despite being a world-renowned patissier and busy restaurateur, Thomas Haas was behind the counter, packaging chocolates to order, working the cash register, giving advice to customers and even cleaning tables.  I had met him the night before at a restaurant in Vancouver, and he welcomed me with a bright smile to his patisserie, bringing over these wonderful macarons with a pot of tea to my table.  With such a hands-on approach to running his patisserie, I knew that he personally made these macarons by hand, which made them taste even better.

Scrambled eggs with black truffle- Chef Haru Kishi, my house (Los Angeles)

How do you honor an aromatic, majestic piece of black truffle?  Leave it to talented Chef Haru Kishi, formerly at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant in West Hollywood, and now executive chef of Chaya Brasserie.  Perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, patiently prepared at low temperatures, made fluffier with soft boiled egg whites passed through a fine sieve, spooned over a bed of asparagus and bacon, and garnished with dramatic shavings of black truffle that release its pungent aromas with each passing across the sharp blade of a truffle slicer.  The delicate crunch of asparagus, the smokiness of bacon, the soft pillowy texture of warm fluffy eggs, the final strong hit of truffle essence that spreads inside my mouth and permeates up into my nares- a decadent, rich and unforgettable experience worthy of a final meal.  Life is perfect at that moment, and nothing else matters. Everything that this talented chef makes is amazing, and I have personally seen the tremendous amount of thought that he puts into his work.  As a close friend, it makes me happy to see him blossom through his various struggles and finally come into his element at Chaya Brasserie, a most fitting location for his Japanese and French background.

Venison tenderloin tartare, macadamia nuts, beet chips, wasabi cream, lavender- Chef Marcel Vigneron, Venison dinner ( Los Angeles)

Marcel Vigneron has become a household name since he became famous on Top Chef season 2, and currently on Top Chef All-Stars.  Although he has gained a reputation as the Top Chef villain, in real life he is quite the opposite.  Personable, thoughtful, kind and extremely fun to hang out with, he is one of the most hard working chefs in Los Angeles.  He’s obviously talented and gifted with charisma, but behind the scenes he puts in just as much thought and hours into each beautiful and innovative creation.  One such plate that I still think back to is the venison tenderloin tartare with macadamia nuts, capers, pickled cipollini onions, beet root brunoise and walnut oil.  The venison was prepared perfectly with a fine balance of acidity and flavor.  Scooped onto a crispy red beet chip with a smear of wasabi cream and a hint of lavender aroma wafting from the board, this delectable dish transported me to venison heaven at a private dinner party at Terroni restaurant.  Spending the entire day with the chef, from shopping at the farmers market to prepping in his kitchen, I was able to see an inspiration evolve into an idea, an idea into a sketch, and a sketch finally culminate in the most breathtaking dish.

Kikouchi soba- Soba artisans Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai, Soba Pop at the Breadbar (Los Angeles)

Buckwheat flour and water- there are only 2 simple ingredients in making Kikouchi soba, making it that much more of a complex dish.  Soba master Akila Inouye and soba artisan Sonoko Sakai have been working hard all year to spread the culture of soba in Los Angeles.  Many trips to Japan, many suitcases of freshly milled Japanese buckwheat flour, many soba classes in Sonoko’s house and many long hours of preparation for their pop-up soba event at the Breadbar, all in the name of wanting Angelenos to understand the culture of Japanese soba.  Soba is Japan’s soul food, full of tradition and sacred history.  Thanks to these dedicated soba artisans, I was able to have a taste of home and a moment of peace as I dipped these delicate buckwheat noodles into their homemade bonito broth and happily slurped away.

Potato mousseline, poached egg, chorizo crumble- Chef Ludovic Lefebvre, LudoBites 5.0 (Los Angeles)

Chef Ludo needs no introduction- he took command of the Los Angeles culinary scene with his sensational and popular pop-up events, LudoBites 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 in 2010.  Every dish was whimsical, colorful, flavorful and creative, delighting diners with his ever changing menu ideas.  There were many favorites, but the stand-out dish for me was the silky potato mousseline over a perfectly poached egg, bursting with warm yellow yolk that melted right into the fatty chorizo crumble.  Every bite made me want more and more.  I wanted to share this wonderful dish with my friends, but I also didn’t want to share this wonderful dish with my friends.  What was I to do?  Order another round, of course, which I did at every visit to LudoBites 5.0, my favorite of the 3 this year.  Ludo’s talent and success got much deserved praise from critics on both coasts, but there were always people who wanted to criticize, scrutinize, dissect and rip him apart.  People love to hate this handsome charismatic chef, but what they don’t know is that behind each artistic and poetic dish was a lot of blood, sweat and tears- literally.  Despite a debilitating medical condition that would normally deem a person completely disabled and incapable of working, Ludo fought hard through each day of LudoBites to cook for his dedicated fans.  He gritted his teeth to endure relentless pain and gave his best smile for at least 20 photos a night, but I could see the pain in his eyes. Dedication and hard work never meant more to me than at LudoBites this year, and for that, hats off to this amazing chef.

Quinoa crème brûlée, purple corn- Chef Ricardo Zarate, Mo-Chica (Los Angeles)

Mo-Chica and its star chef Ricardo Zarate are now on Los Angeles’ Best of list, and in the next few months we will be seeing the opening of Mo-Chica’s new downtown location and Zarate’s new anticuchos restaurant Picca, but he almost never made it this far.  In the first year of business, Mo-Chica nearly went under.  People didn’t think to try this new restaurant that was serving lamb shanks and arroz con pollo for close to $10 a plate, when adjacent taco stands in the Mercado la Paloma food court were offering $3 plates.  Zarate had a vision, and he didn’t want to compromise on quality or preparation.  He knew that some day, people would understand his food and how good it was.  Almost a year went by, and he was paying out of his own pocket to sustain the business.  Finally, food critics caught wind of this amazing Peruvian chef, and just like that, the news spread like wild fire and Zarate was well on his way to recognition.  His food is fantastic, each bursting with vibrant flavors, with a delicate sensitivity that reflects his training in Japanese cuisine.  The regular menu is solid, but every last Thursday of the month he offers a 6 course tasting menu for $30, possibly the best deal in the country.  I have had grilled octopus with cilantro pesto on a bed of aji mashed potato, mackerel tempura on seabass ceviche, and braised short ribs to satisfy even the most stern critic, all memorable and stellar.  However, it was a quinoa and purple corn crème brûlée on one such tasting dinner that made me gasp with delight.  Not too sweet, perfectly creamy, with a beautiful deep purple hue, and most of all a surprisingly delicious way to enjoy quinoa. ‘I was supposed to use kiwicha, but I didn’t have any, so I substituted quinoa at the last minute.  I hope it’s still good?’, the ever so humble, honest and kind chef told me.  Even such accidents, under Zarate’s spell, become a delicious miracle.

Cabrit, goat meat fricassee- Chef TiGeorges, Test Kitchen (Los Angeles)

In the wake of the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti in January, no dish tasted more soulful than the goat meat fricassee that Haitian chef Georges LaGuerre, affectionately known as TiGeorges, cooked for his Test Kitchen dinner.  TiGeorges himself lost his restaurant to a fire while working hard to raise earthquake relief funds, and this Test Kitchen dinner was the first time that he was able to cook for Angelenos again.  Goat meat was baked with key lime, boiled in vinegar, then grilled over a fire and served with a sauce of key lime juice, olive oil and habanero chiles.  The long process of cooking the meat resulted in an incredibly tender juicy plate of meat that fell effortlessly off the bones.  Haiti is a beautiful country that has endured years of foreign occupation, slavery, poverty, corruption and now one of the worst natural disasters that the modern world has ever encountered.  This cabrit dish represented Haitian pride, strength and soul, just like its talented chef TiGeorges.

Winter grain porridge- Chef Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn preview Test Kitchen dinner (Los Angeles)

Michelin starred and Iron Chef conquering female chef Dominique Crenn, who is opening her own restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco next month, graced us with her presence and her sensational talent at the Test Kitchen in Los Angeles for one special evening this month.  After having eaten at more than 12 Test Kitchen dinners this year, I can honestly say that her dinner was the single most impressive and delicious dinner of them all, displaying graceful beauty and culinary elegance.  As a speaker at the TEDx Bay Area Women event earlier this month, she shared her vision of using food as a medium for honoring nature as our ultimate nurturer, and her pledge for caring for our food sources by ‘returning to the soul’.  Indeed, every dish at her 5 course Test Kitchen dinner was a poetic tribute to mother earth and her plentiful bounties that sustain our lives, and was worthy of taking the top 5 places for my best 12 dishes of the year, but one stood out above the rest.  The winter grain porridge, a new type of dessert, that evoked a garden on a sloping hillside with its soft bed of red Peruvian quinoa cooked in chamomile tea, poached quince braised with Tahitian vanilla, hazelnut milk, nougatine, and micro chamomile and hibiscus flowers that sprouted from the soft earth, strewn between orange and green leaves that all together illustrated a portrait of nature.  The textures were soft, light, chewy and crunchy, and I felt like I was digging my spoon right into the earth.  It made me feel happy to be alive.

Seared toro, ankimo, caviar- Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa, Urasawa (Los Angeles)

Stepping through the entrance of Urasawa for the second time, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief, for I knew that I could just relax, sit back and get the best food and the most stellar service of my life.  Beer poured in a ceramic beer mug was at the perfect temperature, the cypress countertop sanded down every day with 3 types of sandpaper was soft and supple, and when I took my camera out of my bag, Chef Hiro summoned his server to lay a white cloth napkin on the counter upon which to place my camera.  It was like being back home in Japan, where attention to detail and meticulous service was the standard.  Here, in this Beverly Hills haven, I had many amazing dishes, one of which was a seared toro wrapped around monkfish liver and myoga ginger, neatly tied in the center with a strip of Kyoto turnip and topped with a heap of caviar.  Little yellow flecks of yuzu rind added a refreshing aroma to the ponzu sauce, all perfectly presented on a golden ceramic pedestal.  Chef Hiro is a true professional who exemplifies the Japanese culture of precision and obsession.  What people don’t know is that despite Urasawa’s reputation, Chef Hiro doesn’t make much money from his business.  He pays an enormous amount of rent, to honor the same space that his teacher, Chef Masayoshi Takayama of Masa, has given him, and he spends most of his money in preparing the best quality ingredients for his meals.  He lives in a rental apartment in downtown LA, and doesn’t even own a computer.  Oblivious to the fact that Urasawa has been on numerous blogs, he thought about it for a second, and then asked, ‘so…these blogs…it’s like, free advertising?’  Indeed, Chef Hiro, indeed.

Thank you to all of these wonderful chefs for making 2010 a special year for me, and bringing beauty and meaning to my life.  Their dedication and hard work to their craft is admirable, and is reflected in their food.  May 2011 be an equally delicious year for all!