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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
3127 Fillmore Street San Francisco, CA 94123
Random trivia: Did you know that the collective name for a group of guinea hens is a ‘confusion’?