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?

Salt Tasting Room- Vancouver, BC Canada

A cured meats restaurant in Gastown district with a street address named Blood Alley sounds suspicious, if not a bit scary, doesn’t it?  The hunt for Salt Tasting room, a charcuterie, cheese and wine restaurant in downtown Vancouver was in fact a tad hairy.  The 19th century architecture and heritage buildings that line the cobblestone streets of Gastown have a retained historic charm and old world spirit, but one step into a back alley or a dark street corner and you can experience skid row as Vancouverites saw it during the Depression.  Salt Tasting Kitchen, which opened in the summer of 2006, is located in an unmarked alley between Water Street and Cordova Street.  At first we circled round and around the area on bicycle, asking locals if they knew of Blood Alley, only to get a confused ‘no’.  As we walked our bicycles down the alley, winding through homeless people and drug addicts, we saw the majestic grey flag with a salt shaker motif hanging over the front door.  We had finally found it- but before entering the restaurant, we had to go back out the alley to find a safer place to park our rental bikes.

This haunting street, full of haunted street residents, used to be lined with butcher shops, hence the name Blood Alley for the bloody mess that would ensue after a day of animal butchering.  In addition, Blood Alley was a location for public executions in the late 19th century.  A most interesting place to serve sliced salami, trimmed beef tongue and shaved prosciutto; yet the discretely located Salt Tasting Room successfully creates a safe haven for foodies to congregate.

Salt Tasting Room specializes in artisanal cheeses, small-batch cured meats and a vast selection of wines, sherries, ports, beers and spirits which go through a constant rotation.  They offer wines from Europe, Australia, Argentina and the US, but most of their line up celebrates local harvests from British Columbia, like Okanagan Falls and Similkameen Valley.  Any of their liquids can be enjoyed by the glass or bottle, and one can also sample a wider variety through their 2 ounce tasters and tasting flights.

The entire menu consists of cheeses, charcuterie and condiments that are written on the large chalkboard wall in the rear of the restaurant.  The decor is simple, just a few tables and chairs aside from the large communal wooden table by the entrance in a brick exposed wall space, as the emphasis is on food and wine.  Diners assemble a Tasting Plate by choosing cheeses, meats and condiments, which are supplemented by crackers and bread.  It’s a simple and straightforward way of dining, which is actually refreshing in this day and age of complex menu items that come with encyclopedic descriptions.

Many of the charcuterie items come from local producers with whom Salt Tasting Room has a close relationship, and cheeses come through select cheesemongers all over the world.  On the day that we visited, the 10 cheeses included a Red Leicester from the UK, a French Comte and a local BC cheese called Happy Days.  The cured meats ranged from a fennel salami from Moccia’s, Sec Maison from Oyama Sausage Co., and hot capicollo from JN & Z.  Needless to say, with such a wide selection of delicacies, we chose our cheese and cured meats and entrusted our server to pair them with the appropriate condiments.

Our Tyrolean speck, a salt-cured and cold smoked pork charcuterie, tasted like refined and slightly more fatty prosciutto.  I loved that it was sliced paper thin, which gave off more smokey perfumes to aerate my nasal passages.  It was paired with a nutty and sweet Spanish fig & walnut bread.

Cured beef tongue from Oyama Sausage Co. was just what the doctor ordered.  With a hint of smokiness in the background, these luscious cuts of fatty and tender tongue practically melted in my tongue, complemented with a hit of locally produced grainy Guinness mustard.

A classic and most flavorful Italian Toscano salami with fig from Moccia’s was paired with briny meaty Basque olives, a perfect companion to enjoy with my glass of Alvear’s CB brand of Fino Jerez sherry from Spain.

We wanted to try a local British Columbian cheese, and our server gushed about the Ash Camembert.  It was paired beautifully with the honey-like fruity sweetness of Spanish quince paste.

Customizing your own Tasting Platter and pairing it with wines is the general rule at Salt Tasting Kitchen, but diners who may feel incomplete without a little more grub can order salads, soups, grilled sandwiches (for lunchtime only) and desserts.  Chef Lee Humphries of The Irish Heather, a local gastropub, also provides handmade terrines and pâtés.

Salt Tasting Room has a large room in their basement called The Salt Cellar which houses a long communal table that opens to the public on Friday and Saturday nights.  Otherwise, it’s used for private functions, parties and wine tastings sponsored by local wine producers.  We got to take a quick tour of The Salt Cellar, a beautiful industrial space that also houses their meat curing room, encased by clear glass on all 4 sides to entice hungry and tipsy diners.  What a perfect space to gather friends for a dinner party, drinking wine and sampling cheeses while enjoying an unobstructed view of hanging salamis and pork legs.

Salt Tasting Room is open every day from noon till midnight, and an ideal place for quick nibbles, mid afternoon booze or late night eats.  With cheeses and charcuterie that change daily, you will never have the same plate of food here, and every experience will be a new journey into gourmet heaven.  Dare to take the adventurous and shady walk down Blood Alley to find this gorgeous restaurant where they’ll reserve your space with a name tag and a not-so-bloody piggy bank to welcome your arrival.

Salt Tasting Room

45 Blood Alley Square
Vancouver, BC V6B 0C4, Canada
(604) 633-1912

Open daily noon till midnight

Random trivia: Did you know that ancient texts and historians suggest that Eve’s fruit of temptation in the Garden of Eden may have been a quince, rather than an apple?