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’.
3127 Fillmore st
San Francisco, CA 94123
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?