[This post was originally published on November 27, 2012. Stay tuned for my post about my second visit to Atelier Crenn!]
If you want to go for an exhilarating culinary adventure, I highly recommend Atelier Crenn.
(WARNING: My review is very long and detailed. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and brace yourself, or you can scroll all the way to the end of this post for my verdict.)
Two-Michelin Star Atelier Crenn is the big talk of the town, and understandably so. The marriage of food and art blessed by French chef Dominique Crenn (who was friendly and relaxed when she stopped by to chat) was truly a treat for all the senses. You’ll see what I’m talking about.
The warm and inviting atmosphere was a welcome one on that chilly November night. The interior was a little like an upscale forest cabin: lots of wood, stone, plants, and an unmistakable glow. Atelier Crenn seemed an unlikely place for the kind of the tasting menu we were in for.
Our server Kiley warned us about this unassuming white nugget: “Make sure you close your mouth completely around it and your lips are sealed before you bite into it.”
On breaking the white chocolate shell, liquid apple cider gushed out. The contrasting textures of hard chocolate, liquid cider, and cassis gel was so fun and playful – the gastronomic equivalent of running out of the hot tub, jumping into the cold swimming pool, and then rushing back into the hot tub. That little morsel set the bar pretty high for what to expect.
My companion and I were not disappointed. The firm, rich hamachi was accompanied by a quenelle of light, refreshing apple celery sorbet. It was clear already that Chef Dominique is a master (mistress?) of unexpected flavor pairings. The beet broth was delicious on its own and, in my opinion, unnecessary, but may have been there for aesthetic value… a recurring idea throughout the meal.
I really liked that Atelier Crenn did not avail to us a bottomless basket of bread rolls. They, like this lovely whole wheat roll, are extremely delicious, but served a more important role of cleansing my palate of the bright fruitiness that kicked off the meal.
The first real misstep of the night occurred in this next dish. The oyster poached in its own liquid was topped with juniper foam and sat in a pool of wheatgrass juice. That little flap of clear, colorless gel was a sake and elderflower gelée. It was a real disappointment because it unfortunately did not taste like anything at all.
It’s a classic case of being a little too eager to impress. That’s great – you’ve thought about all of these great details, but if they don’t serve any purpose, you’ve wasted energy and time creating these things. I’d have preferred channeling that energy into punching up the flavor of the wheatgrass.
The kitchen more than made up for their misstep with this gorgeous autumn-colored gem. A baby carrot was buried under a cloud of aloe vera (in other words, it didn’t taste like anything) in what the server (a different one) referred to as a “tea” of rutabaga and carrot that had been steeped in spices.
The most exciting part of the carrot course was the coconut powder. Brilliant does not begin to describe the taste of the carrot, spicy “tea,” and coconut together. The combined flavor was rich without being heavy, complex without being confusing. Each component held its own, but came together in a wonderful way – like Waldorf salad. I love Waldorf salad.
Here to take the palate in a totally different direction was the mackerel with charred skin on a nori rice cracker and topped with umeboshi (pickled plum), among other things.
Yes, there are lots and lots of things on that cracker. Overkill? Perhaps. I do have a thing about ingredients and garnishes that serve no purpose.
However, it was my favorite course of the night. I would have loved to take home a bag of the crackers! The bite was an exploration of the different tastes: Unlike the first fish course, which had a sweet accompaniment, the mackerel was paired with a salty cracker and tart, slightly vinegary umeboshi pieces.
If it could be reproduced and tidied up a tad, it would be an impressive appetizer for a chic party. Run to your local Asian store and grab your nori rice crackers NOW!
This block of coal came with a warning too, but instead of apple cider, my mouth was greeted by a gush of liquid quince. The “ash” was actually crumbled roasted vegetables – I asked and was told that no vegetables were burned to a crisp in the preparation of this palate cleanser.
It is clear that Dominique Crenn knows how to make a good first impression. See that fungus growing out of that tree trunk? Here is where I started having a huge problem with presentation. Presentation is important, yes. But when you have to cut down whole trees for it and then toss them out when they start to rot, you end up wasting resources. It is charming, but not sustainable. Sustainability is a big deal in the Bay Area and definitely with me.
At the point when I was wondering if there was going to be a starch course, we were served a dish of the most delicious grains I have ever tucked into in my life. The seeds added a satisfying crunch to every bite, while the rich dashi broth added much needed savoriness. The mix also contained shavings of botarga, which is smoked fish roe sac*. It was a first for me, but also an unnecessary garnish, as were the sturgeon roe because the salty dashi broth overwhelmed everything except the grains and seeds.
When I was in Turin, Italy, I saw diners chow down on a pile of raw, minced beef seasoned only with salt and I thought it was disgusting. That memory came to me when I was presented a small ball of lamb tartare. I was afraid.
Ever with an open mind, I took a taste and loved it! The beet juice and soy sauce transformed a pile of meat into a very succulent morsel. There was none of the bloodiness and rawness that I’d expected from raw meat. As far as size goes, it was all I needed, and it was perfect.
I took the time between the lamb and the next course to admire the surroundings. The warm glow of Atelier Crenn was thanks to this simple way of dispersing light from the hidden ceiling lamps. Who would’ve thought you could get modern, haute cuisine in such a homey atmosphere? New Age elements were definitely out and about, but they did not leave anyone feeling cold-shouldered.
My dining companion and I happily traipsed through the “Walk Through the Forest,” a delicious, tummy- and heart-warming pile-up of wild mushrooms and basil powder with rosemary meringue. The basil powder was an interesting way to add a dash of herbiness without going near a garden. (I still would have preferred the real deal.)
The thing about tasting menus is, even if there are eight or twelve or fifteen courses, no matter how small each dish is, there is no way to make each one small enough that you would not feel like exploding at the end of the meal.
So I was undecided as to whether the dish named “Birth” could really qualify as a dish. Was it a palate cleanser or a proper course?
Whatever it was, it consisted of a corn silk nest with duck fat “eggs” on a chocolate “branch,” perfectly arched over wild rice and drops of vanilla and applesauce. Atelier Crenn sure knows how to charm your socks off, doesn’t it?
This, to my stomach’s dismay, did not mark the start of the procession of desserts.
If you’ve been wondering where the poultry was, it finally made its appearance at the tail-end of the savory courses. While heaviness tends to be dished out with the meat course, Atelier Crenn did that with squab. Seaweed crackers were served alongside perfectly seared, moist squab atop squid ink “coal” – that’s parsnip purée coated with squid ink – in a pool of beurre blanc and garnished with sea grapes for a little sweetness and lightness. Truth be told, composing the perfect bite was a bit of a chore, which is one of the problems with complicated dishes. But I can tell you that the effort pays off.
Next, a server brought out a sugar cane sticking out of a stone pot. Stabbed into either side of the cane were pieces of sugar cane infused with Japanese citrus (read: yuzu), which were bright and refreshing.
It certainly wasn’t what either I or my companion was expecting. Here we are, in a fine-dining establishment, gnawing on pieces of sugar cane. So archaic, but so, so satisfying.
From sweet and sour, we were then introduced to minty and hot. Frozen eucalyptus and menthol pops were the results of Chef Crenn’s Bay Area-inspired imagination. Well-played, Dominique. Well-played.
I say that because, while many chefs would turn to sourdough, Meyer lemons, Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, or any of the excellent, local “branded” produce to play tribute to my beloved San Francisco Bay Area, I can’t think of one who has turned to the eucalyptus trees that grow all over the East Bay hills and even right here in the middle of the city. The idea is ingenious and moving.
So far, Atelier Crenn has taken us all over the map in terms of combinations of flavors and textures. It has been a journey, but it is not over yet.
Behold: A gigantic olive cradled in moss-covered wood. But that olive is actually olive oil ice cream dipped in olive, and the wood is olive cake, and somewhere else in there is fennel jam. The chef obviously has fun messing with our expectations, starting the (very long) tasting menu with a sweet course and ending it with something sweet bordering on savory territory. It was bold, creative, and executed beautifully.
There were so many flavors on this plate, I had to use my iPhone’s Voice Memos to record Kiley’s description. This is, word for word, what she said (yes, this is how far I go to get material for my food reviews):
“Introducing pates des fruits: mango celery, strawberry peppermint, guava coriander; salted caramel; pistachio and cherry nougat; passionfruit marshmallow; and chocolates: Caribbean dark chocolate, caramelized dark chocolate, white chocolate cardamom ganache, milk chocolate cinnamon ganache, covered with chocolate caviar.”
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Wanna know how it really turned out?
HOLY SUGAR RUSH. Every bite (with the exceptions of the strawberry peppermint gelée, which was more strawberry than peppermint, and the white chocolate ganache simply because I don’t like white chocolate) was different and rich. How can fruit gelées be rich? Well, each square packed a punch and coated the tongue with sweet, fruity goodness without being too gummy.
Again, I have a huge problem with presentation because of the sustainability (or lack thereof) of the serving “platters.” Nonetheless, the dessert smörgåsbord was a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
At the end of the 3½-hour meal, I was ready to roll myself out into the cool San Francisco night.
Before I end this though, I must, must say something about the sommelier, Ian Burrows. Not only was he knowledgeable, he was also friendly and helpful, and his recommendations for my special wine request (I wanted only two glasses to stretch over the entire meal) were SPOT ON. My companion, who ordered the complete (and highly varied) wine pairing, could complain about a few missteps (for instance, the sake wasn’t great – but then again, I’m not an expert on sake), but for the most part, Ian got it right.
Cuisine, from what you find in high-end Michelin-starred restaurants to little neighborhood cafes aspiring to make Michael Bauer’s Top 100 list, should never be taken too seriously. What Dominique Crenn has accomplished here was whimsical and fun, though she is obviously very serious about execution and presentation. If you want your taste buds to be pushed and pulled and have your horizons broadened, Atelier Crenn is THE place to go. I am excited to return in six months or a year to see if Crenn reins in her eagerness to please and simplifies her compositions.
Here is a very important note: If you do go to Atelier Crenn, set aside at least two hours to dine. With only two menu options – a short tasting menu (five dishes, stretching over 1½ hours) and a long tasting menu (twelve dishes over 3½ hours)- you would be better off setting aside an entire evening to dinner. Trust me: it will be worth it!
*(High five if you too had dirty thoughts upon reading the word “sac.”)