“It’s awfully quiet in here… And did you notice, those were her own paintings.”
Last year one of the biggest highlights of our dining excursions for the team, was visiting this Michelin star institution in SF. When Associate Editor Dylan alluded to how the menu transcript was structured in a poetic format, I was slightly intrigued.
Weeks leading up to the dinner, I reminisced about my first encounter with Dominique Crenn’s reputation in the fine dining industry. Watching an episode of Top Chef: New Orleans (Season 11, Episode 13 to be precise), the advisor of the French team was none another than Chef Crenn. A symbolic trademark to her cuisine is to utilize the bird’s nest (serving as foresight for our eventual visit) as a center piece (or base) of any dish. She had a taste for progressive and avant-garde cuisine. The team’s interpretation wasn’t as ‘poetic’ as Chef Crenn but it manifested with her and the guidance she provided for them prior to service.
To also preface before beginning the post, you may realize that our image quality has gone a bit higher (experimenting with a newly bought DSLR). We’re slowly upgrading many aspects to our blog publication so we hope that you appreciate our efforts…
It was a semi-chilly night, weaving around Marina Cow-Hollow desperately trying to find parking. After a good twenty minutes, I was in luck and managed to squeeze into a tight spot along a narrow alley street. Walking a few blocks, we reached the entrance and was greeted warmly by the hostess who took our bags and coats and escorted us to our corner table.
The dining floor was very intimate and cozy. Max capacity is about twenty person(s) standing, surrounded by wooden decor of all types including (the variety of branches and birds nests) wrapping around the walls the lamps.
Another distinct feature is the decision to place the center island in the room. I’m not familiar whether this is common in most traditional French restaurants or this was a choice by management. Whether serving from the center of the room is a less of a hassle compared to going to the back in the wine cellar/storage.
The soft whispers and murmurs echoed throughout while awaiting for the first course to be served. The last key feature (and the most regrettable, that I failed to capture) were the few portraits placed at the small corners of the floor. According to the wait staff, she painted every single one during her time back in France. Chef Crenn’s muse second to the plate, is the white canvas of her watercolor artworks. We finally decided on a momentous beverage:
The Jacquesson was superb for what it’s worth, nearly three years worth of content (now fast-forwarding to four) and we reminisced on all the previous places we’ve encountered and shared w/ you all..
If Lindt Truffles were exquisite and full of booze, this would be a fine substitute for the mainstream candies sold in the variety of CVS/Walgreen aisles. A smidge of coco butter and tablespoon of Cider is inside. Once the shell was broken the tart notes of the cider popped while the creme mellowed the acidity a short while after.
I despise Cauliflower, despite loving it’s greener more mainstream cousin (Broccoli). However I never would’ve thought the idea of mortar and pestle could be presented in this manner. Earthiness, some bitterness residing in the coco nibs and the celephee made for a pleasant chew.
If pork rinds are American, then Squid Rinds are Spanish. Using the fried bits of fat and seafood brine, one can only fathom if charcoal can taste this good after remaining in the grill for so long. Just a light amount of salt was enough to bring the rich ocean tar to the surface of one’s tongue.
Squid needed a bit more of the spotlight before we proceeded in all of the tastings. The lardo is a play on the traditional Spaniard bite (Jamon Iberico). They even had the audacity to add Smoked Ham truffle (which surprisingly wasn’t as strong I would’ve expected). Nevertheless, it’s a lot better than what I could come up w/ on the fly so I have to give them some credit.
This next course used this Ceramic w/ Liquid Nitrogen lingering out there was a splash of the consommé that turned this into a winter tempura piece…
We’ve been to all kinds of Japanese Restaurants. Everything from Izakayas, Ramen Shops, Bento Boxtowns, and the bit (still awaiting to try some ideal Kaisekis). When I first looked at the dish, the first thing that popped into my head was Tempura from Bentos. Majority of the time, that stuff goes to waste because of the lack of effort it’s placed in battering the tempura.
Everything on this plate was cleaned instantaneously, there was no waste or apprehension when preparing such a humble dish. The aji’s brine lingered in the cool confines of the Liquid Nitrogen mist. All the vegetables had great texture, combining the tasting notes of salty, sweet, and freshness.
Nibbling on the first bites of this particular plate, lots of citrus and hearty notes come about. The tarragon brings together the broth and pieces of crab and brings lots of depth to our humble hominid friend. Sacrificing their life for the greater good of our tasting.
The chilled scallop was overwhelming filled w/ Dashi and Brine upon the initial bites into the tender skin. The sweetness of the creme fraiche sturgeon pearls came in much later w/ Pear notes. Think Aubrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany’s appeal but it would be more suitable in a cocktail setting than as a sit down course.
The Flan was quite unique as the texture reminded me of the traditional latin versions many Spaniards, Portuguese, and Filipinos has served at the past. The biggest difference is the subtle salt and tart notes, clashing between the pomegranate and cashew. Earthiness was developed through the repurposing of flour and cashew, whereas you can barely taste the tarragon considering it was hidden by the trove of cashews.
It was unanimous between myself and Dylan, the Poached Duck egg was the star of the show. Airy, salty, sweet, and as soon as the yolk breaks its viscosity empties out into the savory Porcini broth. Once the yolk was unleashed the rest of the dish was a harvest of Porcinis punching your tongue like a speed bag.
There are two notable parts to this next dish, let’s focus on the craft of bread accompanied to the savory condiment. The buckwheat is bitter, burnt at the ends, and full of wheat-y goodness.
More Bread, in case you needed the reminder for how large a cache of carbs was served to us during the tasting. There’s Jim Carrey and Jeff Bridges, Kenan & Kel, Conan O’ Brien & Jordan Schlansky and now… Bone Marrow and Creme Fraiche. It’s a classic dynamic duo, comedic at first but you understand the natural appeal of this french combination. Over the top, with a surprising harmonious balance.
This along w/ Pumpkin Jasmine Ginger is another two-part dish. If Thanksgiving, we’re to be served in the month of February you would get this combination. Everyone in any metropolitan city has faced the wrath of birds (more specifically pigeons). The Chinese and the French are the one’s who sort of solved the population control w/o these aviation nuisances get out of hand.
I’d also like to mention that I despise a variety of gritty berries (specifically Huckleberry, Raspberry, and Blackberry). Yes, they’re essential in a variety of pastries, but these common foraged treats aren’t my style. To cloak a well-cooked Pigeon coated in its own crime scene… perfection. The huckleberries sweetness cuts the whole idea of gaminess from the bird. Succulent, sweet, and devilish-ly satisfying.
For whatever the reason, I am wholeheartedly against the idea of blending salad and dessert holders together. I was wrong, very wrong, when I bit into this tasty bowl of herbs and dressing. From first glance, you would assume the Ratatouille was the hidden sous chef of Atelier Crenn brought to life. The medley of vegetables would make the Viral Hamster Burrito Star turn Vegan, if you served him this 5 times a day.
Carrot Jerky, Basil Seeds in a Vial, Green Tea Crystallized Wafer, and Green Tea & Coconut Sake Sorbet are all dishes that were esoteric and unique in their own way. The dried vegetable jerky was slightly sweet, spicy, and a bit cumbersome to bite into. Basil Seeds are very common in Hong Kong Cafe desserts, but this was my first time actually biting into some. The vial served only one purpose, to provide a unique presentation the sides. Chugging this stuff, reminds me of aloe vera jello w/ citrus notes (it’s an Asian thing, feel free to Google examples).
Green Tea Wafer served as a preview to the grand finale. If someone at Pringles HQ decided to do a one time collaboration with R & D for Japanese Nestle Green Tea Kit-Kats, you would get the end result. Matcha dehydrated w/ crispy crystal grains in every bite.
The final dish of the entire menu was meant as an artistic interpretation of the seafood kingdom but in dessert form. The Pastry Chef, really pushed themselves with this concept from start to finish and for that I have to respect. As for execution, the Yuzu Curd Creme Brûlée was the star of the plate (a perfect example of what Tart and Sweet harmonized). The colors were vibrant and exquisite but everything else fell on the wayside with regards to remaining palatable.
Two Presentations of Migardnise:
Part 1 had a bit more citrus impact with the small after dinner bites. Most notable was the passion fruit marshmallow and lemon grass jellies.
Part 2 on the other hand was more of my liking. A variety of chocolates in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and textures. My favorites were the Dark Chocolate Almond Wafers (a must for you Nutella Fanatics) and the White Chocolate Cardamom (just divine).
After finally breaking out of my writer’s block (and hiatus), there’s one immediate characteristic I feel should be the true measure of how good any of these fine dining restaurant are… and that’s how memorable it was.
Memories like this should be easily retained (whether you have taken notes on the side or not). In fact, looking back there are only a plethora of dishes (not full tasting menus) that has remained on my mind since embarking on this journey of becoming a better critic and gourmand. From the grain of salt, the plating, to even the colors that transpire throughout the passage of time.
These elements should hold as the biggest indicators of what’s beautiful or full of bravado in your eyes. This is the true measure of high-level cuisine and very few have reached that pinnacle. If you think I’m bluffing, take the wool off your eyes and taste the difference. Something your mother has cooked from home versus what Corey Lee serves at Benu. A street vendor can create the most melt in your mouth omelette w/ the hints of dirt in the cracks of their impoverished pan. Intrinsically flawed but nostalgically perfect, this is what what we should all aim for when finding ideals to our palate.
Atelier Crenn’s idea of intertwining culinary strokes within her own haven, has made a name for herself. In my book, she is but one of many artists who I find intriguing but still lacks conviction in their cooking approach. And, that says a lot seeing as many of my fellow foodie peers truly appreciate her work.
Consider me a rebel but it’s gonna take more than a few culinary brush strokes to make me blush with the flirtatious nature of your cooking Ms. Crenn…
Top Chef (season 11) via Wikipedia: “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_Chef_(season_11)#Episode_13:_Oui_Si_a_Challenge” last seen 23 Aug 2015, last updated 29 July 2015
Jamon Iberico via Wikpedia:
“https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamón_ibérico” last seen 13 September 2015, last updated 12 September 2015″
Tiny Hamster Eating Tiny Burritos:
“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOCtdw9FG-s&ab_channel=HelloDenizen” last seen last seen 4 October 2015, last updated 29 April 2015