Dominique Crenn tells the story of herself through her food at San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn. The backdrop is her childhood in Britanny, France, and travel memories as diverse as visiting Japan and Spain. If you dined at her intimate forty seat restaurant regularly you can discern the culinary evolution of the first female chef in America starred with two Michelin “macaroons”. Seafood still takes the main stage, but the penetration of her Japanese enchantment into her poetic culinary pen has settled in. Her talented Mexican pastry chef Juan Contreras is given a free reign with his own sweet oeuvres now inspired by his country.
The emotional journey evokes chef Crenn’s French childhood, the lush seaside of Brittany, the memories from her journeys around the world and the people she admires. Inspired by Dan Barber, Daniel Patterson and as diverse artists as Baudelaire Chopin and Dali, her impressions are penned into the poetic interpretations presented as you sit down at one of the organically toned wooden tables. Like Andre Chiang, the Taiwanese chef who took Singapore by storm, Dominique Crenn uses seasonal poetry to introduce her culinary vision. Recently, as for many of the Bay area chefs, her cooking became also influenced by Japan: Using the koji ferment, matsutake mushrooms (served in a trio as a broth, a pudding and raw shaved with white truffles – heavenly!), mirin (in a sabayon), sake lees, seaweed, sea urchin, shiso and minimalist, by nature inspired presentation.
The restaurant (opened in 2011) was redecorated to express a rural, raw charm in the city focused mainly on tech advancement.
Atelier Crenn in the age of concept chefs
Playing on the emotional string is Crenn’s strength, but when you employ rational judgement and score her integrity then you might be left with some questions. Fame can interrupt one’s focus. Dominique Crenn was voted the best female chef in the world by the jury of foodies in their San Pellegrino sponsored World’s Best Restaurant awards. A strange categorisation in itself, but the media and the public love prizes and distinctive labelling, and if it can gauge the best in a chef, let them reign! The experience at the restaurant though can change when the chef in the spotlight suddenly divides responsibilities between other kitchens, take on the global engagements with famous chefs and plays with social media stunts. Unless the chef relies on an unbreakable team, headed by someone intimate with the chef’s cooking style, one can immediately taste the difference. Paying a close attention, there was a gap between out meal there before the distractions lured Crenn away from the kitchen at her signature restaurant and now. Inconsistency in the execution of the savoury plates presented to our palates some not that impressive morsels, which for $325 (add truffles and it will climb up) were too high a cost to pay!
While her friendly embrace grated us last September, a year later she was engaged in talks, charity dinners and pop ups, not in her “Atelier”. Essentially, she took the apron of Alain Ducasse and as the East Coast version of Jean-Georges Vongerichten swishing through various openings, rather then giving hand themselves in their kitchens. Still, these chefs manage their multi-Michelin stared restaurants well. Adding to her interruption is Le Petit Crenn, a casual French bistro that she recently opened.
Crenn: the meaning of personal style and passion for sustainability
The tomboyish chef displays gentle aesthetics in her plating style. Tiny portions devoured in one, two or with some effort three mouthfuls, are served in thoughtfully selected earthenware and blooming flower-shaped glass bowls. The artful output was magnified with drawings of southwest native plants accompanying the menu that you will get at the end of your dining experience at the Atelier Crenn. This September, a flowering Ocotillo used in herbal medicine to improve lymph flow graced the gift card.
The increasing trend at contemporary gastronomic restaurants is that you do not know what you will be eating. Her multi-course tasting menu is not even hinted at on her website, but you will be presented with some of her signature morsels and plates included bellow. As a supporter of humane and sustainable farming, her menu is light on meat and so vegetarian request was accommodated even with a short notice. I tasted the premium menu with truffles, the vegetarian version and sampled on my husband’s seafood and one meat course tasting recently. Some ingredients are sourced locally, but many come from Japan. Whispering the transformation of the French cuisine, not any more restricted to French ingredients, the more humanely raised A5 grade wagyu beef and the Hokkaido sea urchin were flown from Japan. You will not see a chicken at Atelier Crenn, simply because the “washed-out chicken sold in this country” [US] does not “meet the standards of Atelier Crenn”. I absolutely agree, the chickens in the US are raised mostly inhumanely, even the organic ones and their taste is bland, soulless. Reflecting ion Dan Barber‘s responsible culinary ethos in her book Metamorphosis of Taste: “If we are going to eat animals, we should limit ourselves to humane, sustainable, organic farms, and we simply must eat less meat.” There is still some Frenchness in Crenn’s menu. She uses apple cider, Breton buckwheat, some foie gras (read the book for her reasoning behind this controversial food), crème fraîche, kumquats, pintade (guinea fowl), squab, various consommés, and more.
Although the fifteen to twenty-five course menu changes, there are some staples and these have always been made perfectly:
Opening the dinner the whimsical oyster leaf with a sweet droplet nesting in a foliage arranged on a silvery bark teases your mind. Then comes the Kir Breton, an apple cider enrobed in a shell of white chocolate popping in one mouthful of a sweet welcome topped with a reduced crème de cassis from Britanny. By trips to London inspired seasonal Fish & chips is transformed into a tiny crunchy bite of puffed potato filled with tartar sauce. Rendering the recipe, once a raw smoked trout was topped with a layer of smoked foie gras cream, trout skin, a dollop of citrus jelly and on side mayonnaise with fried thin potato stings and cured lemon rind curls. After a sequence of savoury courses, the succulent and flaky brioche with a sea and meadow inspired butter next to beef fat infused butter, brings your mind back to France. There is always an extra cheese course, for added $30 you get truffles shaped on top of a tiny cheese tartlette, which is nice, but not showing the pure quality of the cheese. To take home, the chewy house granola bar with sticky caramel oats, black sesame and pecans is wrapped in a gorgeous, rustic paper. The beauty remained, yet the bar was not as good as it used to be.
A 2016 late summer ushered the Alba truffle season slightly earlier, so the menu could be supplemented with white and black truffles shaved on some of Crenn’s morsels. When you dine at the Atelier Crenn for the first time try to go with the poem the chef herself has created as it touches on each of the courses.
The cosy yet luxuriant home-like ambiance hones the ambitious two Michelin stars, yet the service could be more precise and paced in a more diners friendly, efficient gait.
- Fish & chips X Cucumber & crispy potato (V) – the taste of the fish was really missing in the vegetarian version
- Tomato, melon, Trout Roe X Tomato & melon (V) – the melon roe in vegetarian menu was boring
- Koshikari rice, sea urchin, barigoule X Koshikari rice, eggplant, barigoule (V) – the succulent Hokkaido uni was superb, yet the marinated eggplant with sesame substitute was original and delicious.
- Caviar, kohlrabi, koji X Pickled ramps, kohlrabi, koji (V) – the veggie take with ramps was more interesting
- Abalone, roasted garlic, smoked creme X Cabbage, roasted garlic, smoked creme (V) – abalone’s texture is hard to beat
- Matsutake, pork lardo, parmesan X Matsutake, zucchini, parmesan (V) – intense, but I preferred the more delicate pork-free version of this dish
- A5 wagyu, foraged herbs, fermented carrot X Beet, foraged herbs, fermented carrot (V) – the beet replacing the beef does not justify the cost of the menu, but the wagyu of my husband was disappointing this time, so at the end we both got a bad deal. On another occasion dining at Crenn we had a superb cured wagyu dish, so consistency was the problem
The premium wine pairing swirls tiny pouring of mainly old world wines such as grower champagne (like the Henri Giraud Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend we had as an aperitif) with some interesting California showings like the excellent Aubert Chardonnay UV-SL of the great 2013 vintage. After we tried it with our first meal there, we felt like introducing our taste to Crenn’s food. I picked a glass of salty, oxidised dry white Vin Jaune 2007 from Jura (by Jacques Pufeney listed as a dessert wine, but totally not sweet) to pair with the first sea inspired plates, and we moved to the over two decades old Pinot Noir by Domaine Drouhin in Oregon. Proving that Oregon Pinot can age gracefully, this 1995 vintage from the Burgundy negociant owned winery was also poured in the premium tasting that night.
The Filmore Street, where Crenn nests, is a high game play field in the San Francisco gastronomy. There are more creative restaurants than on any other single roadside of the tech-booming city. State Bird Provisions, The Progress, SPQR, a new grown-up pop up RTB, they all flag the creative culinary explosion in the Bay Area. If Atelier Crenn intends to maintain its integrity, the chef either has to change the too personal narrative weaving through the meal or return back to the stove. We would prefer the later, but the calling card is not ours, and she can make a bigger global impact by engaging in heavily media driven events. Or, perhaps, this is a further evolution of her personal story, but only Ms Crenn knows of her metamorphosis of taste as it happens.
3127 Fillmore St., San Francisco, USA
Dinner Tue- Sat: from 5pm (two seatings)