December 7, 2018, was a fortuitous evening at Atelier Crenn, but we wouldn’t know this until the next day.
My husband, Kenn, has a few hobbies and the most expensive, albeit the most exquisite one, is fine dining. A very humble beginning for both us, combine with intentionally living beneath our means, allows us to save up for dining adventures. I’m invited along for entertainment purposes. More to the point, I can get images from eating foods that somehow have been imbued with the emotions and memories of the cook. Also…I’m Kenn’s wife.
An old high school friend of Kenn’s, who’s in the hospitality industry here in San Francisco, said that if we ever had the chance, he should go to Atelier Crenn. Her own experience has been working at Michael Mena restaurants here in San Francisco, so hers is a highly refined opinion. She said it was a world-changing, and possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Her suggestion was four years ago and Kenn took her suggestion to heart.
We arrived at Atelier Cren just prior to our 8 PM reservation. Intentionally, I didn’t do any research on Atelier Crenn. I find I get more out of fine dining if I let my experiences unfold organically during the meal. I let my senses be led by the chef, the surroundings, the people, and whatever comes up.
From the outside, it is highly understated. Both Bar Crenn and Atelier Crenn’s windows are darkened, opaque, and unmarked. If not for the discreetly placed bronze plaques mounted unobtrusively next to the entrance, we would’ve walked past it. I could feel my excitement rising. Unmarked doors are for hidden adventures and this was our entrance into this secret world of taste, flavor, and imagery starting right there on the sidewalk.
Upon entering it was not quite what I was expecting. It was more like I was entering the dining room of someone’s home if someone’s home was a 19th-century cottage by the sea. I saw small paintings on the wall. I couldn’t clearly see any of them, no glasses on that night, but it felt so intimate and personal. We were immediately greeted by Courtney. She found us on the guest list and we were seated immediately.
The first decision of the night…Schramberg or Krug Champagne? Yes, please. Being from Napa Valley, I’ve had both and we had them both, swapping tastes. Lovely.
Courtney served us our champagne. She asked if we knew about the poem that Chef Crenn writes for every evening’s menu? Each line of the poem is invoking sense, season, and place of that dish. While Chef Crenn’s mother and grandmother taught her to cook, she was incredibly close to her father. He was an artist and his paintings of the Breton Coast of France are hung around the dining room. His memory and legacy live on through Chef Crenn’s dedication to his art as she folds it into her own.
Looking behind where we were sitting, mounted on the wall, I could read the third of three plaques. Each had a script on it and seemed to be parts of a single written work. What caught my eye was the final line of the third plaque. I’m paraphrasing from memory, “…and I will be safe with you walking beside me.” I would find out from Courtney that Chef Crenn wrote this after the death of her father. I felt like weeping.
Poem by Dominique Crenn
Printed on Fine Wood Laminate
Fall has come with its cool breeze
See the most adored gift from neptune, an aureate bloom
Warriors ashore bathe in a rosy glow as luminous as its gilded crown
To bury in fallen leaves my treasures of the earth and sea
A wild dance together to the memories of a devotion unspoken
By the shimmer of black pearls, tumbling in the ashen cloud
An armoured gent listens, beneath the bluff
As the Blue Beauty sings with ebullience the season’s euphony
For the verdant bounty of the gatherer’s harvest in caring hands
There comes an arboreous scent, about my climb
Amongst the blanketed giants stands ana old friend, pure but fleeting
Fall has come and is full of sweet surprises
Sweetness, bounty, thanks
Jordan came by to ask if we would the wine pairing. He offered us a choice of two: An outstanding wine pairing of French and Italian wines, or a once-in-a-lifetime pairing of some of the world’s most sought after Domaines. Alas, a single pairing of this latter was the cost of each of us enjoy the former. We contented ourselves with these most excellent wines…and the expectation that our lives will be long enough to encompass many vintages magnifique.
Our Wine Pairing for December 7, 2018
Josmeyer, Riesling, Brand Grand Cru
Alsace, France 2012
Vernay ‘Les Chaillées de l’Enfer’
Condrieu, Rhône Valley, France 2015
Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France 2015
Brut, Champagne, France 2007
Van Canneyt ‘Les Caillerets’
Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru, Burgundy, France 2016
Ar. PePe ’ Vigne Regina’
Sassella Riserva, Valtellina Superiore, Italy 2007
Savoie, France 2017
We met our server, Eunice, who brought our personalized menus based on our dietary restrictions and preferences. We each received a tri-folder with our customized menu tucked into the side pocket. A seasonal-themed image, screened by a vellum sheet was actually sewn into this keepsake presentation.
Next we were offered a unicorn-of-sorts for our dining experience:
Golden Osetra Caviar.
It was a significant addition and we embraced it. We knew nothing of this. My only touchstone is fresh, golden caviar! Whenever and wherever possible, I smear it on blini or top it on eggs. Like white truffles, I’m unfettered in its use. This comparison proved ironic later that evening.
Our Menu read thus:
- Squash e Pain d’epices
- Kir Breton
- Geoduck, Sea Urchin e Citrus
- Dungeness Crab, Seaweed e Whey
- Seed e Grain
- Leek, Fermented Allium e Perigord Truffle
- Golden Osetra, Potato e Onion (Supplement)
- Reserve White Sturgeon e Koji
- Brioche e House-made Butter
- Abalone, Cabbage e Smoked Crème
- Striped Bass e Farm Offerings
- Oma e Quince
In reading our menu I was struck by the familiar and humble foods of the farm and fishing village. Elevated to exquisite refinement, but comfort and practicality at its roots. All the great cuisines of the world are born on the farm, along with the seashore, a huntsman’s fare, or from the dairy.
Terroir is the flavor of home.
Throughout our meal, each dish was presented on, in, or within the art. We might loosely call these art pieces platters or bowls, but they were art; art fashioned from the land, the earth, and from the sea.
My memories of that night are here.
At the beginning of our meal began we were presented with two cream-colored globes topped with crimson gelee. Kir Breton, it turns out, is a Breton-ized version of a French classic Vin Blanc e Cassis. The Breton is the substitution of the locally made dry apple cider with a splash of crème de cassis and sometimes calvados. Chef Crenn’s interpretation of her mother’s version is frozen globes of the stuff encapsulated in an ultra-thin globe of an extra fine shell of white chocolate and cocoa butter. Each is served on a platter and is meant to be enjoyed in one bite…like urbane shots.
A platter of billowing dry ice sets the atmosphere for when the fog subsides, there were tiny tarts filled with pale, thinly sliced geoduck arranged like rose petals; butter-poached uni, gelled pineapple vinegar, and a compressed mix of winter citrus. The Geoduck, Sea Urchin and Citrus taste of the sweetness of fresh shellfish and bright light. The soft texture and sweet, clean flavor are unexpected and mind-clearing. I felt my brain responding to each texture, flavor, and gush of juice.
The beauty of each presentation is a marvel. I ate my meal slowly…very slowly.
The Dungeness Crab, Seaweed e Whey is lovely with the dairy mellowing and melding the flavors so natural to the coast. The mouthfeel is amazing.
Awww…the Seed e Grain. Eunice crushed pumpkin and sunflower seeds and buffed buckwheat in a white mortar with a golden glove pestle. The theater is built into Atelier Crenn. It’s all so over-the-top and entertaining. Then the crushed “grains and seeds” are spooned over a gelee made from black truffle juice, buckwheat vinegar, fermented butternut squash, duck fat, marigold oil, and shiro dashi. Here and there, sprinkled in are Japanese ingredients. This is just wild. I like bitter foods and this dish had just the right piquant.
But more than anything else…it was with Seeds e Grain I started to see images.
When this happens, it’s always a deeply moving experience. I started to cry.
I became caught up in the sky, hovering over a gently rolling field of farmland and nestled inside the shoulder of a small hill I saw a small, simple, white chapel. This was the type of chapel used by the locals in distant Catholic places in Europe. For some reason, I knew this place and I hovered above it. I then saw the inside of the chapel, with its blue and white ceiling with either stars or angels. Like a mescaline vision, I was seeing this place from this food.
Later when I told Chef Crenn, she confirmed that this is, in fact, a real place and the ceiling inside is indeed blue and white.
The Leek, Fermented Allium e Perigord Truffle was amazing, especially with the addition of extra sliced Perigord Truffles on top…for a nominal charge. Awww…their persuasion, applied in gentle touches of upselling the experience is effective and recommended.
The Golden Ostrea, Potato e Onion is a supplement to the menu.
This was a three-part course, the first of which was monkfish liver (also known as ankimo and quite the singular item on any menu). This was presented with white sturgeon caviar torchon, with some interesting red sauce and dazzling gold leaf. The supplement – a smoked golden osetra with fermented rice koji cream, is described as the unicorn of sturgeon caviar. Golden Osetra is the stuff of legends, once reserved only for Russian royalty. Golden Ostrea caviar has a complex and exquisite flavor of sea, nuttiness, subtly sweet, and a nutty finish with firm pearls which, upon crushing in your mouth, release their creamy texture. Overall, this was bright, delicate, and nicely contrasting. I enjoyed the buckwheat crisps, which provided a nice crunchy contrast.
The Reserved White Sturgeon e Koji was sublime. Chef Crenn’s use of Japanese and French culinary elements is unexpected, yet the flavors marry into an alchemical synthesis that blows the mind! When you know how to use flavors and food chemistry magic happens.
The Brioche e House Made Butter was like fairy bread. While it didn’t have the blend of dense, buttery, and lightness I expect from a brioche, it had the pull apart texture of clouds. The aroma is heavenly and intensely buttery and the texture is soft, accompanied by cultured house butter and whipped wagyu fat. It was deeply flavorful. I would have preferred a few more grains of salt to bring out the Waygu’s richness. Our personal favorite remained the traditional sweet butter with a whisper of sea salt. It was pure and perfect.
Awww…the Abalone, Cabbage e Smoked Crème. Abalone is such a memory-anchored flavor for me – it reminds me of the old Italians of Napa who’d get all the families together for those extreme low tides, with all the men going out rock picking and bringing back gunny sacks full of live abalone. And like this abalone camp memory, this course had great depth, smokiness, and brightness. The creme that puddled around th base was such a contrast in flavor and food, I found myself chewing so slowly as if I were analyzing a complex question. And…the gold painted cabbage leaf was an unexpected gilding, yet it fit the poetry to this dish.
Striped Bass e Farm Offerings was the main course. I haven’t had striped bass in many years and this was a treat. The fish was perfectly tender and wonderful. I wasn’t crazy about the vegetable purees. While the texture was fine, I found the spinach a bit too piquant for my taste.
The Bullion was so clear, clean with a perfect balance of umami and sweet. I swear I could taste seaweed and parsnips. It was delicious and so unexpected. So elegant in simplicity.
The Oma e Quince was quaint in a heartfelt way. The simple perfection of good bread and preserves..in this case, the quince. I have always thought quince were underappreciated and its presence on Chef Crenn’s table is a validation of this.
Then there were the Eucalyptus sorbet pops: Just fun and refreshing.
The Snowman dessert was so whimsical, delicate, and delicious. The lighter-than-air frozen mousse was coated and textured like a crafts’ fair find…but yummy. As it melted it made its own sauce….so ingenious.
At the end of our meal, we were presented some little food gifts, the Mignardises.
While I did see other tables with small, cypress-branched decorated logs and plates of chocolate, we didn’t get this. Don’t know why. We were the very last guests there that night..and it was nearly 1 am when we left. This was a total surprise to us. I know I tend to enjoy my dining experiences rather than merely eat. I was probably the culprit here. But we never felt rushed by the staff in the slightest. Eunice, our server, was gracious, patient, and friendly. No doubt she was tired, yet the culture of Atelier Crenn is slow enjoyment.
Dominique Crenn came to visit briefly with us. She was very down-to-earth and approachable. Her presence has gravity, strength, and grace. I felt very special having met her and eaten her food. She and her staff are a family. I could feel it and I could see it. While we dined that night, the kitchen staff had their “family meal” at an open table right next to guests. I loved this!
Our experience was magical…and it wasn’t over.
We did receive little boxes with two even tinier chocolate bonbons in each. One tasted of chocolate ganache and another tasted of browned-butter caramel. Each coated in a silky chocolate couverture. We also received two granola bars made of rolled oats with chocolate. These were meant to be for the next day’s breakfast…or whenever. They didn’t last beyond the next day’s morning coffee. You knew this was coming.
As we were enjoying our Atelier Crenn granola bars with our coffee, we scanned the news and saw:
“Chef Dominique Crenn has become the first woman in the US to receive a coveted three Michelin stars following the guide’s annual ranking of top restaurants in the San Francisco area, released on Thursday.”
December 7, 2018…what a night!
For more photos, you can view them at Best Food Porn.