I remember the first time I saw Chef Dominique Crenn on TV, competing to be the next Iron Chef. Her cooking seemed elegant, refined and something I wanted to try one day. Later on, she was named Best Female Chef 2016 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, which only added to our interest. But her restaurant, Atelier Crenn, was in San Francisco, which made it more of a challenge to experience outside of a vacation to the city.
Well, on this trip, I finally had a chance to give it a try!
Atelier Crenn has been awarded 2 Michelin Stars for a few years in a row now. I wasn’t sure what to expect (having avoided any pics or blog posts about the restaurant until I could actually go), and from the signage to when you first walk in, there’s an elegance, but also an element of cute whimsy and little touches that help bring warmth to the restaurant. This even extended to the music in the restaurant, which spanned from The Cure to Bruno Mars and a variety of songs from the '80’s and '90’s.
Krug “Grande Cuvée” 164 Ème Édition Brut Champagne:
I don’t drink a lot of Champagne, but this was an excellent start to the meal: The Krug “Grande Cuvée” 164 Ème Édition Brut Champagne was wonderful, with Apple and other fruit notes, and a nice, intense minerality, with a beautiful finish.
The capricious whimsy extended to the menu, which was presented as a poem amongst flowers. Each line of the poem was written by Chef Crenn herself, and corresponded to an actual dish being served this evening. Cute.
White Truffles (Alba, Italy):
There was a White Truffle supplement (in lieu of Black Truffles) and before the server opened the box, you could smell this gorgeous, intense aroma as he approached.
House Fermented Plum Kombucha, Viola Flower:
Their House Fermented Kombucha had a bit of the tart, zesty flavors you’ve come to expect from Kombucha, but it wasn’t as overpowering, and there was a nice fragrance and sweetness to round things out.
Kir Breton (White Chocolate Shell, Crème de Cassis, Apple Cider):
By now, we’ve seen the “all things spherical” trend, probably made most famous by Chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli with his Liquid Olives (spheres that looked like an Olive but burst open to reveal a liquid version of an Olive). Here with the Kir Breton, it’s Chef Crenn’s re-imagining of the Kir Breton cocktails her mother used to serve to guests (as the server mentioned in passing).
Eating it in one bite, the White Chocolate shell breaks open to reveal Apple Cider within, and it mixes with the Crème de Cassis gel on top. It’s like getting a Cocktail in one bite. And it was delicious.
Fish & Chip:
This was inspired by her trips to London, when her father would take her along on business while growing up. But instead of traditional Fish & Chips, here Chef Crenn has Swordfish Marrow, Cucumber Gel, Wakame Oil and Coriander. It is aromatic (I loved the Wakame Oil), but the overall flavors seemed more like an academic exploration rather than really capturing an expectation of “Fish” (from a usual Fish & Chips plate).
The “Chip” part of the “Fish & Chips” was much more successful: She creates a fancy Potato Chip, infused with Malt Vinegar and Wakame, and it is delicious. I wanted more Chips for sure.
Seeds & Grains
This was an exploration of textures. The dish was prepared tableside, and it almost seemed a bit “science experiment”-esque, with the tincture bottles, mortar & pestle and little containers. Watching the server combine everything together and explain step-by-step was fascinating. The end result:
It started with the grinding up of Pumpkin Seeds, Buckwheat and Sunflower Seeds (the crunch). Then adding in Roasted Butternut Squash and Fermented Truffle Gelée (the soft, slippery textures), along with Marigold Oil, Pumpkin Seed Oil, and Duck Fat(!) (the liquid), to a base of Marigold Flowers, Nasturtium Leaves and Smoked Trout Roe.
While it seemed like a lot of ingredients going on, it worked. You got hit with some crunchy nuttiness (very fragrant in its own way), some floral aromas, some soft potatoey textures (from the Roasted Butternut Squash), and then the delicate pop from the Smoked Trout Roe. It tasted delicious as well, with the Smoked Trout Roe still coming through, and the delicious Duck Fat helping to finish it off.
Koshihikari Rice, Sea Urchin & Barigoule:
This felt like Chef Crenn’s take on the Japanese Ochazuke dish: Using a Grilled Koshihikari Rice Ball (Onigiri), topped with excellent Uni (@J_L @PorkyBelly I got lucky this season with some good Uni!) the flavors worked pretty well, but the one shortcoming was that the Onigiri was a bit too packed / dense. Otherwise, it was enjoyable.
Caviar, Kohlrabi & Koji:
First off, I loved the utensils and plating, the mother of pearl spoon was beautiful.
Instead of the usual base to enjoy Caviar, Chef Crenn substitutes Salt Roasted Kohlrabi slices:
Combining a bit of the Golden Ossetra Caviar (coated with a beautiful emerald-hued Shiso Leaf Oil) and the Koji Creme with the Salt Roasted Kohlrabi?
I loved the little bursts of salty brininess from the Golden Ossetra Caviar, the Shiso Oil wasn’t too overpowering, and the Koji Creme added this incredible umami flavor. And the Salt Roasted Kohlrabi by itself was so tasty!
Brioche & Housemade Butter:
Next, a cute, mini loaf of Housemade Brioche arrived. The utensils were beautiful and felt bespoke, casual, yet classy.
The Housemade Brioche arrived piping hot(!), freshly baked out of the oven, and it smelled incredible! (@bulavinaka and all bread lovers take note!) It was like eating a cloud, airy, fluffy and delicious on its own.
But then you add a smear of the Housemade Butter, and it’s even more absurd: Intensely buttery, delicate and crave-worthy. This alone would be amazing, but the next condiment tops even this…
Grade A5 Wagyu Beef Fat!
Paging @A5KOBE @PorkyBelly @J_L and others… seriously, this is the most absurdly (but delicious) spread I’ve had on fresh-baked Bread!
It worked. It added this amazing, delicate beefy deliciousness! I wanted to take this home and add it in some Pasta or Steamed Rice.
Abalone, Wakame & Smoke Creme:
This was OK: Grilled Morro Bay Abalone, served along with the Abalone Liver, Wakame and a lightly Smoked Creme.
Matcha Tea Service & Matsutake:
Instead of Hot Water as a base for doing a traditional Japanese Matcha Tea Service, Chef Crenn substitutes it with a Chicken Broth, steeped with Goji Berries and various Mushrooms. It’s then filtered and whisked with Matcha from Kyoto, Japan.
It’s served with fresh-sliced Matsutake Mushrooms (raw) from Oregon.
The Matcha “Chicken Tea” works. It really tastes like a delicate Chicken Broth, aromatic with the Mushrooms cooked in the base Broth, and the Kyoto Matcha adds a bit of floral bitterness. The Matsutake Mushroom slices are a surprise though: It’s almost herbal and Spring-like in flavor and aroma, tasting nothing like the usual cooked Matsutake dishes that you’ve come to expect.
Grade A5 Wagyu (Miyazaki, Japan), Umeboshi & Bearnaise:
I was really excited to try this dish, wanting to see how Chef Crenn would cook & prepare Grade A5 Wagyu. While it looked to be cooked just right - rare - the particular cut this evening had some gristle in it and was a touch chewy.
The rest of the parts of the A5 Wagyu were fine, but it was disappointing getting some chewy bits. It was marinated in Nuoc Cham (the famous Vietnamese Fish Sauce condiment), but you couldn’t really taste it (which might be a good thing).
The other side condiments were interesting: In one corner was sliced Ginger with Jalapeno, Thai Basil and Umeboshi(!), which sounded crazy strong (and might overpower the delicate taste of A5 Wagyu), but it actually worked in small doses. The Sauce Bearnaise was a creamy alternative.
Harbison, Buckwheat & White Truffle:
The savory courses were finished off with this Cheese Tart, made with Harbison Cheese (from Jasper Hill Farm), Buckwheat, and the White Truffle supplement from Alba, Italy.
When this dish arrived, the White Truffles on top were so fragrant, you could smell it well before the server arrived with the dish.
It looked beautiful and I loved the cute flowers “sprouting” out of the White Truffles on top of the Cheese Tart. Thankfully the taste was even better than the aroma: Chef Crenn created a dish that allowed the White Truffles to sing and be the star of the dish.
Dessert started at this point, beginning with…
Nopal Elixir & White Chocolate Avocado Cremeux:
The server mentioned that all of the Dessert courses were a tribute to Mayan culture.
The White Chocolate Avocado Cremeux was in the form of a “Mayan Mask” of sorts, and the plating was engaging and fun. The actual Cremeux was delicate, creamy, lightly sweet and just delicious!
The Nopal Elixir was refreshing: Hoja Santa, Cucumber, Tomatillo and Nopal Cactus combined together into a cool, lively concoction.
A tribute to one of the staples of Mayan civilization, this was a silky, airy Creme made of Corn, sandwiched by two crispy Masa Wafers. Excellent!
Honey - Sapote Ice Cream & Maracuya:
The presentation on the next dish was just as intriguing as the previous Desserts: Apparently the base was a replication of a wooden log where bees would build a honeycomb. The Mayans would cut open a single hole in the log (at the top) and extract Honey out that way.
So in addition to the Honey-infused Ice Cream Cone, the Sapote Ice Cream had notes of fragrant Honey as well, with a base of Maracuya (Passion Fruit) Pearls, another important fruit to the Mayans. This was another winner, delicious.
Vanilla Bean Guanabana & Crystallized Tobacco Leaf:
This was a lot of fun, and probably one of the most stunning presentations of the evening. The server explained that two other key staples of the Mayans were Vanilla Bean and Tobacco. To represent the smoking of the Tobacco Leaf, some toasted Tobacco Leaves were placed in a vessel and Liquid Nitrogen was poured inside, causing it to pour out fog that looked like “smoke.”
The “Vanilla Bean” was actually a Dark Chocolate Shell made to look like a Vanilla Bean, with Vanilla & Guanabana Creme, which was perfectly delicate and outstanding.
The Crystallized Tobacco Leaf sat underneath the Vanilla Bean, and was edible. It was lightly sweet, with a touch of smokiness; interesting. (And the entire hand was carved out of Baker’s Chocolate(!), but it wasn’t recommended to be eaten.)
Recreation of Agave, Coconut & Iced Pulque:
This was the only miss for the Desserts this evening: It wasn’t bad, but the Iced Pulque (Fermented Agave Sap) tasted too boozy and piquant, overwhelming the Coconut and other flavors.
Another nod to something the Mayans consumed, a stunning Cocoa Bean is presented for the Mignardises finale. It turns out to just be the outer shell, as the inside has been built to house 4 candies to finish the evening. Cute.
The Pecan Praline Chocolate (right-most) was SO GOOD! The Raspberry Strawberry Shard was OK. The Peanut Crunch (in the shape of a Peanut) was cute, nutty and delicious. And the Roasted Salted Caramel Candy was also quite tasty.
Service was very good and professional. The entire staff felt like they were very serious about their job as the waitstaff. Utensils and plates were quietly removed in a timely fashion, and the next course’s utensils laid out quickly thereafter. There was no hovering or excessive questions. The level of professionalism is something that is rare in L.A.'s fine dining scene.
Ultimately when thinking back on Atelier Crenn, it was an enjoyable evening. The touches of whimsy from the poem-based menu, to the fun soundtrack, to the variety of courses and plating helped keep me engaged and kept the experience on the lighter side. The actual taste of the dishes ranged from OK to outstanding, with the biggest misstep being the A5 Wagyu.
However, there were many standouts as well, with the Golden Ossetra Caviar with Koji Creme and Salt-Roasted Kohlrabi, and the Housemade Brioche with Housemade Butter and A5 Wagyu Beef Fat(!) , and the Harbison, Buckwheat and White Truffle Cheese Tart. The Dessert courses / tribute to Mayan culture was a lot of fun and almost all of them were excellent as well.
Overall, I enjoy Chef Dominique Crenn’s cooking and some of the dishes, but throughout the 18+ courses, none of them hit the stratospheric highs of a place like Saison, which is clearly in a class of its own (thank you again @BradFord @PorkyBelly @ipsedixit). The gulf between Saison and Atelier Crenn is vast, and it feels like in the grand scheme of grading for Michelin, Saison should be a “Michelin 4 Star” whereas Atelier Crenn is fine as a Michelin 2 Star. For L.A. residents, Atelier Crenn felt on par with Providence, but more whimsical and fun. I’m glad to have tried Atelier Crenn, and it’s a nice modern French tasting menu. But I’m hoping Chef Crenn and company continue to improve and strive to reach the excellence of the best of the best.
3127 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
Tel: (415) 440-0460