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Atelier Crenn in San Francisco - 2 Michelin stars

Rating: 96.
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Dominique Crenn is the chef/owner of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. Atelier Crenn opened its doors in January 2011 and that same year in October, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star (2012 guide). The second star followed the next year (2013 guide), making her the first female chef in the U.S. to receive 2 Michelin stars. Dominique Crenn is originally from Brittany (in the extreme west of France), but she moved to San Francisco in 1988. In San Francisco she trained for several years in the kitchens of the acclaimed Stars restaurant (now closed), working alongside chefs Mark Franz and Jeremiah Tower, among others.

In 1997 Crenn moved to Indonesia, to become executive chef at the Hotel Borobudur Intercontinental in Jakarta. The May 1998 riots in Indonesia cut her time in Jakarta short, and she returned to California. Soon after her return to the States, Dominique Crenn took up the position of executive chef at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach. After eight years she left the Manhattan Country Club and became chef at Abode in Santa Monica. In 2008 Crenn moved back to San Francisco and took the helm at Luce restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel. In that same year she was named "The Best Chef in America" by Esquire Magazine and in 2009 Luce won a Michelin star.

Atelier Crenn is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and the restaurant offers a seasonal Grand Tasting menu for $220. Dominique Crenn describes her cuisine as "Poetic Culinaria" and the the multi-course tasting menu is written as a poem. I had dinner with my husband at Atelier Crenn on Wednesday 1 April 2015. *I was recognised and Dominique Crenn served us some additional courses.

Tonight's poem was as follows:

Spring has come with its cool breeze
I touch the earth and play, in its cool milky light
Noir sur Noir
Where the broad ocean leans against the Spanish land
I remember an oceanic feeling
Strolling on the beach, in its whimsically ebullient innocence
Here, the earth proffers its juicy and tangy, chlorophyll gifts
The sea is in me, as strange and mysterious
I revisited my childhood memories, a rebirth of the forest
Nibbling on Brittany Seeds
With a twinkle in my eye
Tasting the white luxurious pillow
I take a sip of spring
Watching the beast rest beneath the leaves
Dotting the fragrant flora
A precious token
Spring has come and is full of sweet surprises
Sweetness, bounty, thanks

Dinner started with Spring has come with its cool breeze, a liquid cider bonbon with a thin cocoa butter casing and topped with a crème de cassis puree, quickly followed by a gorgeous dish of well-set Jerusalem artichoke pudding with egg yolk, covered with a thick layer of delightfully popping trout roe. Next to arrive was a "green olive" with a thin crunchy casing and a pistachio ice cream filling, served in a small puddle of Spanish olive oil.


Noir sur Noir turned out to a be a squid-ink flavoured rice cracker, and was followed shortly after by Where the broad ocean leans against the Spanish land. An impeccably presented dish of twirled and tender squid noodles with squid ink puree, and lardo, served on top of some soft smoked potato puree, around which a sublime truffled Iberico ham consommé was poured. Beautifully flavoured consommé, with subtle but distinct (salty-sweet) Iberico ham flavours. A fabulous marriage between earthy and marine flavours.

Next up was a dish of fresh sea urchin roe and salty fermented tomato heart (freshened with dashi) served in butter sauce. A powerful pairing of salty and umami flavours, the sea urchin providing an excellent fresh contrast. Its creaminess rounded out the salty edges in this dish.

Then I remember an oceanic feeling arrived. A superb dish of sliced, lightly smoked Shima Aji (striped horse mackerel) served with ultra-crispy turnip green tempura, turnip puree, and pickled radish, onto which some "smoking" white beet snow was sprinkled. A surprising combination that worked very well. There's acidity, there's sweetness, there's a touch of smokiness and a great temperature and texture contrast, the tempura giving the dish a lovely rich finish.

Equally good was the next course Strolling on the beach, in its whimsically ebullient innocence. A plump and juicy piece of king crab was covered with grapefruit vesicles and served with an umami-rich shellfish/brown crab meat broth, celery ribbons sprinkled with tarragon powder, fennel puree, and a pungent celery-tarragon sorbet on the side. A clever dish with complex flavours and a great synergy between the crab and the various aniseed flavours. The sorbet had lovely pungent flavours and balanced the richness of the crab and the broth.

Another fish course followed - The sea is in me, as strange and mysterious. Fluke, thinly sliced marinated Japanese pear, sesame paste and smoked sturgeon pearls were served with a sea cucumber-dashi broth. A wonderful liaison of refined flavours and textures, the broth adding complexity and the pear delivered a pleasant hint of sweetness.


Next up was a simple but pleasing dish of lightly poached trout, covered with a very thin slice of pear (pickled with champagne vinegar), served with some buttermilk and garnished with a slice of fresh almond. The trout had a lovely off-raw texture and the pear and buttermilk provided a nice touch of freshness/sharpness.

Where the last dish was more about purity and delicateness, the volume was turned up to full with the next course. Silky, rich charred foie gras was served with burnt onion powder and a delicious bitter-sweet endive marmalade. Absolutely beautiful caramelisation on the foie gras, which delivered the most wonderful smoky and nutty flavours. The bitter notes in the marmalade and the onion powder matched the foie gras wonderfully and helped cut through its richness.

The subsequent dish was I revisited my childhood memories, a rebirth of the forest, a 64°C egg yolk served with a smooth duck liver crème, pickled red onion, and kombu in a dark and fragrant and porcini mushroom broth. The flavours in this dish were wonderful, but the egg was a bit of a let-down, because it had a firm texture, rather than the slightly runny texture I was anticipating.

Star of the night was an epic dish of a lightly charred bone marrow "log" (Tasting the white luxurious pillow) served with Oscietra caviar, and nasturtium crumbs, accompanied by thin and crisp buckwheat crackers and smoked crème fraîche. The bone marrow is first cooked, "set" overnight and then charred right before serving, resulting in a slightly less wobbly texture (which I liked very much), but maintaining its characteristic flavour and unctuousness. Once combined with the crackers and smoked crème fraîche you got this unique, exhilarating combination of flavours, opulent but ever so light at the same time, and the crackers provided the perfect crunch with every little bite.

Around this time I was kind of reaching my tasting menu limits but there were two more courses before dessert. First up was Watching the beast rest beneath the leaves, a rich but pleasing pairing of beautifully cooked squab (young pigeon) covered with a thin strawberry veil, and served with a mildly sweet smoked beetroot sauce and mustard seeds. Some Jasmin tea flavoured with squash and spices was served on the side.

Next we were served some truffle-infused Armagnac served in small test-tubes, shortly after followed by a slice of meltingly delicious A5 Wagyu beef, complemented by a light truffled jus, parsnip puree, and some freshly shaved truffle. An excellent pairing and the beef was expertly cooked.

The meal continued with a refreshing and floral palate cleanser of poached aloe vera with shaved aloe vera ice, quickly followed by Dotting the fragrant flora, a test-tube filled with an elegant and pleasantly sweet mixture of pineapple and lemon grass juice, finger lime, basil seeds and blue algae.

Then there was A precious token, a ultra-thin and crisp sugar wafer sprinkled with matcha tea and nori, creating the perfect savoury-sweet flavour combination.

Last up was was a dessert comprised of yuzu curd, green tea, Moscato d'Asti foam, rice sorbet, almond cake crumb and blue/green algae. An original flavour combination with a wonderful variety of textures and temperatures, and all the individual flavours came through nicely.

After the final dessert we were served a wonderful selection of exquisite sweet treats and chocolates, including this box filled with black truffle macarons, pink peppercorn chocolates, and chocolate almonds.

One of the first things I noticed at Atelier Crenn was the laid-back and buzzing atmosphere. In Europe we are still quibbling about whether or not fine dining ("faine daining" to some) restaurants should have tablecloths and crystal glasses, not to mention all the other preconceptions about Michelin starred restaurants in general. San Francisco on the other hand, doesn't seem to be burdened by Europe's baggage of tradition. At almost all restaurants in the San Francisco and the Bay Area, but at Atelier Crenn in particular, I experienced a real sense of open-mindedness, an open-mindedness that seems to be valued by Michelin too. That said, the focal point at Atelier Crenn is very serious gastronomy, but with Crenn's contagiously energetic and enthusiastic mindset thrown in. This results in idiosyncratic dishes, that have panache and a dash of playfulness.

Tonight's menu was a succession of skillfully prepared dishes that all had a clear, personal signature. Dishes highlighting fabulous (local) produce, and I was impressed by the imaginative flavour combinations that often suprised and teased the palate, the brutely sedutive bone marrow dish being unforgettable.

I know Dominique Crenn is not that keen on the label "female chef", so that leaves me with one final thing to say: Madame, vous êtes un grand monsieur!

Posted 12-05-2015


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