Atelier Crenn – San Francisco, CA
When I was a budding foodie, I often turned to the Michelin Guide to figure out where to dine whenever I traveled hither or thither. It was at least helpful to glean which restaurants were getting the highest accolades by the real pros in the business, and a sort of gross part of me liked that I got to eat at two- or three-star places. Felt so fancy!
As I've grown up, however, I have come to understand the shortcomings of the Michelin Guide, and that while it is, indeed, fairly reliable in places with dominant western culinary traditions like Europe and the U.S., it's by no means perfect, and in places like Asia, it can utterly misfire. In fact, none of these guides, like Michelin, Zagat, the 50 Best List, etc. are anywhere near perfect representations of the "best" places out there.
One of the biggest problems with Michelin over the years is how woefully unrepresentative they are of chefs of color and women. The culinary world is definitely a boys' club, and a white and straight boys' club at that, so when it comes to "choosing" the best restaurants in the world, these discrepancies become even more stark, a criticism that has been leveled at Michelin many times over the years. Perhaps the best example of this in the US is the story of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.
Michelin has been doing rankings in San Francisco for many years, as it's one of the true culinary epicenters of the Americas; it may arguably be the best food region in the United States, but I won't make that argument so that I don't offend any New Yorkers (like my Stone Barns buddies) who might be reading this. Hehe. The temples of fine dining in the Bay Area, like the French Laundry, have held three stars for long amounts of time. Then newcomers, like Josh Skenes' Saison, rocketed to the three-star threshold quickly. The problem? Storied institutions of fine dining that were helmed by women were being left in the dust and not recognized at the same clip. The restaurant that caused the most uproar over Michelin's snubbing of women chefs for their top accolades was Atelier Crenn.
Dominique Crenn hails from the Brittany coast in France, and her time growing up on the family farm with her mother's culinary prowess features prominently in her food. Her father, a politician and amateur artist, nurtured her childhood love of food, taking her to prominent restaurants across France with his powerful friends, including a prominent food critic. This primed her for a career in cuisine, and she found her way to the United States in the late '80s to build a career, wishing to find a more progressive culture than the male-dominated kitchens of France. By 2011, after a stint in Indonesia, she'd opened a tiny oasis of what she calls "poetic culinaria" in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco, filled with her father's art, menus that are literal poems, and her memories of Brittany. By 2013, she held two Michelin stars, making her the first woman to achieve that honor in the United States. But for years, while male newcomers vaulted to the three-star tier, Dominique's transcendental meals at Atelier Crenn were being overlooked by the Guide for that elusive third star.
I became aware of this injustice in my research on San Francisco restaurants when first learning to love food, and year after year it seemed like an even worse slight for the Guide to keep her parked at two stars. Amateur critics and industry participants decried the Guide's snubs, and despite two stars being a monumental achievement, every year she was overlooked for her third. I finally decided I had to go find out what was going on at Crenn, snagging a last-minute reservation for one during one of my last debate trips to the Bay Area in 2016, and experienced one of the most spectacular, artistic, and beautiful meals of my life, leaps and bounds above some meals I'd had that the Michelin Guide ranked with an extra star.
In 2018, Dominique finally got what she deserved––her third Michelin star, vaulting Atelier Crenn to the absolute top of the culinary world in the United States. The first and only woman to hold three Michelin stars in the US, she was subsequently granted all manner of awards, including "Best Female Chef in the World" by James Beard, a distinction she rightly dismisses because she does not care for the gender division when evaluating a chef's oeuvre. She's also one of the few queer chefs to achieve this level of accolade, and is well-known as being a kind, supportive mentor in her kitchen (in contrast to the temper and fire-and-brimstone of many other chefs in the biz), as well as a friendly host for her guests in the dining room.
When in the height of quarantine ennui last summer, I booked a "get the hell out of Iowa" trip that was to take me to Las Vegas and San Francisco, the highlight of which was to be my much-awaited return to Atelier Crenn now that she had her third star. Unfortunately, that trip was booked when the first wave was sloping downward, and before the even worse second wave that summer was to take hold across the country, so just days before I was scheduled to leave, San Francisco once again shuttered all indoor dining, and I canceled my trip. Once things seemed to be getting better in the fall, the staff at Crenn offered me a table on their outdoor terrace in early December, but again a nasty COVID wave nipped those plans in the bud. So finally, when San Francisco emerged as one of the lowest-risk places in the country this spring, I was offered a seat in their dining room for early May, and gladly took it, knowing I'd be fully vaxxed and excited to experience what was now a meal a long time in the making! And what a wonderful way to celebrate the completion of my first year at Davidson!
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The meal was the highlight of my day (and the trip!) so I spent much of the day antsy to head over to Cow Hollow and be transported into Chef Dominique's world. So antsy, in fact, that I wound up walking over four miles through the city in the hours leading up to it! I love San Francisco and the city is so quiet right now––almost eerily so––so I had no complaints about embarking on a nice walk.
I started at the far end of the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building, where I dropped by a favorite old haunt, Hog Island Oyster Co., for a quick bayside bite, since I was feeling a bit hungry and had a couple hours to burn! Six oysters and a local cider later, the marine layer was starting to come in from the Pacific, and it was a windy walk along the water that took me to my old buddies the sea lions (who don't care about social distancing), the wild cliffs of Fort Mason, and finally the beautiful, serene Cow Hollow neighborhood, which quietly houses one of the greatest restaurants in the world.
I was rather early to my reservation but they did seat me, just taking a bit of time to start the meal until the kitchen finished the previous seating. To start they offered me Chef Crenn's favorite rosé Champagne from Lelarge Pugeot, a 2013 Brut Nature. I like Brut Nature for its ever-so-slight sweetness, and this was a beautiful way to start the meal. Since I was waiting a while, they were kind enough to top me off a couple of times! As Christopher Walken once said, "Life is too short to drink anything but vintage Champagne."
The space looked wholly different than the last time I was here. I'm not sure if I just don't remember correctly, if it was the hanging (and very pretty) dividers they installed because of COVID, if they split the space up to accommodate the new Bar Crenn next door, or if they just repainted or something, but I actually found the space to be a little less than relaxing. Perhaps that was because I was sat by the kitchen, so there was a lot of activity in my vicinity. But it was the literal only thing I could have possibly complained about that night.
Meals at Crenn are presented to you as poems, a concept she calls "poetic culinaria." This should be an immediate clue into the utter artistry you're about to experience when you dine here. This time, the menu and poem were presented electronically, as so many menus are these days, to prevent high-touch COVID transmission. They also commissioned a local artist to create renderings of each dish to accompany each line of the poem. So wonderful, and an homage to Dominique's father, who was also a wonderful artist.
The journey begins, as it always does at Atelier Crenn, with a take on the classic Breton aperitif, the Kir Breton. In the cocktail, hard cider is combined with crème de cassis for a light, refreshing tipple. Chef's mother always made this cocktail for friends when they visited their home as a "welcome" gift, and so this is her way of welcoming her own guests at the restaurant! A cocoa butter shell encases apple cider, and a cassis gel sits atop. The shell is delicate and breaks down soon after it hits your tongue. Fabulous. This is also the line of the poem that never changes––only the season changes, and while I am a) not sure it's summer yet, and b) don't associate summer with cool breezes (although I suppose this IS San Francisco where there is literally always a cool breeze), it is a beautiful way to begin the meal.
Swiftly after the Kir Breton was cleared, a cloche enclosing a mist scented with sweet rice and citrus was brought to the table, inside which was a tiny tart with what resembled a flower. This has become a common presentation for Crenn, and I can see why––it was absolutely stunning to behold. Inspired by Chef's travels in Japan, the "petals" of the flower are made of thinly-sliced geoduck clam, inside which is nestled brown butter-poached uni and a bit of citrus. They spooned a dollop of citrus-flavored cream atop. Such a beautiful presentation, though by no means the most beautiful of the night, and wonderfully flavorful. I particularly love the olfactory element of the mist.
The next two bites were an homage to Chef's favorite wine and food pairing––oysters and rosé. Chef herself commissioned and helped make this rosé from Bandol in France, from Domaine de Terrebrune, which was a blend of a few grapes and had a light, but still substantial, body and floral character.
Two preparations of oyster formed the oyster-rosé pairing. The first was two raw Grassy Bar oysters from Morro Bay in California with an incredible rosé and geranium gel, lemon sea salt, fresh pepper, and a frozen oyster "shell" on top made from sparkling rosé. The flavors were bright and nuanced, but the geranium gel packed a serious, floral punch that absolutely blew me away and brought out the more floral notes in the wine. I was in heaven right away, only lamenting that three bites had already passed in such a short time!
The second oyster preparation was just as good, but in a very different style. Here, a Hood Canal oyster from Washington was lightly grilled yakitori-style, and served with a mousseline of oyster "bits" (the stuff you'd trim from an oyster in the shell when trying to make it look nice and plump and lovely), pickled tapioca, purple shiso, and an oyster leaf. The mousseline was the X-factor, and may have been one of the best things I'd eaten in years––I spent a very long time carefully cutting up the oyster into smaller and smaller pieces so I could continue to enjoy this dish for as long as possible. Just magnificent.
To accompany the next course, I was brought a dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. This region of the country is starting to get a LOT of attention for their German varietals, particularly Rieslings, due to the microclimates that the particular geography of the Finger Lakes create. I've had Finger Lakes wines in many restaurants on the East Coast, but haven't yet had one out West. Seems Crenn's wine team has discovered it as well, and to their credit, because this Forge dry Riesling was magnificent––deep golden in color, with an almost oxidative quality to it, it was complex and even earthy, with a mouthwatering acidity. A perfect pairing for the coming course.
Dominique's mother grew a garden outside their Brittany home, and she has fond memories of picking vegetables as a child with her mother, particularly leeks. This dish is an homage to those memories and her connection to her mother. A buckwheat tart held a delicate leek crema, topped with gold leaf, little wisps of shaved leek, and three tiny dots made from burnt leek ash. Alongside, they took an entire outer layer of leek and fried it, making a leek chip and instructing me to go back and forth between the two. The tart was almost impossibly delicate in flavor, but with an allium richness that left my mouth watering for more with each bite. The chip was also beautiful––impossibly thin and perfectly salty––and I appreciated the texture contrast it provided with the soft tart.
The Riesling would also serve as an outstanding pairing for the next course, which featured Dungeness crab, the crown jewel of Bay Area seafood. The peak season for Dungeness is just ending, so I was glad to see this Dungeness "tartare" on the menu. The crab was not raw, but served in a thin circle and topped with various seaweeds and little dollops of pear butter. Surrounding the crab was a ring of kelp dust, the "gilded crown" of the dish, and one of the cooks came out to also spoon an interior ring of ginger whey foam. Alongside, a rich broth made from the shells of the crab was served, and the same cook added a few little droplets of coffee butter. Wow! What detail!
Jurançon is a fascinating French wine region tucked in the Pyrenees, and produces some sweet and some dry wines from the fairly rare manseng and corbu families of grapes. From Domaine Lajibe, a winery helmed by a former Olympic fencer, this sweeter permutation of Jurançon had a healthy sweetness to it, but also searing acidity, which would prove to be perfect for both the heftier and sweeter elements of the course to come––a take on French onion soup.
This next course is probably the most beautiful thing I have eaten. It is also one of the most delicious. In the bottom of the bowl was a gelée of burnt bread and onion, atop which little petals of pickled and then torched pearl onions surrounded a cauliflower ice cream, which housed a tiny pour of ramp oil in its center. Perched atop each onion petal was a single piece of snail caviar. The presentation was insanely pretty. I didn't even want to eat it; it felt like destroying art. But alongside, paper-thin buckwheat crackers were the "crouton" upon which I was instructed to spread the ice cream, which provided a cold temperature contrast to the onion broth that was poured in a glass over cheese fat. CHEESE FAT. Y'all, I can't even begin to conceive of food this beautiful and inventive. Wow. I'd say it was the course of the night, but how could I possibly choose?
Nicholas Joly is an icon of winemaking in France, and is probably responsible for spurring the biodynamic, organic wine movement worldwide as an early convert to the practice. His Château de la Roches-aux-Moines in Savennières, Loire Valley adopts this holistic agricultural practice which attempts to harmonize agriculture with the natural world around it and also the celestial calendar. It's wacky, hippie-dippie shit, but it has some pretty fierce advocates. Often, biodynamic producers will introduce other plants and animals to the vineyards to create an entire environment for growing. For his part, Joly has sheep that wander around his grapes, giving this wine the name "Clos de la Bergerie." One hundred percent chenin blanc, a versatile, acidic, and aromatic grape that is well-suited to all manner of styles, this pour had the funk you might expect from a biodynamic wine with a clean acidity and buckets of golden apples and bruised fruits.
Abalone is a staple of Bay Area cuisine, and also happens to be a specialty of Chef Crenn's native Brittany. This substantial whole abalone was cooked until impossibly tender and served with mustard seed and dollops of a purée of abalone livers, perched atop a house-made sauerkraut, and topped with a cabbage chip that was meant to resemble the abalone shell. To complete the course, one of the kitchen staff spooned a "pretty intense" reduction of smoked mussels with parsley oil. Everything was immensely flavorful, especially the mussel reduction, but the thing that I couldn't wrap my head around is how tender this abalone was. Abalone is notoriously tough, and these slices of the bivalve were like butter. It was remarkable. Chef Crenn does it again!
Alongside, they served me some brioche, Dominique's grandmother's recipe (I LOVE when chefs deploy old family recipes at restaurants like this) served with a house-cultured butter flavored with fines herbes, chervil, tarragon, and chives. Super delicious and actually served as a great vehicle for sopping up the rest of that incredible mussel reduction!
I had the chance to visit Hirsch Vineyard's Sonoma tasting room on my last visit to the Bay Area, and found their wines to be extraordinary. The location of the vineyard is extraordinary enough––perched high above the water just in from the coast, it is the perfect place to grow elegant, Burgundian-style pinot noir. The complexity of this wine is what stands out the most––soft tannins, but with a more robust mouthfeel than the lightest styles of pinot, it was divine and quite flavorful, and a perfect complement to Chef Crenn's food.
McFarland Springs is a trout farm that uses spring-fed water from the Susan river in northern California and a completely sustainable vegetarian diet to grow their fish. The trout are immaculate, clean, and completely sustainable––it's the future of fish cultivation. Chef Crenn creates a little cake made of McFarland Springs trout mousse in this dish and layers it top. and bottom with squid ink pain de mie. Alongside, the kitchen staff spoons an oyster reduction with trout roe, also from McFarland. In the distance (I was foolish not to get a separate photo of this) is a "side salad" course of asparagus and peas from Blue Belle farm in Sonoma, Atelier Crenn's own farm, and wild morels from the Sonoma coast. Spectacular.
Nebbiolo, as both loyal readers of the blog know, is one of my favorite grapes. Grown in the Piedmont in northern Italy, it produces some of the most fantastic and coveted red wines in the world. Barolo and Barbaresco, named for Piedmontese villages, are the most famous, but Italian winemakers will tell you that the non-village nebbiolo is the best kept secret of northern Italy. Such is the case with wines from Roeno. This nebbiolo had plenty of age––14 years––meaning the feisty nebbiolo tannins had plenty of time to mellow out in the bottle what was left was an early, cherry-driven, spectacular red.
French meals often end the savory portion with salad and cheese, so Chef Crenn assembled a beautiful collection of lettuces and herbs from the farm with a creamy cheese out of Sebastopol in Sonoma county, served inside an open-able stump. Jesus. Delicious, and a refreshing way to end the savory portion!
Before they whisked me off into their new Bar Crenn space to enjoy desert, I got a little tour of the kitchen, greeted by a unison chorus of "Bonjour!" The hostess offered to take a photo of me with the chefs, accompanied by a unison "Fromage!" And, as I left, I heard a unison call behind me, "Au revoir!" So much fun!
Bar Crenn is Dominique's newest project right next door. They closed it down for the duration of the pandemic, using it as a space to offer to-go meals, but now are using it as the setting for the desserts so they can seat more people nightly. Modeled after a 1920s-era Parisian Champagne salon, it is glittered with art deco-ish elegance and glorious chandeliers. I was told it was meant to feel like "Dominique's living room."
I was still thirsting after more pinot noir so ordered a glass of Nuits-Saint-Georges to sip while I waited. I don't get to drink nearly as much Burgundy as I would like, so I was so happy to get the chance to enjoy such a fine example after dinner.
Juan Contreras, the pastry chef, has been by Chef Crenn's side since she opened the restaurant, and his work is just as magnificent and artistic as hers. For dessert tonight, I was first presented with a "citrus daisy" with meringue petals, marigold, Valencia oranges, and mandarin. A lovely, palate-cleansing way to start. The second dish was honey and verbena "honeycomb" waffle, like a little honey and lemon verbena sandwich, alongside a chocolate and miso butter reconstructed walnut. So cool. The last dish was a play on avocado toast––a mint meringue was the "bread," topped with an olive oil and passionfruit mousse, and spread with avocado mousse on top.
To pair, I was brought a glass of Bugey Cerdon, one of my favorite semi-sweet bubbly dessert wines, just brimming with flowers and bright red fruit. Delicious, and perfect with each of the desserts! I was also gifted a flight of three dessert wines by new friends in food who I sat next to in the bar, which was most kind of them, and gave me even more to pair with each dessert bite!
I wept internally to know that this was the end of this meal, but at the same time, my three-hour-ahead east coast brain was starting to sort of shut down. Mignardises included chocolates with passionfruit and lime, Earl Grey, and hazelnut. Tasty tasty tasty.
It's hard to know how to even describe a meal like this. The food is so beautiful, so thoughtful, so artistic, and so full of love and joy that it nearly defies comprehension. Dominique Crenn is an absolute treasure, and she is now responsible for two of the greatest meals I have ever had the chance to enjoy. I cannot wait for the third.