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Review: Atelier Crenn [San Francisco]

Daveena and I went to Atelier Crenn for dinner last night and—to cut to the chase—it was the best high-end dinner I’ve had in San Francisco this year.

The background
In our Oakland versus San Francisco debate (which might only be in my head) my city has suffered in our dining series—Benu was pretty good, Sons & Daughters was an epic fail, Bar Agricole charged us $15 for a cheese plate featuring Trader Joe’s quality Parmesan with the stink of plastic wrap still hanging over it. Our trips to Plum, Commis and cocktail crawl through Grand Lake succeeded at a level our SF expeditions had not. The cheese plate in particular launched an existential crisis: why pay SF rent if our most awesome dinners required a BART ticket?

The food
There are two menu options—a full tasting menu for $125 or a four course prix fixe selection for $75. We went for four courses and split the pairing; I ordered the “broken” avocado, “walk in the forest” mushroom dish, “the sea” entrée, and chocolate cherry log dessert; the meal included a piece of French milk bread as a starter, followed by an amuse bouche, a palate refresher in between the second and third courses, and mignardises.

Every dish I ordered was a standout—perfectly executed at the level one should expect when you’re dining at (and paying for) a restaurant of this level. The chef created playful scenes on the plate, but technique never won out over taste. Several of the plates used meringue (a meringue tongue running down the mushroom plate, a beet-shaped meringue in the amuse bouche) and nitrogen freezing (like the “broken avocado”) to meld unexpected tastes and textures. I grabbed a bite of Daveena’s first course, the new potato “memoire d’enfance” (memory of childhood) and thought that was spectacular as well. If I had to pick a favorite, it was “The Sea”—each piece of seafood on the plate was purely, simply and exquisitely itself—this included arctic char, mussels, oysters and “sand” made of--what was that, Daveena? Of the chef’s additions to the meal, only the milk bread wasn’t great—I didn’t like the texture. It tasted like an unflaky powdered milk biscuit.

The scene
The dining room was funny—it reminded me of my mother’s “wizard period” in the 80’s when her craft circle was working on cloaked wizards surrounded by woodland creatures constructed of twigs and hot glue. The room is a shoe box with low couches, soft organic colors and twiggy wall art. A bamboo-like covering over the center lighting fixture that looked like what you’d do if you were on an HDTV show with $1000 and 24 hours to renovate a house. So not as high end as the food, but maybe that’ll improve over time. However, if that’s why we got out of there for $110, I accept the wizard period throwback. The chef, who looks like a kind of French punk pixie, was walking around the room and stopped to say hello.

A+. Spectacular without pretense. Can’t wait to go back for the full chef’s menu.

Bar Agricole
355 11th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103

3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

Sons & Daughters
708 Bush St, San Francisco, CA 94108

Atelier Crenn
3127 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94123

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  1. I had almost the same dishes very recently: and agree that it was an excellent meal and stands out a bit from the typical SF dining (more artful, more molecular, more creativity but retained mostly great tastes)
    *"Broken" Avocado. Grapefruit, tarragon, sourdough croutons and smoky popcorn -- delicious, a must order
    *New potato Memoire D'enfance, pea sprouts, peas, Comte chips, flowers -- also very good
    *Walk in the Forest," textures of wild mushrooms with pine essence merengue -- super tasty, a must order
    *Asparagus with thin bacon, orange, trout caviar, goat hollandaise, and lard -- weakest dish, skip
    *The Sea, sous vide arctic char, mussels, smoked oysters, and dehydrated black ink crumbs on top, sturgeon pearls/lemon foam -- good, but usually like my fish not so soft
    *Pork and summer beans -- pretty good
    *Moss Garden pistachio chiffon like cake over pear sorbet with nitrogen-chilled chocolate ganache -- spectacular dish, a must order
    *Carrot cake, chilled pea sorbet, walnuts -- in the style of molecular playfulness, but not the best dessert tasting flavor combination

    1. Loved this meal. Another poster on a different thread commented that this was the closest you'd get to Noma in SF - while I haven't been to Noma, I've been to, and adored, Alinea, and this was the closest I've had to Alinea in the Bay Area. Creative flavor combinations and techniques, but still soulful and personal - both entertaining *and* nourishing, a tough trick for this style of cooking.

      There was a piece on the NYTimes a while ago on male dominance in the avant-garde food scene - some Mars vs. Venus dreck about fascination with technology vs. desire to nurture. I am pleased to say that Chef Crenn neatly pulverizes this stereotype, and in the most delicious way possible. She shreds not only the male vs. female dichotomy, but the tech vs. nurture one as well. I can't wait to go back.

      1 Reply
      1. re: daveena

        Alinea s my favorite expense account restaurant; having been disappointed by Benu and and Coi I've been reluctant to try Crenn... may have to give it a go

      2. Thank you for this great review. I am looking froward to checking it out now!

        1. So no one's tried the cheese course? We were too full, but now I'm curious.

          I didn't like the Sea the night we went, but loved enough of everything else to be excited to return.

          The tasting menu does continue to climb in price (it was $95 back in May). Happily, the portions for 4 courses were plentiful, unlike the opening reports

          1 Reply
          1. re: Windy

            I returned to Atelier Crenn this weekend, with every intention of getting the cheese plate, however, my dining companions and I had opted for the full chef's tasting menu, and we were stuffed by that point in the evening.

            We were started off with milk bread with sea salt and thyme, before the amuse bouches began appearing. The first was a liquid nitrogen frozen pea soup, and the second was a carrot sorbet with microgreens .

            The first course was their Kir Breton, a sphere of apple cider wrapped in white chocolate and topped with a cassis sauce.

            Next came Ocean and Land, a American Wagyu steak tartar with horseraddish, smoked sturgeon pearls, and black sesame flatbread.

            Broken Avocado - avocado pieces with grapefruit, tarragon sauce, sourdough breadcrumbs and popcorn. Wonderful dish -- the acidity of the grapefruit complemented the avocado quite well.

            Foie Gras Log - Foie Gras mixed with milk, frozen with liquid nitrogen and then shaved. This was presented with vanilla, oats and cherries.

            Foie Gras was also presented with Grilled Apricot, and sourdough breadcrumbs which I enjoyed. The Apricot + foie gras combination was just incredible.

            Crennologie -- Apple and Celery cubes, a very effective palate cleanser to prepare us for the last two savory dishes -- Artic Char with licorice and an carrot-uni emulsion foam and Pork ala Thailandaise (Roasted Pork Belly).

            The Artic Char is prepared sous vide, giving it a very soft and creamy texture. The carrot/uni emulsion gives it a certain amount of sweetness and saltiness, along with the dabs of licorice.

            The night is finished off with olive oil ice cream , and a host of petits fours (passionfruit? jelly, strawberry jelly, cherry marshmallow, salted caramel, white chocolate cream, milk chocolate, dark chocolate.

            Considering that this menu now includes Wagyu on the menu in place of prawn, it seems justified that the cost should be higher to reflect the cost of the ingredient.

            The wine pairings have now switched to a "Summer Wine Pairing" over their previous "Beverage Pairing". The pairs are well done, each one accentuating the flavor profiles of the dishes.

            Atelier Crenn
            3127 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94123

          2. Excellent - was looking for some CH thoughts on this. Will be the last meal in an "embarassment of riches" sort of visit in early September. Coi/Benu/Meadowood/Cyrus/Crenn. Can't wait.


            1 Reply
            1. sounds promising.

              i will try to forget the 3 hour 2-course disaster we had at Luce (Crenn was in the kitchen that night) and give her another try.

              1. We went on Friday night. We liked it overall. Here is a mini review:

                On the night we went the service was not great. I would say there was a general lack of warmth in the service. Our server in particular looked very unhappy to be there. The menu is somewhat complex and we practically had to force him to give descriptions of the courses. It was kind of amazing. The biggest flaw in the service was that that night they were serving the potato appetizer with shaved truffle. Something our server failed to mention (even though we asked him to describe this dish!). We would not have known had we not seen the next table over get this dish. Had we know we would have gotten this dish as an appetizer. The chef came over to the able to talk to us. In contrast to the servers she was delightful and very warm and it detracted a bit from the bad service.

                The chefs tasting menu was more Foie gras rich than we like so we ordered and shared the four course price fix menu. We asked if we could substitute an appetizer for one of dessert courses (something other restaurants have done in the past) but our waiter looked at us as if we were crazy. Whatever.

                We ate:

                Le Jardin: Very good but the portion was pretty small for what it was.

                “Broken” Avocado: Very enjoyable but I was not as blown away by this as some people here.

                "Walk in the Forest’: Really delicious. Maitake are my favorite mushrooms and I always have wondered why more places don’t use them more.

                The Sea: Delicious. The least successful element was the abalone but the other elements were excellent. The uni and char were particularly tasty.

                Pork: Another winning dish. Really amazing

                For dessert we shard the cheese plate which came witha choice of two cheses from the cheese plate. The cheese selections were good fairly common cheeses like the old standby St. Agur. Our waiter put us remarkably tiny thin slices of cheese. I sighed when I looked at the plate. Felt ripped off.

                The chocolate dessert was delicious.

                One thing I liked about this place is that the portions were reasonable so you don’t leave dinner feeling overly heavy and bloated. I can see that some might complain that the potions are small and this was certainly the case with our cheese course. We will definitely go back although next time I will be sure to ask for a different waiter if we get the same one.

                29 Replies
                1. re: Ridge

                  two of us are going tonight, and i probably should have asked sooner, but it seems people are saying that just one of the smaller of the two tasting menus ($115 Chef's Classic v. $160 Moments of Winter, an Introduction) is enough food to actually share? I realize they are different menus than what was served in July 2011, but it's hard to imagine a tasting menu being enough for two people. maybe I'm misunderstanding: did people order one tasting menu each and then trade off tastes of the other's option on the menu?

                  i was debating on getting the full-on $160 menu, but that might be too much, not to mention $$$ after wine....


                  1. re: mariacarmen

                    IMHO, perhaps I am a gluten, but sharing one of the $115 Chef's Classic would def. not be enough for me. Unless they dramatically increase the portions per dish for the Chef's Classic over the 18 course tasting menu? If so, I would def. go with the Chef's Classic.

                    I found the 18 course too long and some of the dishes not that great. Whereas a consolidated tasting of the best dishes would be really quite awesome and would be better. So now I am curious about the portions between the two as well....

                    1. re: goldangl95

                      thanks for the info... i'm expecting that the $115 menu will be enough for each of us to have one, and not to have to order the $160 to feel sated. does anyone know if one person can get the Classic and another order the 18 course one? i would imagine they would not like the person with the Classic getting bites of the other person's 18 course meal.... plus, one person would be sitting there much longer without a plate in front of them, right?

                      1. re: mariacarmen

                        I doubt it. The service would be difficult in the way you mention. I believe we were given a la carte vs. tasting menu options at the time but the entire table had to do the same. We left feeling well fed after 9 courses. The portion size was not small. Enjoy your outing!

                          1. re: mariacarmen

                            i'm looking forward to this review.

                            1. re: steve h.

                              here goes! it's long....

                              Our dinner exceeded our expectations. I had been a little leery of what appeared to be such preciousness (the menu’s listing of the $160 tasting is merely a poem entitled “Introduction to Winter”!) My sister and I each had:

                              Escabeche mussels with sea foam and a saffron rouille. This was served on a rock, evoking a little island in the ocean.

                              Steelhead trout caviar on housemade rice crackers, on a shiso leaf. Loved the licorice bite of the shiso paired with the salty roe.

                              Palate cleanser #1 - White chocolate “egg” with a fantastic burst of Kir breton inside. The chocolate shell was paper thin and crackly brittle.

                              Tiger shrimp prepared sous vide, then grilled a la piastra, with banbanji tahini dots, and a trail of seaweed powder. We were instructed to eat with our hands. Juicy, crunchy, wonderful.

                              Kushi oyster poached in sake, with elderflower gelee, tapioca pearls, mirin and thyme beurre blanc, creme fraiche. Delicate, fresh – a sensual morsel.

                              Whole wheat and rice flour brioche. The only item of the night I didn’t love, as they were a tad dry for my taste.

                              Poached Dungeness crab with sunchoke, rutabaga, lovage, grapefruit, rice cracker, dill, cinnamon, and other flavors I can’t recall melding beautifully.

                              Pickled and scorched mackerel in chamomile foam, beet "texture"/powder, horseradish, verbena. So many contrasts, yet it all worked perfectly together.

                              Palate cleanser #2 - another "egg", but this one of an ice made of rooibos tea, honey, and vanilla. I was reminded again that we were dealing with winter – my teeth actually hurt eating this!

                              A “standard” brioche. Much better. Would have liked butter.

                              Foie gras flash chilled and shaved, shaped like a curl of bark, along with vanilla, cocoa nibs, apple bits, balsamic gelee little cubes, rice cracker. This was absolutely wonderful, and a true signal that the pleasure would ratchet up exponentially from here on out. The lovely foie melted with each bite of sweet vanilla and cocoa, tart apple, and crispy cracker....

                              Razor clam with carrot foam, squid ink, seaweed, smoked paprika "soil", and smoked sturgeon pearls. This was our favorite item ... to this point. The sweetish foam on the sweet clam, and the smokiness of the entire dish – astounding.

                              Madai (japanese snapper) with fried sage, alliums, kumquat shells, cilantro puree, edible flowers, browned butter, and fried capers. This topped the razor clam. The apparently freeze dried and powdered browned butter “snow” melted with the perfectly grilled snapper, the alliums contrasted with the kumquat…this dish was earthy and substantial, and yet still light.

                              Pigeon ume, with "ash" of coffee, puree of black garlic, and other delicious things I can no longer read in my notes. The squab held its own heart (or liver – both were definitely on the plate) in its claw – completely dramatic presentation amongst the 10 or more preceding gorgeous presentations (reminded us of Grayson’s dish on TC during the Snow White challenge). I was blown away by the delicious, ruby rare flesh, and the attendant deeply warm flavors of the ume and coffee.

                              Eucalyptus plant with rose/honey ice. Literally, a planter comes out, with a little eucalyptus tree. It was an all-senses cleanser (well, most senses), and on each side a eucalyptus stem had been painted with eucalyptus oil, and topped with a fat lollypop of honey and rose ice. In case we’d forgotten it was winter.

                              A beautiful little Japanese siphon then came out, it’s bowl filled with mulling spices on top and ginseng on the bottom, a little flame beneath, making a lovely tisane to sip with our dessert. The light red warmed liquid was spiced yet mild and slightly sweet.

                              Hyperbole alert: (I can't help it!) Next came the best dessert I’ve had in my entire life: a pear sorbet in the shape of a pear and "spray painted" with pear, apple, and quince, to look like a frosted, golden and rosy pear that had fallen from its wintry tree onto the forest floor below. The forest floor was made of more of the powdery, nutty browned butter, maple, sage cake, apple granita and greek yogurt snow – so with each bite you got cold crunches of snow and a little munch like mud and leaves (I cannot remember what they were, but in my pics they look pretty leaf-like) and the only thing that was inedible was the stem on the pear, which was actually a piece of vanilla, and which I discovered I had inhaled when my plate was empty. This was an unbelievably thought provoking dish. And I don’t even care about pears.

                              Then a split log was brought out covered in mignardises: passion fruit marshmallows, madeleines, rice crispy covered chocolate and passionfruit, ginger something, key lime something else, mango something, gold leaf covered bitter chocolate sheets, and a salted caramel that made us both actually moan out loud. (Well, there was a lot of that throughout the meal but this was particularly guttural and we both did it at completely different times.) Our server told us the pastry chef had tried 15 different ways to make that cellophane wrapped sweet until he hit upon that one.

                              Service was excellent and warm, and our charming server was extremely tolerant of our picture taking and endless requests for repetition of ingredients. The sommelier took care of me, adhering to my budget conscious request of half glasses (after our initial glass of bubbly served in delightful retro champagne coupes - a Cremant de Limoux (Chardonnay/Chenin Blanc)) of a dry white and a bold red. He brought me first a very lovely floral yet dry 2010 Eric Louis "Cuvee Petit Prince" Sancerre, and then a generous “half glass” pour of a 2007 Sierra Madre Pinot Noir, from the Santa Maria Valley. (My sister did not drink after the initial glass of sparkling wine. And the only tiny complaint we had was that we were not told, as we almost always are, anywhere we go, that we would be charged for the sparkling water. A small quibble of $10 – I was too happy to bring it up.)

                              This was, by far, the best meal I’ve ever had. Better than Masa, better than Danko, even better than Coi. We left satiated but not stuffed. Chef Crenn, as others have mentioned, came out several times to ask how we were faring, inquiring how we liked a particular dish, discussing ingredients, techniques. She was warm and engaging, and affirmed that she was indeed cooking from her heart. It’s not a trite declaration, coming from her. The food was for me a perfect mixture of intellect, wonder and rusticity.

                              This was a huge splurge for us, but if I could afford to do it again, I would love to come back to see what flights of thoughtful fancy she’ll conjure up each season.

                              1. re: mariacarmen

                                Fantastic report, mariacarmen, and I'm glad you included photos. I, too, was afraid that the menu would be too precious and just not delicious--our last big expensive meals before Crenn were Benu and Sons & Daughters, and I hadn't liked either of those enough to return.

                                I would definitely save up (and up, and up) to return here.

                                1. re: mariacarmen

                                  Outstanding report! Expectations must have been sky high and it sounds like Atelier Crenn delivered. Both your's and daveena's experiences have pushed this restaurant to the top of the stack.

                                  How long was the meal? Is the tip included in the fixed price like it is at Per Se and French Laundry?

                                  1. re: steve h.

                                    thanks pane & steve h.!

                                    steve , the tip is sadly not included.... but i was happy to tip well as our server definitely deserved it.

                                  2. re: mariacarmen

                                    I came over here from your link on the WFD thread, and was enthralled with your description - how wonderful!

                                    1. re: mariacarmen

                                      Another dropping in from the What's For Dinner thread. Absolutely fab food.

                                      I really want to eat there. No, I mean I *really* want to eat there.

                                      Now, can I justify the 15 hours travel time and ticket cost of well over a grand?

                                      1. re: Harters

                                        of course you can! be happy to put you up on our couch, so you'd have that going for you....

                                      2. re: mariacarmen

                                        Amazing you had your wits about you to write these kinds of notes. Great reading and good to know how the menu changes seasonally so that there is always something new to try on another visit. I only had 4 of the items you list on my visit in October 2011. Time to go back!

                                        1. re: rubadubgdub


                                          i pestered our poor server to death! she took it with great good grace.

                                          this was a probably once-in-a-lifetime thing for us, so I really wanted to remember it all.

                                        2. re: mariacarmen

                                          Glad to see success hasn't spoiled Crenn--though the price is nearly twice what we spent a year ago, when the prix fixe was under $100.

                                          Looking forward to returning! Thanks for all the details, and glad it lived up to your hopes.

                                          1. re: Windy

                                            yeah, i'm pretty sure i'll never be able to go back, especially if she keeps raising the price.

                                          2. re: mariacarmen

                                            Another drop-in from WFD board--wow, MC, now that's a spectacular dinner.

                                              1. re: mariacarmen

                                                Also how long was the meal, my res is for 7:15, will we be done by 10pm?

                                                1. re: tjinsf

                                                  Probably not. It's more like 4 1/2 hrs than 3 1/2 hrs.

                                                  1. re: tjinsf

                                                    we got there at 6:45 and left at 10:15 or so.

                                              2. re: mariacarmen

                                                ok that's it, I haven't tried the winter menu. made a reservation.

                                                1. re: tjinsf

                                                  hope you love it as much as we did.

                                                  1. re: mariacarmen

                                                    I loved it. also besides accomodating my odd cooked tomatoes allergy, the French Spouse's pescatarianism, at the table next to us they accommodated a vegetarian.

                                                2. re: mariacarmen

                                                  I can only say I agree with everything you have said including it being better than Coi and Danko, the French Spouse actually said it was one of the best meals she's had in North America and I really agree. The creativity was amazing and there were lots of techniques but all of them added to the dishes and didn't distract from the ingredients.

                                                  We had almost the same tasting menu but since the spouse is pescatarian while I had the pigeon she had the most complex and delicious mushroom dish that blew most of the courses away.

                                                  We also tried all the cheeses available for an optional cheese course, it's was 5 cheese for 35 or a serving of 2 for unknown amount. Really really excellent selection as good as at Quince and as good as in Europe.

                                                  The service was also some of the best I've experienced in SF, I often find servers here to not have some basic formal dining training but the servers here had both the training but a very friendly and engaging manner. They were very knowledgeable about the menu.

                                                  I love seeing a chef in her kitchen and she came out three times to check on us. I also love how quiet and small the place is and how not overdesigned the decor is.

                                                  It was indeed worth every penny.

                                      3. and a few representative (rather dark) photos.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: mariacarmen

                                          how did you take pictures? I saw the note on the menu that said no cell phones and no flash photography? Also another I loved is how there was flower petal or leaf in every single dish.

                                          1. re: tjinsf

                                            i think that note means no cell phone use - as in don't talk on your cell phone, and then, separately, no flash photography. we used our cell phones, with no flash, for the pics. they were completely accommodating about it.

                                            i'm so glad you liked it as much as we did! it's great to know they will accommodate food needs/restrictions. that mushroom dish you describe sounds so intriguing. we wanted to do the cheese course as well, but the tab was looming ... but as you said, well worth it. when you say the chees selection was as good as in Europe, do you mean that there were raw milk varieties?

                                            1. re: mariacarmen

                                              I meant it was good in a number of ways, yes 4 out of 5 were unpasturized and raw but also the selection was of a really high quality and had a subtlety that I don't offend find in American restaurants that do a cheese course. Who ever picks the cheese has a really good knowledge of European cheese. There were two American cheese but they had the same restraint too.

                                        2. That is one hell of a meal. Well done.

                                          1. I am thinking of trying out Crenn when I visit SF in the coming months but I have a 16 month old toddler in tow. Would it be a suitable place?

                                            4 Replies
                                            1. re: schnauzie

                                              Schnauzie - probably not... It is a fairly subdued, quiet atmosphere.

                                              1. re: schnauzie

                                                Not at all suitable. They don't seat at off times/non peak times. It's rather subdued atmosphere and very formal, small space. Better options are something like NoPa or Cotogna that have wider array of seating times (e.g. 5:00 pm or lunch), are more neighborhood places, and the noise level is significantly louder.

                                                1. re: goldangl95

                                                  thanks, I am thinking of going to Cotogna and Canteen instead.

                                                2. Whatever anyone thinks of Michelin's relevance, i'm happy for Chef Crenn. First woman in the U.S. to get 2!! http://sanfrancisco.grubstreet.com/20...

                                                  5 Replies
                                                  1. re: mariacarmen

                                                    I didn't realize that, MariaCarmen - so very, very cool for Chef Crenn!

                                                    1. re: mariacarmen

                                                      Not surprisingly the first woman in the US to get two stars is French!

                                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                          She deserves it. What a great restaurant.