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Jul 7, 2011 09:32 AM

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. The original comment has been removed
        1. 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