Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > San Francisco Bay Area >
Mar 13, 2014 11:48 PM

Molecular Gastronomy Restaurants deserving of Time and Money?

Unless you're in Chicago — which I am not. And I'm not driving 9 hours one way any time soon either even though I would love for my first experience to be one of the pioneers of this genre: Grant Achatz.

But I *will* be in the Bay area willing to drive an hour outside of the Bay Area and even 4-5 hours south since it's already on the itinerary.

Thoughts/Suggestions? I'm absolutely an open minded foodie but I'll be with a friend who is open minded but not necessarily a foodie even though I think they are and just don't know it yet. So I need it to be worth their while more so than me if that makes sense.

I'm all in for the experience. Price is a serious consideration. I'm expecting $110 as a minimum per person — any more please state cost/ Wine pairings are not necessary but again would like to know cost above and beyond meal.

Hoping for my first time to not disappoint!

Thoughts? Suggestions? Please elaborate...

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. What is your price range exactly?

    You have two pretty swell options in AQ and Commonwealth in SF proper. Commonwealth has a $68 tasting menu. AQ will too until the 18th of this month and then is switching to a $50, and an $85.

    Then there is Commis out in Oakland, with a $95 tasting menu.

    And then you get to the "big guys". Atelier Crenn with a $120, and a $185 option. And Baume with a $198 (tax and service included in that price).

    There's also Benu, and Coi. I am not 100% sure if they are also molecular gastronomy though (Benu's faux shark fin soup sure smacks of it though). I think both are around that $160-$180 range.

    You should say more about exactly the kind of experience you're looking for I think. How big of a meal do you want? How much money maximum? Etc...

    22 Replies
    1. re: BacoMan


      That's a good question, considering the deprived "foodie" side of me is awakening in response to A LOT of potential stimulus! (I'm going to have to pace myself.)

      I would say max $300 since I will be paying for both of us which probably rules out wine. I'm in the heart of the midwest and compensation is much lower here so it adds up (quick!) n places like the Bay Area.

      I'm arriving on the Thursday the 20th. What's the difference between the "$50, and an $85" please?

      I'd be willing to go $95-$120 per person. I consider the "experience" an investment as much as the quality of the ingredients, taste, texture, visual presentation, service — experience.

      $198/person would be steep unless multiple reviews really justify investment.

      >You should say more about exactly the kind of experience you're looking for I think. How big of a meal do you want? How much money maximum? Etc...

      I'm looking for a true "Grant Atchez" and "Ferran Adrià" experience with a realistic focus/nod towards in seasonal ingredients which might take precedence. Seafood in particular considering the area.

      We don't necessarily need quantity. Looking for a quality, whimsical experience with quality ingreidents.

      The bottom line is that a meal such as this could go towards quality Dim Sum for the duration of our trip where I would be in heaven just with that. But if Grant Atchez had a place in the Bay area I wouldn't be asking this original question… because I would have already made a reservation — no question.

      1. re: Spireup

        Yeah, but if Grant Atchez had a place in SF it would be outside of your price range, wouldn't it?

        So, I would say your best bet would probably be to get the smaller menu at Atelier Crenn for $120/person. It's by far the most whimsical of the SF restaurants it seems like, and your keyword is "whimsical" so it would be the natural choice for you.

        I'm pretty sure it is as close to a Grant Atchez experience as you will get in SF. Avoid the wine pairings, and you should be able not to go too far over the $300 budget (2x $120 = $240 + 13.75% tax/service = $273 + $54 tip = $327). I think you extra $27 will be worth it for what you want out of a meal though.

        I believe the difference in the AQ menu's is 5 courses versus 9 courses. (Not that I am recommending AQ over Atelier Crenn, but just thought I'd answers your question).

        1. re: BacoMan

          Grant was $110 when i was ready to do it. I suspect the prices have gone up since then.

          Thank you for the calculations.

          Ok... since you obviously have taste and know your way around, what other perhaps non-MG recommendations would you have? You're talking two horticulturalists with a love of the rare and unusual and fresh...?

          1. re: Spireup

            Hah, yeah I guess so! Alinea is $210 now, so it's almost doubled in price!

            So, the thing is, what is rare and unusual for your tastes? That is going to be relative to where you come from, and I have no idea what is rare or unusual coming from the Midwest unfortunately.

            I really think you would enjoy yourself at Atelier Crenn quite a bit with your specifications.

            But I don't think there is a seafood emphasis. Would you be happier trying one of the famous wood-fire roasted whole crabs at Camino in Oakland?... Maybe it would be more satisfying of a gustatory experience coming from the Midwest?

            1. re: BacoMan

              Fresh seafood... keep talking... Mmmmmm

              We'll be staying in Oakland for a few days too... ; )

              Anywhere from Sebastabol to Santa Cruz... Let me know the "you've gotta eat here" foodie stops and why...

              Uni, fresh oysters, goeyduck, abalone, impeccable crab?

              1. re: Spireup

                You should try for the crab at Camino in Oakland.

                I'm afraid I can't help much with the "Sebastabol to Santa Cruz" area though. All of my research has been about the Bay Area. There's definitely no shortage of places to get all of the fresh seafood you want in the Bay Area. I'm not really that into seafood myself though, so you might want to ask someone else for more specifics here.

                Or if you make it down to Los Angeles, I can guide you intimately through the entire city.

          2. re: BacoMan

            fwiw i dont' think the $120 includes tip so you might need to add on another ~$50 to cover two people. Re: Uni, fresh oysters, goeyduck, abalone, crab-- except for the uni, the rest you can get at e.g. R&G Lounge in Chinatown (geoduck also available there as sashimi)

            1. re: barleywino

              The cost would be $327 with tax + tip. I did the calculations in a post above already.

              1. re: BacoMan

                got it, thanks. the only dish I found to be a "dud" at AC on a recent visit (doing the bigger tasting) was the guinea hen, you might be able to ask them to substitute something else. wasn't a huge fan of the pickled mushroom dish either but that's just me.

            2. re: BacoMan

              I had a fabulous meal at AQ last night, but if you're looking for molecular gastronomy, this isn't it. They do use some modern techniques, but that's not the focus of their food, and the modernist elements are pretty subtle.

              I think Atelier Crenn is your best bet.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                What is the difference between "modern techniques" and "molecular gastronomy"?

                1. re: BacoMan

                  I am not an expert on this but I think modern techniques might be something like sous vide while MG is things like serving a dish in an enclosed smoke filled container or freezing things in liquid nitrogen and smashing them to little pieces.

                  1. re: Ridge

                    Didn't Sous Vide originate as an MG technique?...

                    Very confusing.

                    1. re: BacoMan

                      The technique has been around for a long time. Regarding its recent use I thought it started to become trendy before MG but I am not sure.

                      1. re: BacoMan

                        Sous vide caught on earlier than many of the other tricks in the modernist toolkit, especially in France.


                        1. re: BacoMan

                          Sous vide actually originated as a way to help airlines deliver better quality. It first gained hold in the restaurant world among a few intrepid French chefs, and was adopted by 'molecular' cooks (Adria, Blumenthal) as well as non-molecular but modernist cooks (Keller) soon after.

                        2. re: Ridge

                          Yeah, that's what I was thinking. Or putting liquids in spheres. I don't know if AQ does sous vide -- it's hard to tell, because whatever they do it's rarely showy. The duck dish I had last night was pretty straightforward, except for the "forbidden rice" which was somehow toasted and then formed into cubes. They do like to play with making wafers and gels -- the celery root had a rye wafer that was incredibly thin and intensely flavorful; there were dulce de leche wafers in the milk dessert. I've had dishes where something had been made into a gel, then sliced into strips and twisted, etc.

                          What feels modern about AQ is the way they will play with the ingredients -- the main ingredients is usually present in two forms (i.e. roasted duck breast and a duck-meatball) or the "carrot" dessert which had a carrot-cake flavored soup but also celery sorbet and paper thin strips of lightly cooked carrot and celery (so a play on "carrots and celery").

                        3. re: BacoMan

                          I think "modernist cuisine" has caught on because of Nathan Myhrvold's book, which is about the same stuff that people called "molecular gastronomy."

                          I think modernist is a better term since all cooking is molecular.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Even cooks who were considered the face of 'molecular gastronomy' never really liked the term - usually, they thought the term was too stuffy and off-putting and over-emphasized the science of their cooking while under-emphasizing the art of it.

                            Modernist Cuisine is not really the same thing as what came to be called molecular gastronomy, though. Myhrvold's book covered a lot of the techniques of M.G., and presented many recipes in the MG style, but it was more encompassing than that.

                            Modernist Cuisine (the book) was in many ways a treatise on modern cooking techniques, which may or may not be used to create fairly traditional effects.

                            Molecular Gastronomy was more specifically interested in toying with the expectations of diners and creating very surprising effects and very different forms and textures than diners were used to. At times this didn't even involve 'science-y' cooking techniques - one of Adria's favorite tools was a simple microplane grater. for example. It was more defined by its whimsy than its techniques.

                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              "Modernist Cuisine (the book) was in many ways a treatise on modern cooking techniques, which may or may not be used to create fairly traditional effects."

                              Agreed. They spent a great deal of background research doing things like monitoring cooking processes with specially transparent vessels, and determining how to speed up meat stock extraction (grind up the starting meat and bones).

                              Kind of a deeper, researchy version of "America's Test Kitchen."

                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                FWIW, Ferran Adrià has dined at Manresa (a restaurant within the OP's stated "southern" itinerary) and according to his comments in Kinch's cookbook, he seems to like the place.

                                1. re: eatzalot

                                  That's the only restaurant he's eaten at in the SF area?

                  2. Baume in Palo Alto perhaps. Might be worth researching. (Caveat, I've never eaten there.)

                    1. One more thing, Baume was supposedly named after this guy:
                      So if you want to go to a place where the chef has a hardcore interest in chemistry, it might be the place. Otherwise, there are plenty of other good dining options. Looking up the Michelin two-stars might be a good starting point.

                      34 Replies
                      1. re: nocharge

                        nocharge, Doesn't have to be a "hardcore interest in chemistry". Read above for "whimsical"...

                        1. re: Spireup

                          Well, it all depends on how much of your interest is in molecular stuff. Plenty of other, perhaps more traditional dining options, are available as well. If you look at places like Saison, Coi, Crenn, Benu, etc. there are plenty of high-end places that are doing innovate stuff without necessarily going overboard on being "molecular".

                          1. re: nocharge


                            Coming from the midwest, I have not heard of the places you mention. Could you please elaborate on them? What are each of them doing that is "innovative"? What did you like about what they had to offer?

                            1. re: Spireup

                              The problem is that, I think all of those places are kind of outside of your budget.

                              Saison would be perfect for "two horticulturalists looking for unusual, rare, and fresh" but it's $248/person.

                              Benu is $195, and Coi is $175.

                              It seems like only Atelier Crenn offers a shorter tasting menu for something roughly in your price range.

                              So, that's something to keep in mind. Are you even interesting in the splurge?

                              1. re: BacoMan


                                That's a good question, when the money could be divided between many, many establishments ie: food trucks, local eateries, places for fresh local seafood, and quality dim sum, and other quality ethnic food for under $10-$20. Plus, on a volunteer budget to serve the public which both of us are, we sacrifice some monetary luxuries.

                                Am I willing to splurge? Yes, to a certain point so long as I feel confident from feedback that it will be worthy of investment. After all it's an experience in addition to quality of ingredients, execution, and taste.

                                $248/person would be out of my budget to pay for both of us in one shot.

                                1. re: Spireup

                                  Yeah, I wouldn't recommend trying to spend $248/person.

                                  At any of those places you don't need to worry about the quality of ingredients though.

                                  Atelier Crenn is going to be an experience for sure. If you don't go for that, then I think you're better off exploring the "lesser" options and just having a field day. $327 can take you a long way in that regard. You could get a lot of fascinating pastries at places like Knead, Craftsman & Wolves, and B. Patisserie; sample interesting ice cream flavors at places like Henry Slocombe, and Mr. & Mrs. Miscellaneous. Explore the SF coffee seen at Four Barrel and Ritual. Get fresh seafood at a number of different places. Try out the huge mission burritos, or a more interesting regional specialty like chicken and plantain burritos at CuCo's. Try out a place like Mission Chinese, or Lers Rose Thai.

                                  Ultimately you have to make the decision. If you want an Alinea-type experience, I think you can have it at Atelier Crenn. Is that what is most important to you (one big night)? Or lots of small things?

                                  1. re: BacoMan

                                    I would like to compromise between a memorable experience and eating fairly well the entire trip - budget into consideration as general educated splurging. Can you provide a website for AQ? Is this the title or an acronym?

                                    Neither of us would seek ice cream or coffee unless the ice cream is lychee or durian or better yet, fruit few westerners have ever heard of.

                                    We don't need quantity, looking for quality. You mentioned "Get fresh seafood at a number of different places." What places? This is high on my list and I need a FIX! See:

                                    1. re: Spireup

                                      "Is this the title or an acronym?"

                                      It's the full title.

                                      Your other thread has drawn better responses about seafood than I can give.

                                      What is the total budget for the trip?

                                      1. re: BacoMan

                                        Thanks BacoMan. To answer your last question, this all came up rather suddenly. Ideally we'd like to "save" on funds but gas and lodging is adding up quick. At the same time, this opportunity is very rare for me so I consider quality food an investment for my soul. Budget is not defined other than that we have similar viewpoints on spending, or not spending. If it's one meal a day and I'm in your neck of the woods, then I plan on taking advantage of access to quality food whether it's $3.00 or a worthwhile splurge as you mentioned.

                                        1. re: Spireup

                                          Yeah, it's tricky.

                                          Have you ever thought about using a site like and staying with some friendly locals for free in order to increase the food budget (i.e. maximize potential for experiences that are of a rare quality)?

                                          1. re: BacoMan

                                            Yes, definitely looked into that but it seemed like a lot of legwork to to start fresh as a newbie on very short notice. Opted for a similar service where people share their homes for a fee. A compromise.

                                      2. re: Spireup

                                        There are actually a couple of places in SF that make ice cream with durian and other tropical fruits.

                                        Marco Polo and Pollyann are two that come to mind. They are not among the trendy places that will show up all the time on this board. But if that's what interests you they are available.

                                        Both are located way out in the residential neighborhoods in the western part of SF. Although they are not that far out of the way if you are planning on visiting Golden Gate Park.

                                2. re: Spireup

                                  Given that all of them are Michelin two-star places, there should be plenty of material about what each place does. I think that my point is that they are all based on the visions of creative chefs rather than formula stuff like "upscale traditional French". Whether the concepts would resonate with you, I couldn't predict. The beauty but also the danger of doing unique things is that you will have diners who don't really know what to expect, but have high expectations. "Michelin two-star so it must be good." If you follow some well-defined concept, like a steakhouse, you would be unlikely to disappoint anyone unless you screw up the execution. With a totally unique place, how would people know whether it would be to their taste? And the Michelin two-stars that I mentioned would probably fall into the "unique" category, so the best you could do is probably researching them.

                                  1. re: nocharge

                                    Thanks for the reply. While I'm located in the midwest, my heart is with places like London where I fell in love with it accidentally when I extended a trip to Europe on a whim until my budget dictated I return.

                                    Traditionalist I am not and my friend is not either. Otherwise I'd not consider all this research in the first place. We like to be exposed to new experiences with creative minds and optimum execution. I was a partner in teaching cooking classes with a classically trained French chef who gained his experience via working around the country. But his stint was many years ago until family required him to stay in one place.

                                    A great steakhouse would serve quality, aged beef cooked to order as Lobel's does. Hence - it might be challenging to find a great steak.

                                    For me, expectations depend on depth of research... hence... the original question.

                                    ; )

                                    1. re: Spireup

                                      "Traditionalist I am not and my friend is not either. Otherwise I'd not consider all this research in the first place. We like to be exposed to new experiences with creative minds and optimum execution."

                                      Based on this statement, you REALLY should just splurge and go to Atelier Crenn.

                                      1. re: BacoMan

                                        Fabulous! Thank you for your thoughtful inquiries to arrive at this conclusion... ; )

                                        1. re: BacoMan

                                          "Based on this statement, you REALLY should just splurge and go to Atelier Crenn."

                                          Come on! Suggesting AC is certainly a very valid suggestion, but telling anyone they should "REALLY" go there is a little over-the-top given the variety of other places that may or may not be better fits for individual tastes. Your milage may vary!

                                          1. re: nocharge

                                            I base my recommendation on everything that spire up has said about the kind of experience they are looking for in this thread, not just randomness, or any special love for Atelier Crenn.

                                            Also, as far as I can tell, it's the upper limit of their budget. So Coi, Benu, Saison, Baume, and Manresa are all ipso facto out of the equation.

                                            I wonder if you have been reading the rest of the thread or not?

                                            1. re: BacoMan

                                              What is the basis for your assumption that AC is such a dirt cheap place when it comes to high-end dining in SF?

                                              1. re: nocharge

                                                No assumptions. You are the one who is making all of the assumptions. I deal in facts. What I have been relating is the fact that if you go to Atelier Crenn's website, you will see that they offer a $120 option in addition to the full $185 option.

                                                As far as I can tell, no one else (Benu/Coi/Saison/Manresa/Baume) offers a more limited menu in that price range, preferring to stick to offering only the larger tasting menus.

                                                And $120 is in the affordable range for Spireup, while $180+ is not.

                                                1. re: BacoMan

                                                  Yeah, and add to that what you have to add to the $120 not to go to bed hungry. The first time I went to AC, I went to Taco Bell afterwards on my way home because I was still hungry, but yeah, it didn't add that much to the total.

                                                  1. re: nocharge

                                                    Cool. How much does Taco Bell cost? an extra $5-$10?

                                                    (I'm honestly a bit shocked that someone that can eat at AC still eats at Taco Bell, but whatever...people do what they must I guess).

                                                    1. re: BacoMan

                                                      Obviously, the extra cost was not much. But, hey, if you're on your way home and you are still hungry and passing by a Taco Bell, that's the kind of thing that may happen. Not saying I'm particularly proud.

                                            2. re: nocharge

                                              >"Your milage may vary!"
                                              Taken into account nocharge...

                                              As I stated earlier: :$198/person would be steep unless multiple reviews really justify investment."

                                              Therefore, I need to feel my way through those willing to respond to this thread to be able to make an educated decision and $198 is not completely out of consideration for a once in a lifetime, first time, Molecular Gastronomy type experience with a close friend who I feel would appreciate it.

                                              It's not just about quantity of food. It's about art, supporting a craftsman, appreciating each ingredient and it's origin, and nature's effort in creating them. It's about respecting the perspective of the chef who decides on the theme, ingredient selections, combinations of flavors, texture, color, succession, and timing for the diner's experience.

                                              It's about sharing a unique first time *experience* with someone like minded that combines all of these things and more to make to justify the investment — for something I've been wanting to do since Grant himself was discussing the opening of Alinia in the Egullet forums.

                                              I simply needed to make the inquiry to see what others had to share so I can feel I've arrived at a safer than not decision based on *my* budget at this time in my life.

                                              If money were not an object, I would certainly have chosen Manresa since my friend has ties to where some of the ingredients are grown exclusively for the restaurant and I personally love the abalone cover of the cookbook and their philosophies of ingredients to table which makes it a hair more personal for our own reasons. But at this time, it's definitely too much of an investment.

                                              As for Crenn or any other restaurant, the food comes first. In this case, the MG component needs to be creative, thinking outside the box, but with logic to arrive a their execution. To maintain the integrity of ingredients which deserve to shine in their own right while experimenting and being playful with other ingredients as a compliment, not a distraction.

                                              I am completely on board with the *experience* being a legitimate component of the investment.

                                              1. re: Spireup

                                                I agree with BacoMan that AC sounds like what you are looking for.

                                                If price is an issue maybe sit at the chef's counter at Commis in Oakland? It is $95 for 8 courses. You will still get creative food but not on the level of AC.

                                                You can look at pictures online of AC and Commis to see if they are truly what you are looking for.

                                                Just as a side note, I was so underwhelmed by the food and wine pairings at Manresa that I would not return. You can find better dinning options in the city.

                                                1. re: JonDough

                                                  "If price is an issue maybe sit at the chef's counter at Commis in Oakland? It is $95 for 8 courses. You will still get creative food but not on the level of AC."

                                                  I think you get much better and creative food at Commis than at AQ

                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      I shouldn't post during a boring meeting when you only read half of a post.

                                                      And yes, AC has more creative food than Commis.

                                                2. re: Spireup

                                                  if you can't get into Crenn, you can also do a very respectable $130 6-course tasting at Michael Mina. Not as adventurous as Crenn, but still solid.

                                                  1. re: barleywino

                                                    Why not go out to Commis at that point though?

                                                    1. re: BacoMan

                                                      haven't been to Commis yet so can't comment. I try not to recommend restaurants I've only read about and not been to.

                                                    1. re: bbulkow

                                                      Hi bbulko,

                                                      I saw that you had a wonderful reply that I'd intended on responding to but I see maybe you've edited it?

                                    2. re: nocharge

                                      nocharge: FYI the buzzword "Baumé" or "degrees Baumé" (for density of certain liquids) will be familiar to people with experience in some kinds of engineering and chemistry. The phrase can be found on bottle labels. I think it's obsolete, but so are quarts and pounds, eh?

                                      1. I've been to Alinea four times, I think it's worth the drive :) Three hour flight for me to get there, but worth it.

                                        I'm not too familiar with the Bay area dining scene but recently we did dine at French Laundry, Atelier Crenn and Manresa on a short trip, and since Crenn has been mentioned as the Alinea substitute I'll chime in, keeping in mind my relative ignorance about other possible MG options.

                                        First, I think you'll enjoy the whimsy of the dishes. It's not particularly molecular in the El Bulli way, but it's not that far off from Alinea, where these days there seems to be more of an emphasis on fresh ingredients with some molecular additions that add to the experience, but not at the expense of the food.

                                        I would definitely return to Crenn, though our next trip will likely be for Manresa and two new ones, probably Saison and something else. But the food was good and the dining experience was interesting and fun at Crenn.

                                        Second, just be aware that while they offer both a longer and shorter menu during the week, on the weekends only the longer menu is available so maybe nudging the high end of your budget unless you go during the week.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: willyum

                                          Thank you for your insight willyum. This helps. You've evidently eaten well!

                                          I'm looking for whimsy and fun to be incorporated into this experience of quality food with a strong MG bent.

                                          "but it's not that far off from Alinea, where these days there seems to be more of an emphasis on fresh ingredients with some molecular additions that add to the experience, but not at the expense of the food."

                                          Are you saying that before "these days" that the MG additions "were" at the expense of the food?

                                          1. re: Spireup

                                            > Are you saying that before "these days" that the MG additions "were" at the expense of the food?
                                            I would agree with that statement. Went to Alinea about 6 years ago, found an emphasis on MG technique at the sacrifice of taste. Had no desire to go back after that meal (especially given the price) although if things have changed, that might be a different story.
                                            Closer to your original thread: if your interest in MG extends to cocktails, you might enjoy the brulee'd drink "The Sun Never Sets" at Coqueta and the gouda cheese drink at Saison.

                                            1. re: Spireup

                                              @ "Are you saying that before "these days" that the MG additions "were" at the expense of the food?"

                                              Talking about Alinea, right? In 2010 (first trip) there were 23 courses in the long menu and while there were some great dishes (best wagyu ever, best lobster dish ever) there were several 'courses' that were small MG gimmicks. I still loved the place, but the gimmicks didn't add anything for us.

                                              More recently (we last went to Alinea in April and November in 2013) the menu has tighter focus it seems (13 courses, more multi-item courses but fewer gimmicks). Here's a great example of how he uses MG to add on to a base dish of classic ingredients, this duck dish with duck-five-ways on the plate. It's similar to a dish we had a Per Se (I think 3 or 4 items at PS), with excellent classic veal stock sauce. So far you would rate these two dishes pretty much even, at the top of their game for both.

                                              But Achatz ratchets it up with a plate of 60 garnishes served with the duck, many with MG twists. This just blew my mind, that a) he would even try to plate 60 garnishes and b) that pretty much all of them actually went with the duck. (photos). Chestnut flavor, yam flavor, essence of Eucalyptus (!), on and on.

                                              So anyway, that's all I meant about Alinea today. Crenn seems similar to me in that she's trying to use top-notch ingredients but with some nice molecular twists that add to the dish without being too distracting. We really enjoyed eating there.