Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Baume - 08/28/2011

201 S California Ave
Palo Alto, CA 94306
(650) 328-8899

Baume was the third stop on our culinary tour of the Bay Area. My initial impression of the minimalist menu made me think of yet another avant garde contemporary restaurant though officially the restaurant really seeks to combine the ancient and the modern.

Baume's chef, Bruno Chemel has had a long and storied career. He started off studying in Moulins France while working at the Michelin two star Jean Pierre Billoux. Chef Chemel's qualifications also include a study a course of study at the Lenotre Pastry Academy and experience working with French luminaries such as Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon. The chef then came to the states to take an Exec Chef role at Le Chantilly before traveling to Japan for four years to study macrobiotic cooking. He eventually returned to the states to run Ambrosia in Hawaii before finally opening his own restaurant Cliquo. In 2002 Chef Chemel landed in Southern California to run Aqua at The St Regis in Monarch Beach. Personal reasons ended up bringing him to the Bay Area where he worked at La Suite and Chez TJ before finally opening Baume.

Baume's pastry chef is a young man by the name of Ryan Shelton, a South Bay native who studied Biology and Guitar at my own alma mater, UCI. Ryan also studied at the Art Institute in OC before honing his culinary skills in Europe and Asia. He began cooking professionally in 2003 and worked at several casual restaurants before making the transition to fine dining as a Pastry/Sous Chef at Chez TJ.

Umétini - Sparkling Sake with Plum Nitro Sorbet
I liked the idea behind this drink with the smoky bits of plum nitro melting into a foam top for the drink. Unfortunately the drink was a bit hard to enjoy until the sorbet melts which defeats the purpose of the liquid nitrogen.

Baumétini - Sparkling Sake with Lilikoi Caviar
Another fun cocktail the sake has a slight sweetness that is heightened by the dollops of passion fruit caviar.

Watermelon Glacé - Cucumber Yogurt
Delightfully light and bracing, the sweetness of the melon fades under the tang of the yogurt with the cucumber becoming far more apparent on the finish.

Olive - Boquerones
The idea behind this course was an open faced sandwich with anchovy and tomato-olive oil nitro on olive bread. A bit of balance was in order here, the bread was the dominant element and I would have liked to see more from the fish.

These dime sized tablets were brought to the table prior to the previous course and we were instructed not to eat or touch them. Our waiter poured hot water on the tablets causing them to expand into a hot hand towel for use after the boquerones.

Deconstructed Gazpacho - Couscous Roll
I didn't really feel the gazpacho was deconstructed per se, the granita, foam, and broth are too similar structurally but it was a good soup nonetheless. The flavor is more vegetal than a traditional gazpacho, giving me echos of a refined V8. I thought the couscous roll was enjoyable but again it didn't really make sense to me to stick combine it with the gazpacho.

Caviar - Grape, Sesame
Stephane Coquillette Brut (Chouilly) N.V.
The first official course was an unconventional take on caviar. As much as I like a traditional caviar service, the combination with sweet and nutty profiles was an enjoyable change. I particularly liked how each bite saw a different flavor coming to the fore.

62° Egg - Ratatouille
Vin Gris de Cigare (Santa Cruz Mountains) 2010
The poached egg is Chef Chemel's signature course and with very good reason, the yolk is a torrent of viscous molten gold that flows on the palate like liquid velvet. Paired with a simple ratatouille, the zesty hearty substance of the vegetables adds a rusticity and heartiness to contrast the ethereal mouthfeel of the egg.

Heirloom Tomato Salade - Leek Ash Sponge
Domain du Salvard (Cheverny) 2010
Fresh tomato is one of the most versatile forms of produce, it can be sweet, tart, or verdant as the situation demands. Chef Chemel presents a tender sweeter preparation that maintains a svelte levity despite augmenting the flavor of the tomato with vanilla and balsamic gel. The leek ash and leek ash sponge are distinctly bitter and in large quantities the char dims the freshness of the tomato.

Foie Gras Finacier - Brandied Cherry Gelee
Robert Weil Riesling (Rheingau) 2009
Dubbed "Grape en Disguise," the core of this course was a terrine of foie gras dipped in a tart cherry gel. Tasting the foie on its own the richness comes through beautifully with an integrated tartness from the cherry. We were advised to spread the foie on the brioche, but I thought it was temperate enough to stand on its own.

Loup De Mer - English Pea Hummus, Heirlooms Carrot
Jean-Marc Brocard (Chablis) 2008
This might have been my favorite course of the night. The fish is clean flaky and moist while the pea hummus is expectantly grassy and fresh with a pointed acidity. My biggest concern was the carrots but they were sublime having a crisp counterpoint, vegetal twang, and nuanced sweetness that complimented the fish beautifully. Everything on the plate mixes flawlessly and the result is a bass that sings with verdant flavor, power, and grace.

Tarragon Lobster - Yu Choy
Kistler Chardonnay Les Noisettiers (Sonoma Coast) 2009
I had extremely high hopes for this course thinking that the grassy yu choy would be a welcome change from the typical buttery sauces normally paired with a lobster. As much as I love vegetal accompaniments the puree was akin to a wheat grass juice, the bitterness completely subsuming the sweetness of the lobster. If that weren't enough, the garlic flower was equally potent and bludgeoned the palate into oblivion.

Melon - Mint Snow, Prosciutto
Diebolt Vallois Brut Rose (Champagne) N.V.
Being a sucker for melon and prosciutto I was very excited by this frozen preparation. I think the mint was unnecessary with the flavor dominating on the attack. The creamy sweetness of the melon came through on the finish with the tiniest whisper of prosciutto on the finish. I was hoping for the ham to be more apparent, perhaps an oily Jamon Iberico would have been a more appropriate accompaniment.

Peach Balsamic Canard - Vanilla Smoke
Ellipsis Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley) 2009
The dish started with a completely aromatic component. Our server brought a block with vanilla strips and poured liquid nitrogen, releasing a cold smoke infused with a floral sweet aroma. The duck itself was beautifully cooked but the accompanying peach was sweet enough to crystallize blood. A scattering of pepitas added a slight toasty element, but there just wasn't enough to balance out the ripe flavor of the fruit.

Grass Fed Beef - a la Niçoise, Tarragon Jus
Ahlgren Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Cruz Mountains) 2007
I was happy to see to finally see some red meat on the menu. The heart of this dish is two tiny morsels of filet mignon are coated in a zesty tarragon jus that augments the natural essence of the meat. I was a bit concerned that the meat would have an overly heavy olive character, but it was fairly subdued and fit well within the structure of the dish. The artichoke, tomato, and haricot vert were unconventional but effective counterpoints to the beef.

Cheese Composition - Gourgandines & Brebirousse
Delas (Cotes-du-Rhone) 2009
It has been a while since I've had a composed cheese course and it was nice to see one with such challenging cheeses. First up was a semi-hard cow's milk cheese that had a blue-like richness along with a lingering piquancy. The Brebirousse is a soft ewe's milk cheese with a tender orange rind and pearlescent white center, the flavor was similar to the Gourgandine but a hair richer. Both cheeses were delicious but surprisingly I preferred the hard cheese which I thought was a bit more complex.

Nectaplum - "Spice Zee" Port Syrup
Dessert opened with another morsel on a spoon. This time a succulent sweet sliver of nectarine tinged with a thick sweet port.

Coupe Spumoni - Berry Tarte
Plum-Peach Float
Spumoni is a classic Italian dessert traditionally made with pistachio and chocolate ice cream with a layer of nuts and cherry between them. Presented in a cup, the dessert has a modern feel but the components are straight out of the textbook; a good choice given the amounnt of complexity already in the dessert. Simultaneously we were presented with a straightforward strawberry tart, buttery and rich it was a bit blunt but still tasted great. I wish the spumoni and tarte were presented separately as the two desserts really had very little to do with one another.

Mignardises - Chocolate Covered Marshmallow
The meal finished with two chocolate covered marshmallows. It tasted like there was some caramel thrown in there to give a slight sweetness.

Having not done much research into Baume I was expecting a heavily modernist experience and there are some touches like heavy use of liquid nitrogen that do indeed fall into the new school of thought. However on the whole, I felt many of the dishes had a strong classical grounding giving the meal a more substantial feel than my earlier dinners.

One of the biggest disadvantages having so many high caliber restaurants back-to-back is that it magnifies small flaws. Specifically the missteps on the duck and lobster stood out starkly against the dinners at Atelier Crenn and Saison. Despite that, the meal was still quite enjoyable; probably my second favorite restaurant in the South Bay after Manresa.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Atelier Crenn - 08/26/2011

3127 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 440-0460

Only open a year, Atelier Crenn immediately stands out even in a city with many as many avant garde restaurants as San Francisco. The brainchild of Chef Dominique Crenn, Atelier is named as an homage to Dominique's adoptive father, a politician cum artist who called his studio the "Atelier" and his art decorates the walls in the main dining room. Chef Crenn's own poetry decorates the walls in the back room, a zen like space that marries a garden with a dining room.

Dominique grew up in a household that celebrated food and art, her mother was a wonderful cook in her own right and exposed Dominique to a variety of cuisines at a young age. By 8 years of age she was eating at Michelin-starred restaurants and by 9, she started cooking at home. After graduating with a degree in economics and international business, Crenn moved to the States to pursue her true passion, food. After spending a decade working as a line cook in various restaurants throughout SF, Crenn took a detour to La Bruschetta in Jakarta where as the first female executive chef in Indonesia, she led a brigade of all female chefs. Upon returning stateside, Crenn spent 8 years as the Executive Chef at the Manhattan Beach Country Club before striking out and opening her first restaurant, Abode in 2007. After its abrupt closure, Crenn returned to the Bay Area and earned a Michelin star during her 4 year run as Executive Chef at Luce. While at Luce, Crenn also competed on Iron Chef America, competing against Michael Symon and winning by a whopping nine points! Crenn isn't the only superstar working at Atelier joining her is Pastry Chef Juan Contreras. Contreras was an LA native who worked at Alinea before joining Dominique at Crenn. Given the similarities between the two restaurants, his talent and creativity are a welcome addition.

Bread - Brioche
The bread service felt a bit simplistic for a restaurant as adventurous as Atelier Crenn but the basic brioche was warm, airy, and fiercely buttery; a childhood favorite of the chef and I can certainly see why.

Amuse 01: Summer Corn - Coconut
The first amuse demonstrates the sheer versatility of corn with an initial expansive sweetness heightened by the coconut that gradually takes on a gentle savory tinge. The bits of puffed quinoa supply a sharp textural contrast to the corn and coconut base while the micro cilanto adds a bright green zestiness on the finish.

Amuse 02: Kir Breton
Our second amuse was the restaurant's "aperitif," a variation of a Kir Royale, a popular French cocktail that is often served before a meal. The Breton named for Crenn's hometown of Brittany, uses apple cider in place of wine, and encapsulates the liquid in a thin shell of white chocolate. The sphere is anchored in place with a thick cassis jam and topped with more of the same for color. The outer layer of chocolate shatters with a light glassy crunch which releases a torrent of ripe apple tinged with menthol. The chocolate lingers on the palate a moment longer giving the morsel a buttery sweet finish.

01: "Ocean and Land" - Wagyu Beef, Smoked Sturgeon
NV Jean Babou, Cremant de Limoux
The first course of the night was a contemporary take on steak tartare. The shaved Wagyu flank steak is joined by classic accompaniments of onion, mustard, cornichon, capers, and horseradish reimagined while the spheres of sturgeon cream add a potent smoky twist belied by their miniscule size. This course perfectly captures the draw of modernist cuisine, the flavor is coherent and grounded in tradition but reinvented texturally and presented as a visually stunning feast for the eyes as well as the palate.

02: Oyster "Japonaise"
2008 Domaine Vocoret et Fils, 1er Cru Chablis
I thought this course drew inspiration from The French Laundry's Oyster's and Pearls but the rest of the table disagreed. The Kusshi Oysters were poached in sake with beurre blanc. I was expecting the butter to temper the oysters and while the richness was apparent, the bivalve brine was brash, clean, and completely unadulterated. The dish was finished with a lemon foam which cut right through the butter as well as the expressive salinity of the oysters.

Supplement 01: New Potato "Mémoire d' enfance" - Pea, almond, Comté crisps
In addition to the tasting menu we ordered an extra 4 course menu to sample some of the more interesting courses off the a la carte menu. When we found out one of our selections was already included we went with our waiter's recommendation to try the chef's updated take on a childhood favorite. Eating this I find myself intensely jealous of the chef's childhood, the heady fingerling confit reminds me of a grown-up tater tot while the bright grassy peas brings a vegetal constraint. If I had to find one fault, and it is a small one, it would be the fact that the peas and potatoes overwhelm the subtler flavors on the plate.

03: Foie Gras "Log"
2008 Domaine Sylvain-Gaudron, Vouvray Demi Sec
Rather than go with a traditional cold foie preparation like a torchon, the liver is sous vided then refrozen giving it a luxuriously smooth uniform mouthfeel as well as a more nuanced butteriness. Foie is typically paired with a sweet accompaniment, though more recently aromatic and bitter contrasts have been en vogue. Crenn manages to draw effectively on both schools in the form of vanilla cream and Thai basil gel. The interaction between the vanilla, basil, and foie is absolutely transcendent and the whole dish feels almost ethereal. Demonstrating such finesse with such a heavy ingredient was truly marvelous.

Supplement 02: "Le Jardin" and its soil, pickled vegetables
Chef Crenn has an exclusive agreement with Gouge Eye Farms with 60% of her produce coming from the farm presently and the goal of raising that to 100%. Typical Gargouille presents the vegetables with minimal adornment making Crenn's emphasis on acidity a nice from the norm. That isn't to say the dish doesn't still celebrate the beauty of the produce. The tomatoes and pea shoots provide the traditional vegetal base while the carrots, radishes, and beets give the dish a succulent multifaceted crunch but for me the pickled brine made the dish so much more appetizing and approachable. I typically loathe beets but the pickled beets in particular were beyond amazing, easily the best vegetable on the plate and far and away the best beet I've ever eaten.

Supplement 03: "The Sea," Loch Duart Salmon - mussels, smoked oysters, sand
Next up was the chef's attempt to capture the essence of the ocean. Starting with immaculately fresh sea food representing the ocean, we find the salmon's clean salinity elevated by the oysters and mussels then juxtaposed with the sweet creaminess of the uni. The sand is a blend of lemon, anchovy, and sesame that provides a grounded earthy sweetness. Again the lemon "sea" foam provides the perfect denouement cleansing the palate following the symphony of seafood.

04: "Walk in the Forest" - Textures of mushrooms, pine, hazelnut
2007 Sierra Madre Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sata Maria Valley
The "Walk in the Forest" has been on the menu since Crenn opened and is the closest thing the chef has to a signature dish and with good reason. With multiple preparations and species of mushrooms, the dish is at sublimely toothsome and supple with varying degrees of earthiness and a piquancy from a single morsel of pickled mushroom. The fungi are tempered with a "soil" of bruleed pine meringue, the interaction between the herbaceous sweetness and gravitas of the mushroom was nothing short of majestic.

Intermezzo: Apple, Celery, Melon
We got our first look at Pastry Chef Juan Contreras with this intermezzo ahead of our final two savories. The bracing chill of the dessert was quite refreshing though I thought the celery was a bit heavy-handed the sweetness from the fruit intertwined nicely.

05: Salmon "Basquaise"
2009 Christian Verger, "Saint Lager," Brouilly
The Basque style salmon is accompanied by a vibrant sauce of roasted red pepper coulis, tomato, and a pearl onion, effectively a deconstructed Romesco. The light dusting of Bottarga augments the salmon's flavor giving it the strength to stand up to the expressive sauce. I noticed my piece of salmon was substantially thinner than my companions' and in the only real execution fault of the night my fish was a touch overdone.

06: Guinea Hen - "Thailandaise"
2007 Solter Sekt, Riesling Brut, Rheingau
Surprisingly the final savory was a chicken dish paired with a light sparkling white wine. The guinea hen was noticeably leaner than the typical chicken but with a fuller richer flavor between typical chicken and a game bird like squab. Light fragrant accompaniments of basil, coconut, ginger and lemon zest are perfect in keeping with the delicacy of the bird but still felt a bit simplistic compared to the earlier courses.

Intermezzo 02: Essence of Eucalyptus
Chef Contreras described this course as "driving towards the city." The pastoral aroma of eucalyptus was immediately apparent; on the palate the herbaceousness is appreciably mellowed by honey and lemon.

07: "Olives" - Fennel, Lemon, Almond
2006 Von Hovel, Riesling Auslese, Mosel
From the conception, presentation, and execution this was easily one of the most impressive desserts I've ever encountered. The story behind the dessert is a olive fresh off the tree. Instead of a true olive the focus of the dish is an EVOO ice cream reconstituted on an olive branch. Accompanying the "olive" are a lemon ice, fennel jam, and almond nougatine. Don't as me how it works out so well, but combination is absolutely spectacular. This might be the best dessert I've eaten all year.

Supplement 04: Tomato, Basil, Mint
The final supplement of the night was a play on strawberries and basil. The dessert starts with a basil ice cream sphere dipped in an admixture of tomato water and strawberry. The fruity sweet ice cream is paired with a base of tomato ice and a "sand" of savory basil cake finished with a hint of toastiness from the pine nuts on the finish.

Composed among a living Douglas Fir Bonsai tree this was dessert was stunningly beautiful with a soothing Zen vibe. We were advised to eat the various treats in the following order:
Virginia Blood Cedar Pate de Fruit: This was my favorite of the candies, sugary sweet with an aroma of spiced sandalwood.
Strawberry Pate de Fruit with Coriander: Seductively sweet and jammy with an aromatic accent, an adult fruit roll-up.
Kalamasi Marshmallow: Spongy and airy with a crystaline note of citrus aroma.
Salted Caramel with Maldon Sea Salt: A textbook caramel, initially chewy and sticky the heated sugar becomes creamy upon mastication. The flavor is delightfully savory sweet with toffee and coffee notes that come in and out of focus.
White Chocolate Ganache with Sweet Orange: Contreras described this as a take on creamsicle. The ganache had a slightly jellied texture with seamlessly balanced orange and chocolate.
Milk Chocolate Ganache with Passion Fruit: Surprisingly bitter for a milk chocolate, the monolithicity of the chocolate is broken by the pop of acidity from the passion fruit
Chewy Nougatine with Cocoa: A very delicate nougatine, the dark chocolate gives it an almost palpable savory smokiness.
72% Dark Chocolate with Gold: The thin pieces of chocolate dissolve on the tongue leaving a tangy bitterness on the palate.

It has been a while since I have left a restaurant with such a feeling of wonderment and joy. Visually stunning, intellectually stimulating, and absolutely delicious, Atelier Crenn takes the idea of food as art to a whole new level. The food at Atelier Crenn tends toward the lighter side, with grace and finesse being the watchwords of the day. Simply put, Atelier Crenn is my new favorite restaurant in the city and I fully expect Dominique to capture at least two Etoiles next time in the next Michelin Guide.

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