Monday, August 26, 2013

Atelier Crenn - 08/23/2013

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

After visiting Atelier Crenn in 2011, I predicted the restaurant would claim 2 Michelin stars and though it took a year longer than I expected, Crenn earned its second etoile in the 2013 San Francisco Michelin Guide. In the two years since my last visit Dominique has upped her game, with the Chef's Grand Tasting Menu expanding from seven courses to twelve. Atelier Crenn was one of my best meals of the year during 2011 so I felt compelled to revisit it during my annual trip to the Bay Area.

Kir Breton
The meal kicked off with the restaurant's signature welcoming cocktail. Named for Crenn's hometown of Brittany, the traditional Kir Breton features créme de cassis and cider instead of white wine found in the basic Kir. The cocktail comes wrapped in a delicate shell of white chocolate. After biting through the delicate morsel the palate is flooded with a rush of tangy fresh liquid with a creamy finish thanks to the melting white chocolate.

Mellow serenades of colors licorice, nature and orange - Uni, Caviar, Licorice
Riesling Kabinett 2011 Zilliken 'Rausch', Mosel Valley
Our first course started with a single oyster leaf to prime the palate. The leaf was followed up with a ceramic sea urchin shell filled with uni torchon, caviar, and licorice bubbles. I would have liked the torchon to be a bit creamier, but that small fault aside the dish was sublimely rich and decadent accented by the briny emphasis of the caviar. The licorice is properly subdued but adds a nuanced herbal sweetness to temper the multifaceted brine of the duet of roe.

Where the broad ocean leans against the Spanish land. - Squid, Iberico, Lardo
Gruner Veltliner 2011 Hirsch 'Heiligenstein', Kamptal
The toothsome mixture of supple squid "noodles" threaded with tender lardo was one of my favorite courses of the night. In addition to a fantastic textural interplay the combination of clean saline and musky fat is explosively rich and savory, if a bit too salty. The black truffle dashi adds a phenomenally luxurious earthy perfume to the mix making this one of my favorite courses of the evening.

A gentle smell, oceanic, of yummy feeling - Shima Aji, Coconut, Cilantro
Sake Wakatake 'Demon Slayer', Shizuoko
Shima Aji has quickly become one of my favorite sushi fishes thanks to its supple texture and clean yet oily flavor. Crenn cures the fish and the resulting water loss gives the fish a firmer fleshier mouth feel while simultaneously imparting some saltiness to the fish. The coconut adds a distinctly Thai richness that compliments the augmented fish nicely while the cucumber adds a contrasting vegetal crunch. The bit of fried cilantro packs an impressive punch that is simultaneously savory and fresh. The Aji came paired with Wakatake's Onikoroshi, the mildly fragrant sake has a slightly sweet viscosity on the palate that makes it one of the most approachable sakes in my opinion,

Sitting on top of the dune, feeling of beach sand under my toes - Shellfish, Sweetbreads, Phytoplankton
Chardonnay 2010 Failla 'Estate', Sonoma Coast
Another contender for the night's best course, the cratered bowl topped with tomato oil foam may not look like much but underneath the bubbles lurked a fantastic mixture of shellfish, fat, and offal. The broth's attack has a more aggressive ocean-y character thanks to the mixture of Razor and Manilla clams while the beautifully rendered pork belly and super saturated sweetbread give the soup a bisque-like body and richness. The Failla was an apt pairing for the broth, intense mineral and apple are balanced with cream and buttered toast; a natural partner for the shellfish.

The half moon, silky and smoky - Charred Onion Soup, Comte, Truffle
Oloroso VORS 1/14 El Maestro Sierra, Jerez
Here we have the restaurant's take on French Onion Soup. A single dumpling of Comte cheese and a slice of apple cider vinegar. came resting in a bowl on top of which was poured a smoky sweet onion soup The soup came with a small roll that tasted especially rich and sweet when eaten with the broth. The combination does indeed effectively recreate a French Onion soup but the dish felt a little simple for a restaurant of Crenn's caliber.

Woody and stone - Rhubarb & Ash
Following the soup we were presented with a midmeal palate cleanser. Like the Kir Breton, this course involved a thin shell filled with liquid but this time the shell was made of black licorice and shaped like a stone. Biting through the "stone" releases a crisp and tart liquid tinged with subdued herbal notes of coupled with the tangy levity of rhubarb. Beneath the stone was a sliver of fennel dehydrated into a wafer. The "wood" element of the dish had a candied chewiness and corresponding sweetness that was quite enjoyable.

Nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories - Grains & Seeds, Sturgeon, Dashi
Bock-Style Ale 2012 Divine Brewing Co. 'Teufelweizen', Sonoma
I never would have expected that my favorite course of the meal would be one where the key ingredients were grains and seeds. Made from a mixture of flax, pumpkin, sunflower and quinoa, the grains have been smoked roasted and fried giving them a complex mix of malty aromatics and a deep woody heartiness. A broth of dashi highlights the savory notes while the sturgeon cream and salmon eggs add a contrasting chill to the grains. Occasional flashes of yuzu kocho add a fruity highlight to the dish that my friend jokingly referred to as savory Grape Nuts.

Wrapped in a yellow blanket - Fermented Wagyu, Broccoli, Egg Yolk
Cabernet Franc 2012 Lieu Dit, Santa Ynez Valley
For me this was the only real misstep of the night. The tartar lacked the rich savor I would have expected from raw Wagyu beef and instead tasted faintly of egg and a faintly cloying mustiness either from the broccoli or the fermentation on the beef. The accompanying scallion salad was the one bright spot of the dish, crisp and succulent with the intense zest of fresh onion and viscous creamy egg yolks for contrast.

Walking deep in the woods, as the earth might have something to spare - Mushroom, Pine, Pumpernickel
Pinot Noir 2007 JK Carriere, Willamette Valley
I was glad to see that Dominique's signature dish is still going strong. Built around a mix of multiple species and preparations of mushrooms, the "woods" are at times firm and supple and at others dense and soft. Likewise the mushrooms run the gamut from savory to earthy to piquant but it is the addition of torched meringue that brings the woods to life; the fresh green levity of pine completing the illusion of being in a forest.

Birth which gives its morning mystery. - Duck, Chocolate, Corn
Brachetto 2010 Sottimano 'Maté', Piedmont
The nest of corn silk and dark chocolate branch made this the most visually striking dish in a night filled with beautiful presentations. Underneath the corn silk was a bed of what looked like foie gras but lacked the overt richness leading me to believe it was a pate of regular duck liver. The offal-y twang of the pate was deftly offset by the corn "eggs" as well as the creamy richness of the dark chocolate which sheds some of its natural bitterness when taken with the duck.

Where birds sing and are causing ripples in the nearby water - Squab, Summer Squash, Red Currant
Mourvedre Blend 2006 Gros Noré, Bandol
The final meat course of the night consisted of a beautifully cooked squab. The bird is lithe with a pleasing oily slickness as well as a deep game-laced savor. The bright tang of the red currant and tart bite of the mustard were crucial in balancing the squab's weight while the squash provided a more neutral medium to even out the intensity of the other flavors on the plate. The Mourvedre blend that accompanied the squab was a lovely mix of bright raspberry with distinct notes of underbrush and herbs along with firm tannic structure.

Dotting the fragrant flora - Herbs, Flowers, Vinaigrette
Officially the final savory, this dainty looking salad packed plenty of flavor into a very small package. The herbaceous mix of greens and flowers is tempered by the creamy savor of the vinagrette as well as the base of sugary meringue.

Cheese - Honey, Chickpea
We opted to try all seven cheeses on offer. Though I didn't get all the names, the cheeses were all fairly approachable with the Bleu d'Auvergne being the most pungent. The cheeses came with a spread of honey and fried chickpea bread that was quite enjoyable even on its own.

Intermezzo: Sugarcane, Guava Juice
We were told to start with the sugarcane first which was cool with a light tang of lemongrass to compliment the sweetness. The guava juice shot had a ripe sweetness with bursts of acid from embedded bits of finger lime and an overarching freshness from the shiso leaf.

Essence of Eucalyptus
Another pre-dessert, that has been on the menu since the restaurant opened, is the Eucalyptus sorbet. Vividly aromatic and refreshing, the menthol-driven herbaceousness of the eucalyptus is balanced by the cool creamy sweetness of the sorbet.

Summer has come and is full of sweet surprises - Grape, Hazelnut
Jurançon Möelleux 2011 Clos Uroulat, Gascony
The olive dessert from my previous visit remains my favorite dessert of all time. Naturally I was hoping for something equally spectacular this time around so when we were presented with laser cut wine glasses it was all I could do to hold myself back and let our server explain the dish and pour a small vial of saba over the dessert. Along with various grape presentations, the dessert also featured hazelnut ice cream and a baguette dotted with raisins. The combination was sweet and nutty with a strong vinous and medicinal notes; a very cerebral study in all facets of grape. Ultimately the dessert tasted like a gentrified PB&J and while tasty, lacked the mystery and cohesive amplitude of the olives.

Atelier Crenn certainly doesn't skimp when it comes to their mignardises presentation. Two years ago they were served around a live Douglas Fir Bonsai and the current presentation features a hollowed out log filled with various aromatic plants. The desserts themselves were equally impressive from the jammy bite of the strawberry and pink peppercorn pate de fruit to the absolutely stunning chocolate ganache studded with coffee crisps.

I immediately fell in love with Atelier Crenn after my first visit, naming it my favorite restaurant in the city. Two years on, the food has the same elegance and finesse from before but feels even more sophisticated and polished. In terms of food I think the restaurant is on the cusp of a third star though the supporting elements in the wine pairing and service need a bit more work. That isn't to say either was bad but the wine pairings didn't resonate with the food the way a truly great selection does. Likewise the service is attentive but lacks that sense of gravitas and martial precision that typifies 3-star service. Nitpicking aside, Atellier Crenn remains a superb dining experience and easily my best meal of the year.


Anonymous said...

easily the best educated review of the restaurant. You took time and thought with this!

Epicuryan said...

Glad you enjoyed the read. I thought the phenomenal food at Crenn demanded the extra effort.