Mlle. Proust in Cow Hollow - Atelier Crenn – San Francisco
Often young chefs find a horsey-style and ride it, but not so Dominique Crenn who is working with flair to harness her own vision. She has been in the industry for some 23 years, and perhaps “young” is a matter less of chronology than the fact that she only reached wide gastronomic notice in 2008 when she became chef at San Francisco’s Luce, received a Michelin star, and was named Esquire’s chef of the year. She has since triumphed on Iron Chef, which might or might not testify to her vision, but certainly to her culinary chops.
Although she had worked with Jeremiah Tower at Stars according to her bio, she does not have the golden resume of some colleagues. Perhaps she is not self-taught, but she is not a sponge of others’ visions. This past year, Crenn branched out on her own, opening Atelier Crenn, a workshop for her own “Poetic Culinaria.” For those who hope that their chef is not only a creator of the idea of dishes, but also an overseer. She is a working chef, working the kitchen and the dining room both. Perhaps in a few years, this will not be so, but it is clear that neither she nor her food is set in amber. Having a chef visit one’s table is, perhaps, worth a third of a star alone.
Even if her culinary history does not reveal many mentors, she is a public figure with a biography. Crenn is apparently the adopted daughter of a prominent French politician, although I have been unable to discover which one (one hopes not the other Dominique: the ill-starred Strauss-Kahn). She was raised in Versailles, and after her mother took ill when she was nine, she determined to cook for the family. She and her papa and his friend, a prominent food critic, would visit the high-end boîtes of Paris. Much of her professional cooking has been in California, particularly in the Bay Area. She is edging ever closer to becoming a celebrity chef, and one of the relatively few female chefs who are in serious and sustained dialogue with modernist cuisine.
The menu includes a moving (and somewhat ambiguous) letter to her father, talking about pain and sun, surf and sweat. As with so much poetry, readers have much to read in, but one can hardly imagine a male chef making the claim that his cuisine is such a personal and private expression, a way of reliving the past, whether troubled or happy.
Ultimately reviews are about the food. Critics are often asked, reasonably, how good was it? Asking that of Crenn is a bit like asking that of, say, Eva Hesse or Robert Rauschenberg: they don’t easily fit on a 30-point scale. They are important artists with a vision that might or might not appeal and techniques that might or might not be proficient. The most obvious limitation of Crenn (and for that matter Rauschenberg) is that her dishes are not noted for their precision. If you admire Thomas Keller’s perfection on a plate, this falls short of that standard. Perhaps Crenn doesn’t have the staff, but I think she doesn’t have the desire. Memory doesn’t work like that. She is attempting to produce remembrance and reverie. Whether she succeeds is as much a function of the diner as of the cook.
We four diners ordered all eight of the dishes on the savory menu (all the photos are to be found on my Flickr account page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/52391789@N00/with/5796811013/. But I realized that having a bite didn’t do justice to a plate that was designed to be savored and to be considered. So I focus on the dishes that I ordered.
We began with a quite lovely and evocative amuse: a spoonful of freeze-dried split pea soup, a bloody-dried beet “kiss,” an intense bit of fungal broth, and an non-edible boulder. It was quite a stunning composition: possibly Freudian, but perhaps freeze-dried split pea soup is simply freeze-dried split pea soup. The consommé was properly intense, the beet was deeply flavored – a root with a zing. The bright freeze dried pea soup didn’t wow my tongue. The crumbly texture added little to the enjoyment of the flavor, but distracted a bit.
My opening course (diners can choose any three dishes from the savory portion of the menu) was a “Walk in the Forest,” a composition of textures and aromas of the wild. I imagined that it was going to be similar to David Kinch’s iconic “Into the Vegetable Garden” salad, a bowl of local surprises. It wasn’t quite. The plate was coated with a pine paste (a surprisingly sticky and sweet paste, more keeping with dessert), covered with various forms of mushrooms, the raw and the cooked and the pickled: a delicious black trumpet mushroom paper, picked and pickled morels, champignons, added were hazelnuts, chestnuts, tiny lettuces, toasted pumpernickel, and sorrel oil. I was glad to have selected the dish and I surely will remember it, but I don’t quite know what to make of it. As a culinary matter, it was somewhat too sweet and too pickled (Crenn seems to enjoy the tang of pickling). The plate was remarkably creative as an idea, and just a bit off as culinary practice.
My second plate was poetically entitled, “The Sea, An Interpretation of Aquatic Flavors: Mussels, Oysters, and Arctic Char.” As I have previously suggested, the modernist style of dessert is to present the diner with a mix of preparations. The Sea, not so sweet as the previous dish, had this same decentered quality. Crenn prepared abalone, smoked oyster, char, mussels, squid ink meringue, and dehydrated lemon foam. It was quite charming in its ingredients and preparations and beautiful in its presentation. However, not having lived Crenn’s life, I wondered about the poetic imagery of the dehydrated foam. What might it signify? Still, it was a very worthy dish: a collection of satisfactions.
My main protein was more standard: Duck with crispy skin, spring garlic, strawberry, rhubarb and smoked buckwheat. I recently ate a magnificent duck entree at Coi; Crenn’s was more exuberant and less precise. Still, it was an excellent use of big protein. I particularly admired how she sprinkled toasted buckwheat on the plate as if buckwheat was salt. It stood in contrast to Patterson’s carefully composed accompaniment of radish and wheatberries. Crenn’s duck was a special preparation, well within the modernist canon.
Finally dessert (from pastry chef Juan Contreras) was a witty trompe l’oeil: a carrot cake with spring pea cream. The joke was that the cake was within the hunky frosted “carrot” with tiny carrots and frozen peas as accompaniments. Perhaps the cake itself tasted no better than a routine carrot cake and the cream was more clever than wondrous, but still it was a pleasurable ending to a most distinctive meal.
Michael Bauer, the lead critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, awarded Atelier Crenn a disappointing two-and-a-half stars in April, complaining not about ideas, but execution (and an average wine list). My meal (and those of my companions) in June deserved more credit, even if the cooking of ingredients is not quite at the level of the best of the San Francisco restaurants. Still, when a chef is still at work in the kitchen and the ideas are bubbling and bouncing, Atelier Crenn stands a good chance of being a better restaurant in December than it was in June. Even now, it is a restaurant that is always thought-provoking and vibrant. Chef Crenn, trying to capture her past and to share it, has a distinctive, potentially influential, gastronomic voice even if not all the songs are lullabies.
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