Saturday, December 24, 2011

Remembrance of a Meal Past

Remembrance of a Meal Past - Town House - Chilhowie, Virginia

Although I had committed myself to keeping up with my dining experiences, that resolution did not come to pass. So much to eat, so little time to write. In a year such as the one that is about to conclude, such is unfortunate. I have had splendid meals each month. I can hardly imagine a more exciting year of cuisine. This was a year in which the playful, silliness of molecular cuisine morphed into a firm and committed modernist cuisine, and in which even “old-fashioned” chefs shined. So, before describing one of these meals, I pay tribute to honor roll of chefs who are learning from the past, combining technique and ingredients, foraging when necessary, farming when possible, and otherwise selecting well. In 2011 I was based in San Francisco and Chicago, and managed to travel to Barcelona, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Asheville, Washington, and New York. This was the year I finally made it to El Bulli, just before the wire with additional meals at Celler de Can Roca, El Quim, and Cal Pep. In the Bay Area I ate at Coi, Atelier Crenn, Saison, Aziza, Manresa, Benu, Commis, Meadowood, and Manresa, and many others. And returning to Chicago there was Next, El Ideas, One Sister, Blackbird, and L20. And I cannot forget Blaine Wetzel’s breathtaking Noma-inspired cuisine at Willows Inn on Lummi Island off Bellingham, Washington and in the Northwest Canlis, Herbfarm, Castagna, and Le Pigeon. In New York, 11 Madison Park, Jean-Georges, and Marea. Add to this Guy Savoy, Lotus of Siam, Red Medicine, Curate, Kai, and Rhodes (Gary Rhodes restaurant on the Caribbean island of Granada), and it was quite a year.

But a blogger must focus. Excluding the forever memory of Ferran Adria in his now-shuttered redoubt in Roses, the meal that I will most treasure was at Town House in tiny, rural Chilhowie, Virginia. I ate at John and Karen Shields hideaway in 2010 and I was impressed. Many of the dishes represented the highest order of deconstructive cuisine, a lot of small bits on a plate: a busy cuisine. A few of the dishes were truly distinguished, indeed some of the best food of that year.

The meal was of such an order that I traveled four hours back to Chilhowie from my mountain eyrie in Western North Carolina this last August. I expected a fine meal, but nothing as remarkable as what I received. Something clicked in John Shield’s cuisine. It was as if he had figured out how to create dishes with culinary centers. Rather than a lot of happenings, each dish was composed as a dish. The meal in 2010 was among the best meals of the year; the meal in 2011 was among the best meals of my now lengthening life. Here was a chef who was in tune with the techniques of molecular cuisine and the ingredient-focused style of farm-to-table and foraged cuisine, but more than that he owned a personal vision (Karen Shields, his pastry chef and spouse, was on maternity leave, but clearly she had been working as hard in designing desserts: in 2010 the sweets were very fine in a deconstructive way, but this year they were stellar).

The amuse demonstrated how the current focus on foraging has affected cuisine. Chef Shields served rocks with seaweed glaze, adorned with adorable oyster leaves. The dish was sculptural and the flavor oceanic. I had never heard of oyster leaves, and until I tasted the creation I would have been labeled a skeptic. But the dish made clear how many wonders the Creator created. It was amazing amuse, an amusing amaze.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Oyster leaves, Seaweed glaze on rocks

Dinner began by what I consider to be Chef Shields’ signature dish: Minestrone, although it is a signature that has been removed from his regular rotation. In this quiet, almost minimalist, soup, the chef prepares little strips of root vegetables, each separately poached and rolled into gentle cylinders. These jewels are served in a cool herbal broth. Words can not do this dish justice. And if a picture is worth 1000 words, a taste must be worth 1000 pictures. It is as brilliant a dish as I can imagine: not rich, not fatty, but infused with flavor.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Minestrone

The next plate is another triumph of the foraging mind: “flowers,” served with artichoke and a leek emulsion. Clearly Chef Shields has been influenced by the Noma crew but relies upon local ingredients. The colors and textures elevate what is a grounded salad.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - "Flowers" with Artichoke, Leek Emulsion

We returned to a soup/salad: a “gazpacho” of summer foliage with shiso, green tomato, green bean leaves, pickled coriander, and zucchini. I confess a weakness for shiso; my leg goes all tingly when these leaves appear. This again reminds us of the many flavors we can select if we only took the effort. This was a salad with a bit of liquid: delight on the fork and in the spoon.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - "Gazpacho" of Summer's Foliage

Barbequed eggplant with lemon, basil, black garlic and ashes of smoked mussels was the highlight of the meal. It tasted so much better than it reads (barbequed eggplant, ashes of mussels?). It was a triumph of technique, a triumph of the theory of taste. In contrast to most dishes, this plate didn’t appeal to the eye, but fully, dramatically, to the tongue. The idea that eggplant and lemon, garlic and mussel ash might mix was an insight that I would have missed, and I bow to Chef Shields’ vision.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Barbequed Eggplant, Lemon, Basil, Black Garlic, and "Ashes" of Smoked Mussels

Sweet corn, chicken, and lovage moved us toward protein. Here was a focused, textured, sweet dish, and called for more. It was a dish of the Southern summer. It was a pleasure throughout.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Sweet Corn, Chicken, Lovage

I recall peekytoe crab in brown butter and butter whey with onions, shellfish cream, lime, crisp scallop and pork stock mostly for the textures and the construction. Perhaps the crab could have been more dominant, but the dish was so beautifully composed and so touched with enchantment in each bite that complaints seemed irrelevant.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Peekytoe Crab in Brown Butter and Butter Whey, Onions, Shellfish Cream, Lime, Crisp Scallop, Port Stock

Turbot with fresh pine and anchovy cream reminds one that some chefs can work with all four culinary senses (sound to the side): vision, texture, smell, and taste. This fish dish scored on each. Perfectly cooked fish with a crispy skin, startlingly arranged with a powerful twist from pine and anchovy. By this time we understood that the meal was so glorious that no quibbling was possible.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Turbot with Fresh Pine and Anchovy Cream

Chef Shields is entitled to his little jest: Squid Risotto. Imagine squid cut as Arborio grains, served with the traditional rich cream sauce. It was not my favorite dish last year, but it is now a tradition. Perhaps it plays tribute to the jests of Grant Achatz or Hugh Blumenthal. Aside from the humor, it is ever-so-tender squid served with lots of cream.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Squid Risotto

Beef cheek (and tongue) . . . Pastoral is served with skim milk, toasted garlic, horseradish, grasses, and hay. A gastronomic tribute to the cow at both ends. Again this is a heroic vision of foraged food, a gorgeous and delicious plate. It is as good a big, land protein as any of the year. Stunning.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - "Beef Cheek and Tongue . . . Pastoral (Cow's milk, Toasted Garlic, Horseradish, Grasses and Hay

I am a sucker for lamb, for beets, and for licorice, and this dish hit the trifecta. Chef Shields served lamb shoulder with beets smoked and dried, licorice, and beet Bolognese. The flavors were so remarkably well matched that I wish that the serving might have been multiplied. Licorice and beets have a certain mystical power that bring out the flavor of all that they touch, and, added to this, here was a dish of technique, so much work to create this little masterpiece.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Border Springs Farm Lamb Shoulder, Beets Smoked and Dried, Licorice, Beet Bolognese

For our first dessert we were served a liquid chocolate bar with an ice cream of burnt embers, sour yogurt cotton candy, tomato and sugar, I admired how the embers reprised the mussel ashes of the early evening. And unlike the desserts of 2010 this was a more highly focused dessert: a triumph of technique.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Liquid Chocolate Bar, Ice Cream of Burnt Embers, Sour Yougurt, Cotton Candy, Tomato and Sugar

My favorite dessert (Of the year? Of my life? Of eternity?) was cantaloupe and toasted faro with wild sassafras and ginger, carrots, turmeric root, and Tonka bean. When one speaks of a dish as a symphony, this dish is what is meant. With the luscious, sensual, sweet late summer melon, Karen Shields’ dish was thoroughly indulgent and passionate. To my pleasure I had an opportunity in October to reprise the dish at a special supper sponsored by the James Beard House in Chicago. It was the best dish of that evening.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Cantaloupe and Toasted Farro, Wild Sassafras and Ginger, Carrots, Turmeric Root, and Tonka Bean

Finally there was Broken Marshmallows: cucumber, softly whipped cream, green strawberries and geranium. Like so many dishes before, it was a tribute to the land: farmed and found. An unexpected and wise mixture of tastes and textures.

Town House - Chilhowie, VA - August 2011 - Broken Marshmellows, Cucumber, Softly Whipped Cream, Green Strawberries

And so this concluded a profound dinner of a profoundly culinary year. John and Karen Shields are creating a cuisine that builds on that of Trotter, Achatz, and Redzepi, but is transformed through their own vision. This meal was as close to perfection as any that I have eaten in quite a while, and is certainly more than could ever be expected from an exit off Interstate 81 rolling through the verdant hills of southwestern Virginia. But plants are everywhere and genius is to be found in unexpected burgs.

Town House
132 East Main Street
Chilhowie, VA 24319

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Guy Savoy - Modern French in Las Vegas

I wanted to share some photos from a (mostly) excellent dinner at Guy Savoy at Caesar's Palace. I ordered the six course tasting menu (Menu Elegance), exchanging a Grapefruit Terrine for the Jasmine and Chocolate. Of the dishes four of them were really quite distinguished, revealing that some French chefs (i.e. Guy Savoy) have embraced the modernist chef's love of all things vegetable.

Lobster in Cold Steam, served in a cool steam bath, was superb, the high point of the night. The sweetness of the lobster was echoed in the sweet, crackly, sugary accompaniments. It could have been dessert and a perfect one.

Guy Savoy - Las Vegas - August 2011 - Lobster in Cold Steam

The Roasted John Dory in Basil Crust was, in contrast, a huge disappointment. Although well-cooked, the dish lacked any excitement. The basil "crust" was not much to look at or to taste.

Guy Savoy - Las Vegas - August 2011 - Roasted John Dory in Basil Crust

The third course, Artichoke and Black Truffle Soup with squares of parmesan and truffle was intensely, insanely rich. A glorious soup.

Guy Savoy - Las Vegas - August 2011 - Artichoke and Black Truffle Soup, Toasted Mushroom Brioche, Parmesan Squares, and Black Truffle Butter

Roasted duck with raw and cooked vegetables and spinach puree was a modernist take on duck, avoiding the usual sticky sweet, fruity sauce that is usually paired. Chef Savoy breaks through the stereotype of duck to great effect.

Guy Savoy - Las Vegas - August 2011 - Roasted Duck, Raw and Cooked Vegetables and Spinach Puree

Cantaloupe and cucumber was powerful with its combination of textures and herbaceous flavors. It was more of a palate cleanser than a dessert and gains credit for its awakenings.

Guy Savoy - Las Vegas - August 2011 - Cantaloupe and Cucumber

The grapefruit terrine was nicely made, but was somewhat dull. It was not a visionary dessert, although it was served with a witty cookie.

Guy Savoy - Las Vegas - August 2011 Grapefruit Terrine with Gingerbread Cookie

While Guy Savoy misses being the best meal of the year, it was, despite its location, a serious restaurant and the most accomplished meal of my four nights in Las Vegas. The restaurant is more sedate than jazzy, and that, too, is to GS's credit.

Restaurant Guy Savoy
Caesars Palace
3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, Nevada 89109

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Manresa: Six Degrees of Inspiration

Some pictures from my latest dinner at Manresa: my most recent, this week. There is a grace and lightness to David Kinch, a love of the garden and an elegance. The meals sometimes substantial in length are never heavy. The star of this line of dishes was the Spring Lamb, Pickled Tongue, Smoked Date with Cumin Seed, Roasted Carrots, and Braised Letter. Also a wonderful Black Bass and Octopus with Clam Juice perfumed with Coriander and Leek. It is hard to classify David Kinch who brings together all of the streams that influence contemporary cuisine: modern French (a la Michel Bras), Catalan, Japanese, Garden to Table, and Tail to Snout. But the dishes never seem forced, but inspired. And, best of all, every time I have eaten at Manresa, Chef David Kinch has been in the kitchen cooking. Let us hope that Las Vegas never comes calling.

Manresa has expanded its dining room, and in the process have become more distinctive and architecturally interesting. Even my photos look better. They have a most creative cocktail menu.

An amuse from Manresa's Love Apple Farm:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 Vegetable Beignet

Manresa's iconic elemental poached oyster: all of the flavor, none of the slime:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Elemental (Poached) Oyster

A reprise of the Abalone and Raw Milk Panna Cotta from an early meal:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Abalone Panna Cotta

A vegetarian dish of spring: Pea and Strawberry medley:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Medley of Peas and Strawberries

The late spring version of "Into the Vegetable Garden," now with nasturtium. Sweeter than the winter version:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Inter the vegetable garden: June version

A splendid and elegant aquatic dish: Black bass with octopus, clam juice, perfumed with coriander and leek and young squash shoots:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Black Bass with Octopus, Clam Juice Perfumed with Coriander and Leek, Young Squash Shoots

The best dish of the evening was spring lamb, its pickled tongue, smoked date with cumin seed, roasted carrots, and braised lettuce. One of Chef Kinch's most creative creations. An inspiring composition:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Spring Lamb, Pickled tongue, Smoked date with cumin seed, roasted carrots, braised lettuce, nasturiums

Our intermezzo was Acai granita, Lemon Cream Soup, and Yogurt sorbet. Cool and sweet:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Intermezzo - Acai granita, Lemon cream soup, Yogurt sorbet and Berries

Finally dessert, a continuation of the intermezzo: Yogurt mousse and passion fruit curd, poached rhubarb with strawberry sorbet:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Yogurt Mousse and Passion Fruit Curd, Poached Rhubarb with Strawberry Sorbet

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Challenge of Dining

The Challenge – Restaurant at Meadowood – St. Helena, CA

The most memorable mignardise that I shall ever taste was served on June 15, 2011 by Chef Christopher Kostow, the inspired and mischievous chef of the Michelin Three Star restaurant at the ultra-luxe Meadowood resort in St. Helena, California. One does not image that a chef cooking at a resort that might easily get away with a Cal-Ital version of Surf’n’Turf would serve a “sweet” that might as easily been a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. This tiny bite was a slight Oreo-like cookie (so slight that I didn’t even think to take a photo) with a mint filling. But what a mint-filling! In most instances a mint filling is little more than a sugar delivery system. But suppose one excised all sugar. The innocent, dream cookie was a mouthful of Scope. Pure, unabridged mintiness.

I have often wondered, even speculated in print, whether dishes, like sculptures, need to be welcoming to be artistic. Today I realize that even at the highest of the high-end resorts, at least one chef will utter uh-uh. Admittedly of the fourteen dishes served only two (an amuse and a mignardise) were challenging. But still the gesture reflected the subtle rebalancing of the relationship between chef and diner. And I was proud to have been a victim.

Both the décor – a high-ceiling, open space – and the service – very cheery, slightly nervy - was as one expected at a top Left Coast restaurant. Everything polished, wooden, white and light.

The first amuse was as precious as could be: a small crackly pillow filled with liquid goat cheese, garnished with a tiny flower from the restaurant’s garden. This latter was to be a theme of the evening; we almost ate a bouquet. The bite was luxuriant, because of its jewel-like quality, and it was surely a mouth opener.

Amuse followed amuse. The second dish, equally memorable, contained a few micro-carrots and radishes hidden in a snow drift of fromage blanc ice. I have never seen a dish to compare, and had the vegetables been any smaller they would have had to been served with a magnifying glass. The dish, only a few bites, was quite ingenious. It was a creation unlike any other.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Frozen appetizer with tiny carrots and radish and fromage blanc

Geoduck clams in beer batter, wrapped in lettuce with lemon zest and served on bread crumbs, was Amuse 3.0. Less showy than the ice, it was simple and delicious.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Beer batter geoduck, lemon, wrapped in lettuce on bread crumbs

The final amuse was another poke in the eye: Goat yogurt custard with salty pickled plum (Japanese umeboshi) with nut rocks and shiso. When I tasted it I was convinced that some poor ill-starred stage on her final day in the industry had dropped a shaker of salt in the mix. The dish was on the edge of inedibility, and for several hours I felt great compassion for Chef Kostow. He was the star chef at a RESORT for chrissake! The plating was so perfect that it was a crime that the dish tasted so. Finally after several delightful dishes I inquired about the misbegotten plums, only to be assured – and assured several times! – that the taste was quite intentional. It was, our server asserted, designed to awaken our tongue. No salt had been added, it was all the salted plum. But for me, as with the later mint cookie, it raised the issue of whether food needed to be delicious to be worth serving. Richard Serra’s sculptures on the plate. The umeboshi certainly made me sit up, take notice, and beg for relief. It revealed that Kostow is nothing if not brave, but I’m grateful that it was only in the freebies – the amuse and the mignardises - that he tested us.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Goat Yogurt Custard, Pickled Plum

The first dish of the nine-course tasting menu was an artistically displayed Geoduck Clam Grilled over Grape Wood with Avocado, Osetra Caviar, and Shaved Almond. Served on a slab of wood taken from a wine carton, it was a smooth and elegant presentation. While the dish had the modernist foible of lacking a true center, the components were beautifully prepared, especially the geoduck reprise.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Geoduck Clam Grilled Over Grape Wood

The second offering was the flavorful star of the night: Foie Gras Enrobed in Licorice with Wild Fennel, Glazed Pickled Cherries and Black Walnuts. I have lost some enthusiasm for foie gras, often used to demonstrate that the meal was worth its price, but thanks to the licorice this was a superb use of the duck’s liver, reminiscent of a salmon and licorice dish once served at the Fat Duck. The slightly bitter licorice cut through the unctuousness of the foie gras. It was a truly distinguished dish.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Foie Gras Enrobed in Licorice, Wild Fennel, Glazed Cherries, Black Walnut

The third plate was a composition of Cucumbers of Sea and Land with Borage, Sorrels, and Frozen Herbs. Given the dangers of cooking with sea cucumbers, the texture was spot on, and, as I prepare to leave California, it reminds me of how much I will miss the bounty of Bay Area farms.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Cucumbers of Sea and Land, Borage, Sorrels, and Frozen Herbs

Live Scallop Roasted in its Shell with Caraway, Seaweed, and Cauliflower was brought to table covered by the top shell, removed with a dramatic flourish. The scallop and accompaniments were matched to excellent effect. Kostow has a gift for understanding which flavors, colors, and shapes match. The caraway was a wry addition.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Live Scallop Roasted in its Shell

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Live Scallop Roasted in its Shell, Caraway, Seaweed, Cauliflower

I have recently noticed that California chefs often select duck for their big protein. It is not that they have used the liver and do not wish the rest of the bird to go to waste. But duck has a gaminess that chicken lacks and a lightness of being that one doesn’t find in cow. Chef Kostow served his duck (breast and confit) rubbed with Chermoula spices (a North African spice marinate, often including lemon, pepper, cumin, and garlic) with Raw Rhubarb, Mustard Seeds, and Celery Leaf. The dish was beautifully presented and tasty, although I felt that it was less distinctive than some of his other creations.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Chermoula Rubbed Duck (Five North African spices), Raw Rhubard, Mustard Seeds, Celery Leaf

Tête de Porc was quite a surprise, given that it was served on a tasting menu at a prime resort. Chef Kostow should be grateful that he has all of those Michelin stars to protect him. Not many chefs are willing to serve pig’s ear, head cheese, brined tongue, and pork cheek to well-heeled diners (along with peas, smoked potato and horseradish). Still fewer would get away with it. But it truly was a brilliant modernist dish with each component adding the proper texture. What was chewy was never too chewy. The display, reminiscent of the geoduck clams – a horizontal culinary poem – was a display of robust genius.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Tete de Porc, Peas, Smoked Potato "Gnocchi," Horseradish

Our cheese course (Le Jeune Austise, a Verbena ash cheese from the Loire) was served with textures of Apricot and dashes of Sassafras Honey. As a break, it was very pleasurable.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Le Jeune Austise, Textures of Apricot, Verbena Ash, Sassafas Honey

As a palate cleanser we were served Rose Sorbet with fresh botanicals and an elderflower veil. The mixture of rose and elderflower was inspired, and again it was beautifully composed.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Rose Sorbet, Fresh Botanicals, Elderflower Veil

With some brio (and Chef Kostow is filled with brio), dessert was named “To Quicken the Heart”: flavors of umami, red cedar, and butter popcorn, and brown butter dacquoise. While the cedar might have been more pronounced, it was an impressive sweet that edged toward a very high-end modernist pudding.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - "To Quicken the Heart," Flavors of Umami, Red Cedar, Buttered Popcorn

And then among the mignardises was the mint cookie.

Meadowood is one of the most illustrious American restaurants. Of the Bay Area restaurants it holds it own with French Laundry, Coi, and Manresa: each a renowned culinary treasure. To think that I almost missed Meadowood, imagining that it might be resort dining at its best, but Chef Kostow is up to something else: creating a distinctively Californian, distinctively modern, and distinctively challenging cuisine. It is a triumph.

The Restaurant at Meadowood
900 Meadowood Lane
St. Helena, CA 94574

Saturday, June 04, 2011

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: 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.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - Amuse - Frozen Split Pea Soup, Dried Beet, Mushroom Consomme

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.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - "Walk in the Forest," Textures and Aromas of the Wild

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.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - The Sea, An Interpretation of Aquatic Flavors - Mussels, Oysters, and Artic Char

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.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - Duck, Spring Garlic, Strawberry, Rhubarb, Smoked Buckwheat

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.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - Carrot "Cake," Peas, Walnut

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.

Atelier Crenn
3127 Fillmore Street (at Filbert)
San Francisco

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Night of Sparkling Forage – Coi – San Francisco

I begin my sermon by reciting the eleven (plus two) course tasting menu at Coi in full, chef Daniel Patterson’s own record of a virtuoso meal: cracker, beet rose, clam, tart, crayfish, asparagus, allium, morel, duck, carrot/coffee, strawberry, unrefined sugar, chocolate paper. This is almost a haiku. Talk about letting your dishes do the talking!

In the fall I dined at Coi, and had a sterling meal. Some great courses, some just missing the mark. The evening made me wish to return, and I waited until shoots and leaves began to appear in the woods and fields and streams and tidal pools of Northern California. Along with Copenhagen’s Noma, Coi is labeled an outpost of the “New Naturalism” – the desire to create gastronomic wonders with found ingredients, foraged food. In practice it owes much to farm-to-table gastronomy. Chef Patterson likes to source his ingredients from within 300 miles. I don’t mind this conceit, which serves mostly to focus the mind of a chef who might otherwise have too many choices: placing limits on Culinary Future Shock.

We were informed that we would receive a list of dishes as we left (ahem!), and my notes were not as elaborate as they might have been, but I did jot here and there. But these dishes deserve perfection in description as well as perfection in composition. In the former case, the words will at times cry out for errata. I am abashed and you will be, at times, misguided. So it is.

The dinner was bookended with two crackers: a savory one and a chocolate one (described as chocolate paper). While neither was a remarkable contribution in itself, they did turn the evening into a gastronomic sandwich.

The first substantial course was deeply remarkable. One of the first garnishes that an aspiring cooking student is taught is to take a peeler and circle a tomato, skinning it. This slight slight-of-hand produces a tomato rose (even I can perform the task). Naïve diners are startled and impressed. Our first course, played on this naivety, as Chef Patterson created a beet rose with each petal separately carved. This floral sculpture was set upon a bit of yogurt, and surrounded by shaved/chopped ice infused with the delicate perfume of rose extract. The idea was cute, but had the flavors and textures and temperatures not matched, it would have been little more than a cook’s trick. But the marriage was for the years, and the dish one of the finest, most creative opening dishes I have had, an amalgam of root and petal.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Rose Beet, Rose Petal Ice, and Yogurt

The second course is titled “clam.” It might have been labeled “calm.” Coi’s label is true enough without doing full justice to the luscious take on pasta and clam sauce. With geoduck, Manila clams, and Squid Ink pasta, nudged to one side of a bowl (reprised subsequently with morels and popcorn), it provided a symphony of textures. The bivalves were lightly chewy without being gummi. Quick and fresh, it was Pacific found cuisine and excellent in all respects.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Pasta and Clams - Manila Clams, Geoduck, and Squid Ink Pasta

Although plate three is described as “tart,” this four-letter word misses its grandeur. Here the sauce transcends: a lime green wheatgrass sauce that was devilishly overpowering. The aroma wafted from across the room. Yes, there was fennel, a buckwheat biscuit, a balsamic sauce (I think), and fromage blanc to create a modern Napoleon, but it was the take-no-prisoners sauce that conquered.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Buckwheat Biscuit, Wheatgrass sauce, Fennel, and Fromage Blanc

Ah, how beautiful was bowl four with its foraged flowers and leaves. Chef Patterson insisted that we never forgot that the land – and then the sea – is magical. Here were crayfish, May peas, and seasonal Watsonville artichokes. Astonishment and delight. Beautifully composed, complex, and yet simple in its focus.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Crayfish, Artichoke, Peas

The next plate pays ironic tribute to those chefs now experimenting with paleo-cuisine. Ash as condiment. Two stalks of local spring asparagus, cooked in their own juice, were dusted with seaweed powder and fermented anchovy paste, and served on a bright, buttery, lemony sauce. If the dish was not brazen, its insight revealed a chef who was fully vegetating.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 -Asparagus, Seaweed Powder, Fermented Anchovy Paste

And then arrived Allium soup: a dish that bowed to alliums everywhere: chive, garlic, onion, leek – the band of brothers – with a cheesy base. It was lush, and a reminder of how close we are and how far we have come from French onion soup. That classic is grand; this new classic reminds us of how much the frontier of cuisine has advanced.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 0 Allium Soup (Ghive, Garlic, Onion, Leek), Cheese

Morels and popcorn are not a typical match. Even I (whose book Morel Tales pays tribute to the cracked passions of fungal collectors) was startled. When we learned that the morels and popcorn were served in a popcorn reduction (!!!), what was there to say? Only that this dish, presented mirroring the placement of the clam dish, was poppin’ good and that a few surprises remain in a post-molecular age.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Morels, Popcorn and Popcorn Reduction

Our major protein was a duck consommé (not pictured), served with soft spring redwood shoots and followed closely by duck breast, redwood oil, duck leg confit, radish, and wheat berries. Many modernist chefs find big proteins challenging. Meat squats on a plate lumpishly. And this was a chuck o’ duck. But with the redwood oil (recapitulating the broth), the crispy top, and the pungent radish, the duck breathed life.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Duck Breast with Redwood Oil, Radish, Wheat Berries, Duck Leg Confit (Duck Consomme Not Shown)

Carrots with coffee beans might not seem the most traditional combination (and I must assume – although I didn’t ask – that the beans were imported from afar). The combination with crème fraiche was among the most stirring wake-up-calls and palate cleansers that I have encountered. Chef Patterson demanded that I reconsider these ingredients.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Carrots, Coffee Beans, and Creme Fraiche

Our first dessert was a lovely sorrel ice cream with ripe strawberries, nestled in foam (I neglected to note the foamy flavor). It was very fine in all regards, although perhaps less stunning than its predecessors.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Sorrell Ice Cream, Strawberry, Foam

Finally, a medley of unrefined sugar. The plate reflected the now-canonical modernist dessert – multiple movable parts - but tonight with a recognizable theme: molasses, sorghum, raw brown sugar, gingerbread. Each unrefined taste gave the dish a richness and suppleness that white sugar lacks. The sweet dessert was almost savory. Coi reasserted the philosophy of naturalism that had been thematic throughout the long and glorious evening.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Unrefined Sugar Dessert, Molasses, Sorghum

This May dinner at Coi will be among my most treasured dinners. Nothing was wrong, everything was right; much was fantastic, some was staggering. When I first dined at Coi, I found an excellent restaurant; this night I discovered a shattering one.

373 Broadway (North Beach)
San Francisco
(415) 393-9000