Atelier Crenn: Beautiful Food Falls Short

Here's a question I hesitate to type, for fear of its nausea-inducing effect: What makes food art, and not just a meal? The cynic might answer "$300 and a good suit jacket," while the romantic might talk about how art engages the senses in tandem with the intellect. While you and I might sit here, mulling over the right words, Dominique Crenn one-upped us all with her response: opening up an entire restaurant. At Atelier Crenn, which opened in Cow Hollow two months ago, she calls her response to what makes food an art, "poetic culinaria."

Ambitious, no? That ambition earned Crenn the executive chef role at Luce, followed by an Iron Chef win and a Michelin star. Atelier Crenn gives her even more freedom to pursue her modernist, garden-centric cuisine, which she's developing in partnership with Gouge Eye Farm, north of Sacramento, which currently supplies her with 60 percent of her vegetables and meats and will eventually provide more, including exotics such as peacock and Iraqi watermelon.

The restaurant's format: to serve three- ($59), five- ($75), or 10-course ($95) tasting meals whose dishes are odes to the season. The menu descriptions, with titles like "The Sea" and "Walk in the Forest," read like Debussy préludes. And Crenn's plates are landscapes in themselves, terraced in soils, gardens, and honest-to-god rocks.

The chef creates the illusion of an actual garden with this salad.
Kimberly Sandie
The chef creates the illusion of an actual garden with this salad.

Location Info

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Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore
San Francisco, CA 94123

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Marina/ Cow Hollow

Details

Atelier Crenn
3127 Fillmore (at Filbert), 440-0460, www.ateliercrenn.com. Hours: 6-10 p.m. Tue.-Sat. Muni: 22, 28, 43, 76.

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Over the course of two meals at Atelier Crenn, I found the beauty of some dishes eviscerating, while other dishes came off as overwrought or barely palatable. Terrence Malick films and Orhan Pamuk novels have the same mixed appeal, which doesn't stop me from devouring as much as those artists can produce. But I think, for Atelier Crenn to succeed artistically, the chef will have to resolve how to balance her food-as-art intentions with the food-as-meal expectations of patrons.

My first meal at Atelier Creen began with two of the dishes that best evoke Crenn's poetic blend of memory, mystery, and delight. The "Jardin d'Hiver" (winter garden) turned out to be fetal parsnips, beets, and radishes sprouting out of quinoa rice "soil" dusted in goat cheese "snow." The crackle of toasted grains, the firm crunch of a baby carrot, the way the tang of the cheese evaporated before I could properly taste it — the flavors shifted and shimmered as our forks dismantled the illusion. Across the table from the garden: a "Mémoire d'Enfance" (childhood memory). A few marble-sized potatoes, which had been roasted in their own soil (then cleaned of all dirt), floated in a clear, deep ham broth, garnished with a tuft of Comté fondue and a few chives. Did the childhood memory represent a cluster of grassy, snowy rocks lying in a pool of melted ice, or a motherly, cold-weather dinner? That it did both: Exquisite.

The backdrop to these dishes: pure gold. A lit ceiling washed the tight clusters of tables in 24-carat light, and more gold dust leached out of wire-wrapped pendant lamps to speckle the upholstered chairs. The small room rang with conversation by 8 o'clock, with waiters slipping sideways between chairs to tour the room, pirouetting at the end of their routes and returning, peering at every table they passed to see what needed to be done. The diners had bathed in the money that flows from Pacific Heights down to the bay, and the mood, while not stilted, was formal.

My meals progressed as a series of miniature tableaux, paired with glasses or half-glasses of wines chosen for their discretion. While the delays between courses often exceeded a half-hour, we were occasionally entertained with flourishes as we waited: foie gras pearls and vanilla gelée heaped onto rose petals, smoked potato chips displayed on a bare tree branch, a ball of frozen Meyer lemon "air" that dissolved into mist as we crunched.

Occasionally, a straightforward dish such as the salt-baked squab appeared: two small strips of deep-red breast meat flanking a nubbin of liver and garnished with rose petals and coffee oil. The meat had a stunning texture to it, so juice-infused it almost seemed to pop with each bite. More often, like the winter garden, the dishes were formed of many elements, such as "The Sea," a ring of thimble-sized cuttlefish gnocchi interspersed with rock shrimp, a lobe of uni, and a smoked oyster. Interspersed around the plate were flecks of squid-ink paper, wisps of lemon foam, and sesame oil and anchovy transformed into a silky powder with tapioca starch.

For every moment of delight, a jarring one: a "Walk in the Forest" of beautifully cooked mushrooms, chickpea crisps, and tiny greens was arranged on an unnecessarily sweet pine meringue. Seared foie gras (a $10 supplement) garnished with beet meringues, dots of rhubarb coulis, and oxalis leaves — beautiful flavors marred by a gummy mass of connective tissue that one of the chefs had forgotten to remove from the liver. A small slab of Arctic char was cooked sous-vide, garnished with a little shaved fennel, and placed on a large river rock set in a bowl. The server poured a floral tea into the bowl, and the rock was soon ringed in dry-ice fog. Lovely — except the fish was cooked 15 degrees too rare, and served 25 degrees too cool, to enjoy. A sous-vide egg served over a cluster of pickled yellowfoot mushrooms and garnished with a smear of green-black nettle purée could have been a spectacular dish. However, Crenn and I disagreed over the ideal texture of a slow-cooked egg. I like mine thick, custardy, and warm, not lukewarm and phlegmy, to be sipped unadulterated from a spoon. Would bread have helped? Yes, but it wasn't art.

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6 comments
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Enjoys Delectable Surprises
Enjoys Delectable Surprises

Can't help but notice the drastic editing in headlines between your Web article and its printed version in the Weekly?!!? Why?J. Kauffmann must be looking for a desperate scoop (... a bit late, dare I pinpoint!), added readership (missed on that to) AND self-acknowledgement: NONE of which he will get from us!Sad to see that a food critic can be as "blasé" as this.

Unfortunately, some will take his uneducated, unimaginative verbage as gospel,while the educated, innovative, imaginative, adventuresome palates will only want to check this delightful, unusual, savory, surprising and rewarding journey all the fastest!However this journey is only bestowed upon the one who is ready to let go of preconceived ideas upon passing the "Atelier Crenn" threshold to trust his experience and let himself guided thru Crenn's "Poetic Culinary".J. Kauffmann... you missed out!

Joe Smith
Joe Smith

this international cuisine which permeates the landscape today all over the world . see peligrino top 50 these plates look quite the same ..but if you have not been to spain, copenhagen, new york, chicago, london, etc etc etc etc...the good thing is you don't have to travel far to have the same sweet manipulated crap...

Emlou014
Emlou014

Dining at Atelier Crenn was a night to remember! I thought that ever dish that came out was nothing short of an art piece, and had the bold beautiful flavors to match. I was impressed by every bit and the unique flavor combinations were amazing. Its now at the top of my list!!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Atelier Crenn brings show-stopping food full of whimsy and character, but also packs unique and inventive twists! The food is unforgettable, every bite is a new flavor profile, everyone needs to stop in experience all of the wonderful things this restaurant has to offer!

Stanbee
Stanbee

Kaufmann be damned, she's very creative, poetic and brave about ingredients, seasonings. What would be expected at in an Atelier?

Glad this critic isnt giving out the Michelin stars. The wait beteen courses at this very new venue does sound too loong.

There is or can be art in everything. Tiresome, critics writing they didn't have enough art to eat in fine exspenive restaurants.

Never had a portion problem at Luce either.

Stanbee
Stanbee

help! No edit button exspensive, Michellin.

 
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