Traditionally, a croque madame is a ham-and-cheese sandwich that’s baked or fried. Unlike a croque monsieur, of which it’s a variation, it’s also topped with a fried egg. But at Petit Crenn, Dominique Crenn’s Hayes Valley restaurant, there is no ham. Instead, the chef uses smoked trout.
“I’ve been moving away from meat for a long time,” Crenn tells SF Weekly. “I’m not a vegetarian, but I’m also conscious about what’s going on in the world. We don’t have to eat meat every day. We don’t have to eat fish every day. It’s all about balance.”
If you see the amount of bechamel sauce on that decadent, $20 croque madame — which also comes with alliums, braised greens, and capers — you might take issue with the concept of balance, but point taken.
We’re speaking at the bar in Bar Crenn, her newest endeavor, which opened on Tuesday, March 13. Attached to her two-Michelin-starred flagship Atelier Crenn, it occupies the address formerly held by Cellar Door — which Crenn says she eyed seven years ago upon opening Atelier Crenn, but grabbing both spaces wasn’t in the cards at the time. Decorated with mismatched sofas and plenty of animal print, its aesthetic is notable for the lack of standard restaurant tables. The idea was to create a sense of the hospitality you get at Parisian wine bars like Cafe Les Philosophes in the Marais and other places that evoke the 1920s, something Crenn felt was wanting in San Francisco.
Atelier Crenn earned its first Michelin star in 2012 and its second a year later, and the fact that it’s remained at that status ever since, even as newer kitchens led by male chefs have been elevated to three star-status, sticks in the craw of people who cite systemic sexism as the likely reason. When San Pellegrino named her the World’s Best Female Chef in 2016, she called out the honor for perpetuating the idea that there was some fundamentally gendered schema to top-tier cooking. Crenn has gone one better with six monthly “Women in Food” dinners at Petit Crenn, which start March 27 with a collaboration between Nancy Oakes of Boulevard and Einat Admony of New York’s Balaboosta, and continue through November.
But misogyny is only one thing to contend with. Petit Crenn is free of terrestrial meats because the cuisine of Crenn’s native Brittany comes largely from vegetables and the sea, and Bar Crenn forgoes beef and pork via a slightly trickier way. Much as Corey Lee did with In Situ, his restaurant in the ground floor of SFMOMA that cycles through some 80 dishes by other chefs, Crenn sought recipes from the powerhouses of French cooking: Gérald Passedat, Eric Frechon, Alain Ducasse. She came into full possession of Sonoma’s Bleu Belle farm late last year, setting up a way to resolve the tension between classic food at a high price point and environmental awareness. (Bar Crenn is primarily a wine bar, and Matt Montrose’s wine list is largely biodynamic.)
Crenn ticks off a list of woes, from the pollution caused by industrialized agriculture to the recent snows in the south of France, as proof that the world is out of whack — and it’s only by a return to the past that we can shed our destructive arrogance.
“I want to go back to the way we used to farm,” she says. “The farm of my parents, where my father was from, you’d have a little herd of two cows. In the morning, you used to wake up and get the milk of the cow and maybe some pigs and the pigs would get old and you would kill them to make charcuterie — but it was not industrialized. It was about balancing. If things were not available, then they were not going to cook it.”
The glossy culture of overabundance bears much of the blame, she believes. And every chef has the responsibility to fix it, even cafe owners who can make the choice to eliminate plastic straws.
“It’s because they’re feeding people, and when you feed people you have to understand where things come from,” she says. “You can make vegetables delicious!”
There’s almost an “It took Nixon to go to China” element to this formulation. Who better than Dominique Crenn, whose talent and outspokenness are not debatable, to wean us off the idea that we can and should have whatever we want, when we want it? The Bay Area’s emphasis on seasonality only goes so far, and we may have lulled ourselves into further complacency by believing California-style food does all the work it needs to on its own.
Bar Crenn is the chef’s third project in San Francisco, although that statement comes with an asterisk of sorts. Two years ago, a partnership with the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley yielded the ill-fated Antoinette, which closed shortly after Crenn, whose role was more curatorial than day-to-day, walked away.
Such indirect involvement is not likely at Bar Crenn, with its emphasis on connection. A central courtyard that was until recently filled with rolling racks and other kitchen equipment now links Atelier Crenn to its little sibling, and opens up a renovated pastry kitchen that will have some public access.
“This is a house, and in a house you have to have movement and different spaces,” Crenn says. Sometime next year, she will open Boutique Crenn. Taking up some 5,000 square feet on two floors of the Salesforce Tower, it will be a patisserie and boulangerie, and even if it’s several miles away it feels almost like another room in the proverbial house.
“In the morning, you’re going to get your coffee and your pastry at Salesforce, and then have brunch or early dinner at Petit Crenn,” she says. “And if it’s something much more special, you go to Atelier and then you stop by the wine bar. It makes sense.”
Bar Crenn, 3131 Fillmore St., 415-440-0460 or barcrenn.com