Just as big-budget disaster movies ratchet up the destruction to a planet-wide scale, kitchen ambition almost has to vault into the stratosphere to stand out. Or it does now that Corey Lee's In Situ is open on the ground floor of SFMOMA.
René Redzepi of Noma famously scours Denmark for inspiration and spent much of the early part of the year picking Australia clean for his pop-up in Sydney, but Lee has essentially expanded his source material to include the whole Earth. For In Situ, Lee got some 80 chefs, representing a who's who of the world's best restaurants, to essentially loan out dishes that he and his team then re-create.
It's a magnificent conceit, almost a high-wire act, but the downsides hit you immediately. In Situ — Latin for “in position” — is pretentious as hell, knows it, and doesn't give a damn one way or the other. Open the fold-out menu and you'll see a world map, shaded by time zone, with circles denoting the cities of the restaurants where the dishes hail from — except this is no ordinary map. “We adapted the Mercator projection slightly disturbed by an axial tilt,” the caption says. (Oh, come on.) More importantly, every dish is a small plate, priced like a large plate. If you hope to get out of there for less than $100 per person without feeling hugely deprived, I wish you the best.
But almost without exception, everything I ate was excellent, and one or two things were genuinely mind-expanding. I did my best to play along — although miso-marinated wagyu or not, I can't bring myself to order a less-than-shareable $38 soup. From what I can glean, some chefs gave Lee rough parameters while others spelled out every last detail for how to execute their vision, down to the cutlery. Distance and seasonality play their parts, but some copies approach exact replication: Sonoma is close enough that In Situ can source the same Liberty Duck breasts Thomas Keller uses at The French Laundry. But unlike an art-world star who jets around the planet on an executive platinum medallion status to see Damien Hirst's work at every Gagosian Gallery, this exercise in global curation doesn't feel like gross .01-percent excess. I didn't feel douche-y after eating at In Situ; I felt wowed and satiated. (And I've never eaten at Benu, Lee's three-Michelin-star restaurant that's essentially around the block.)
Some of the smaller items feel like etudes, technically brilliant but far from the main event. The shrimp grits ($14, from Wylie Dufresne's since-closed wd-50 in New York) were beautifully creamy, with a sweetness that reminded me of white corn ice cream, while the celeriac and goat cheese profiteroles ($14, by David McMillan and Frédéric Morin of Joe Beef in Montreal) were flawless five-tiered bijoux in a captivating orange-hued tomato coulis. And the separate menu for In Situ's cafe component includes some visual delights of its own: The lettuce sandwich ($12) from Christian Puglisi's Relæ in Copenhagen is an intricately constructed puzzle of goat cheese and olive oil, while the buttermilk fried chicken ($12) from Isaac McHale of The Clove Club in London consists of five piece of chicken, fuzzed with pine salt like the tiniest iron filings, and propped up on pine needles, with a pine cone for good measure.
The big guns are dazzling. Because I'd never cook it at home, I order octopus almost every time it's offered, and unless it chews like gum I never get tired of it. The Octopus and the Coral ($28, from Virgilio Martinez of Central in Lima, Peru) could very well be the best-cooked cephalopod I've ever had, and what made it better still was the mug of octopus broth it came with. It was the braising liquid, and although the dominant notes were nuttiness and heat, it was significantly sweeter than the tentacles, enhancing the entire dish.
Keller's duck breast ($34) sat atop French green lentils and apples in an aged red wine vinegar sauce, and the legumes were almost syrupy in consistency and a little al dente, clearing the way for that exceptional duck skin to dominate. And the spicy pork sausage rice cakes ($22, from David Chang's Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York) were the apex of Asian comfort food, their texture crispy in some places and almost marshmallowy in others. But the single-greatest dish was The Forest ($28, from Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur in Menton, France), a collection of mushrooms over a quinoa risotto with a parsley “moss” that resembled the ground of some enchanted, old-growth glade. The morels, in that cream sauce, were nothing short of astonishing, and the bits of edible flowers and greens — roots intact — provided just the right contrast.
Flavors are intense at In Situ: If there was a palpable through-line, it was reduction and concentration. But the drawback was dessert. I'm pretty much down with molecular gastronomy's most fanciful flights of whimsy, but in the end, dessert shouldn't just challenge; it also has to gratify. I was underwhelmed with the Wood Sorrel & Sheep's Milk Yogurt ($14, from René Redzepi), which is actually a granita — and an asetic one at that — while Interpretation of Vanity ($14, from Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz in Errenteria, Spain) was Dada without the joy, a self-serious prism of cake succumbing to a lake of cold almond cream and cocoa bubbles. Dominique Ansel's $12 sage-smoked dark chocolate brownie was by far the best I tried, even if the lit sage felt like the staff was purging me of bad juju.
In Situ's closest kin would be The Modern, the two-Michelin-star restaurant inside New York's Museum of Modern Art. But whereas that eatery's dining room feels almost like a canteen, with tables wedged together to extract maximum receipts per square foot, In Situ is much calmer and more gracious. It's like a high-end MUJI, the Japanese minimalist shop, by way of Scandinavian mid-century design and a lot of Heath ceramics. The longer I sat in the interior, the more I fell in love with the undulating wooden ceiling slats, the Matisse-esque art on the rear wall, and how the L-shaped room is broken into a casual cafe space and a more formal dining room via the placement of a single sideboard. I've gotten more and more comfortable with eating alone — although I usually hustle — but after a solo lunch at In Situ, I lingered. (Too bad, though, that the view out the window is basically of Yerba Buena's butt end.)
And if you pursue the museum metaphor far enough, you end up with all sorts of fascinating questions. Is it something approaching forgery to cook only other chefs' dishes? (And did anyone turn Lee down?) Is art-scene insularity a good template for a world turning to locavorism as a response to climate change? Is this how people eat at Davos or on yachts at Art Basel Miami? I'm not sure, but SFMOMA's newest addition might be almost as significant as Snøhetta's expansion to the building itself.