No. 9: Pistachio-Chocolate Landscape at Atelier Crenn

SFoodie's countdown of our 92 favorite things to eat and drink in San Francisco, 2011 edition.

Much of the food at Atelier Crenn, Dominique Crenn's laboratory/gallery/restaurant, is designed to be contemplated, a visual interpretation of the season. Baby vegetables are arranged to look like they are growing out of snow-covered “soil”; potato chips are perched on tree branches. Sometimes the gustatory dimension of the dish slips too far behind the visual, but with Juan Contreras's desserts ― like this landscape wrought in chocolate and pistachio that SFoodie ate a few months ago ― are fully realized.

Not only did the dessert resemble penjing, Chinese “tray landscapes,” eating it was like scrambling up a steep forest path, encountering new sights at every turn: Cracking a craggy slab of flash-frozen chocolate mousse, a vine of salted pistachio puree might appear. A fork, stabbed into a tuft of airy pistachio cake ― that's the stuff that looks like moss ― might pick up a hunk of poached pear hidden beneath it, too.

When Contreras, a cook on the savory side of the kitchen, announced that he wanted to try his hand at pastry, Crenn sent him to Alinea in Chicago to intern, and you can sense some of Grant Achatz's improvisational, stream-of-consciousness style in the way Contreras brings many complementary flavors together, so that each bite reveals a different facet of the whole. Of course, this pistachio-chocolate dessert was a winter one, and Crenn and Contreras have moved on to new landscapes. But SFoodie continues to marvel over the memory, the true sign of a great dish.

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