Eating Out

Atelier Crenn – A Poetic, Modern French Experience in SF

Dominique Crenn is one bad-ass lady. She’s breaking barriers as a world-renowned female chef while being a mother, and she’s incredibly down-to-earth and personable!

Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit her restaurant Atelier Crenn a second time, and I loved my experience. This meal resonated with me on all levels – presentation, service, and above all, taste.

Chef Crenn’s avant garde style is often described as whimsical. With this type of creativity, sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t. While my first experience three years ago was absolutely lovely visually, the flavors just didn’t wow that day. My second visit, in contrast, left me in awe at how much I enjoyed every dish!

The seafood-only menu was so varied and complex, that I didn’t miss the lack of a hefty land-animal course. The tableside preparation was especially outstanding, perhaps the best I’ve experienced.

Service was wonderful, approachable, and warm – a good description for the interior as well. I loved the wood tables and soft rugs, and the new layout with less tables felt more intimate. The timing was good, and though it was slower between a few courses, it felt appropriately leisurely. We opted for a couple bottles in lieu of the full pairing, and I enjoyed the two whites they picked for us within our price range.

A tangy, refreshing Pineapple Kombucha kicked off the meal.

Atelier Crenn - Pineapple Kombucha
Pineapple Kombucha

The menu was kept a surprise, and we were shown a poem instead.

Atelier Crenn - Menu Poem - February 2018
Menu Poem – February 2018

The iconic ‘Kir Brenton’ sphere has been on the menu since day one. The thin white chocolate shell must be eaten whole, as it pops in your mouth with the apple cider filling. I’m a big white chocolate fan so I appreciated this sweetness, though it was a bit jarring to some at the beginning of the meal.

Atelier Crenn - Kir Breton
Kir Breton – white chocolate shell, apple cider, crème de cassis topper

The first savory bite of the meal was deceptively sweet in appearance. The layers of geoduck were woven like a rose, with citrus nestled among the layers. The server finished it off with a dollop of crème fraiche. This tiny tart was a flavor bomb, with a rich ham-like taste. I couldn’t make out the uni among such strong flavors, but it didn’t detract from the experience.

Atelier Crenn - Geoduck, sea urchin, citrus, rice tart
Geoduck, sea urchin, citrus, rice tart, crème fraiche

The next course of Spiny Lobster was my least favorite – not to say it was bad, it just wasn’t memorable. I wanted more substantial flavor.

Following this was my favorite course of the night and already a strong contender for my top bites of 2018.

This was a marvelous study of texture, with intricate tableside presentation. The server started by crushing pumpkin, sunflower, and buckwheat seeds with a sphere. He added a mixture of fermented squash and truffle, then added liquid from three vials – two oils and duck fat. This was poured into bowl containing trout roe and finished off with flowers and leaves.

The resulting mixture was so enjoyable to eat! There was nice pop from the trout roe, crunch from the seeds, creaminess from the duck fat, and the bold flavors of salty, tangy, sour, sweet. Just magical.

Atelier Crenn - Seeds & Grains
Seeds & Grains – trout roe, fermented squash, truffle, toasted seeds, duck fat
Atelier Crenn - Seeds & Grains
Seeds & Grains – trout roe, fermented squash, truffle, toasted seeds, duck fat

A caviar course is almost expected now on a tasting menu. Chef Crenn’s take stood out among the caviar I’ve had. This was a three part course, the first of which was a decadent ankimo (monkfish liver) and white sturgeon caviar torchon, with some interesting red splatter and photogenic gold leaf. Ankimo is one of my favorites, but the generous size was too decadent for me. The other caviar was a lighter take – smoked golden osetra with fermented rice koji cream. This was bright, delicate, and nicely contrasting. The buckwheat crisps provided nice crunch contrast.

Atelier Crenn - Monkfish liver torchon, caviar, buckwheat
L: Monkfish liver torchon, white sturgeon caviar, creme fraiche disc. R: Smoked golden osetra caviar, fermented koji rice cream, shiso oil. Served with buckwheat crisps.
Atelier Crenn - Monkfish liver torchon, white sturgeon caviar, creme fraiche disc
Monkfish liver torchon, white sturgeon caviar, creme fraiche disc

I’ve come to expect a high quality bread course in Western tasting menus, and the brioche here was excellent. Intensely buttery and soft, accompanied by cultured house butter and whipped wagyu fat (yes, it was as amazing as it sounds).

Atelier Crenn - Brioche, whipped wagyu fat, cultured herb butte
Brioche, whipped wagyu fat, cultured herb butter

Abalone is such a treat for me – it reminds me of enjoying it in Taiwan with my dad. This course had great depth, smoke, and brightness. The gold painted cabbage was also pretty to look at.

Next we were presented with a box of knives. Each knife had a unique handle, and one dining mate remarked it was like picking a magic wand in Harry Potter!

The knife was for the main course of striped bass. The fish was perfectly tender and wonderful, but the two tiny chanterelles* stole this show. I love mushrooms, and these two were perhaps the best tasting mushrooms I’ve ever had! So simple, yet so rich with umami and plenty of butter. The boudin blanc was interesting, like Chinese fish ball in texture.

*The menu says hedgehog mushroom, but our server said we got chanterelles.

Next was the Matcha Tea Service, which used chicken bouillon instead of water. The chicken and matcha combination was like a strange symphony that absolutely worked – such comforting broth.

Closing out the savory portion was a cheese course that reminded me of Chinese steamed egg custard. The black truffle holes from the main fish course dotted the surface of this one.

Next came the beautiful desserts from Pastry Chef Juan Contreras. Sapote ice cream was served in mini cones and presented on a replica wood log with honeycomb in the center. These cones were such a small tease, I wish I had a bowl of the ice cream!

Atelier Crenn - Honey, sapote ice cream, bee pollen
Honey, sapote ice cream, bee pollen

Next was the show-stopping pear sorbet that came in a dish which evoked the forest floor. Some ‘snow’ was sprinkled on tableside. The sorbet was shaped like an actual pear, and the fresh pear taste was so clean and lovely.

Atelier Crenn - Pear sorbet, sage, yogurt, citrus

Atelier Crenn - Pear sorbet, sage, yogurt, citrus
Pear sorbet, sage, yogurt, citrus

Finally we finished with mignardises presented in a cocoa bean. The ‘peanut’ on the right was a completely edible peanut candy.

Atelier Crenn - Mignardises
Mignardises

We took a tour of the kitchen afterwards and got a few photos with the staff. Chef Crenn herself initiated the group photo, and it was amazing that she regularly stops the service for these photos. Her warmth and energy was remarkable.

Atelier Crenn - kitchen staff
With the amazing kitchen team!
Atelier Crenn - Menu February 2018
Menu February 2018 – Click to zoom

We were sent home with a granola bar. I forgot about it in my purse until two days later – what a great surprise that was! It was still remarkably soft and addictively sweet in the best way.

Atelier Crenn - Granola bar take home gift
Granola bar take home gift

I’m so glad I revisited Atelier Crenn! I also loved that I didn’t feel like a stuffed pig afterwards, and I wasn’t hungry either. This may have been the first tasting menu that was actually the right volume for me.

With this meal, Atelier Crenn has jumped into my top three favorite spots in the Bay Area, and I look forward to a return visit.

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