At lunchtime, in the lounge area of In Situ, chef Corey Lee’s new restaurant in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a red-headed man in a pinstriped blue suit stands between two pale cottonwood tables whose knotty tops have been polished to a reflective gloss. He scans the gray pamphlet that serves as the restaurant’s menu, looks up at the restaurant server standing next to him, and says, bewilderedly, “You don’t have any salads?” The server says something softly to the man, who nods and walks out, back into the lobby of the museum.
I wonder if he's headed for the fifth floor cafe; there, he'll find grilled chicken over fattoush or a plate of salmon, kale, and quinoa. I want to chase after him and persuade him to stick around, to convince him that what he's looking for is a shot glass of a mesmerizing caramelized carrot soup, and a textbook-perfect tomato and basil tart. I want to tell him that in passing over In Situ, he's missing out on what is arguably the most remarkable restaurant to open in America this year.
In Situ came about as part of SFMoMA's $610 million expansion, a three-year endeavor unveiled to the public this past May. The institution enlisted Corey Lee, one of the region's (and the country's) most brilliant chefs, to conceive of a restaurant that would emulate the qualities of a museum. Lee is chef-owner of nearby Benu, where he serves brainy, lyrical tasting menus inspired predominantly by Chinese and Korean cuisines; he also runs Monsieur Benjamin, a charismatic take on the traditional French bistro housed in San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood. Given the scope of his vision and the depth of his acumen, Lee was exactly the right person to call on for this project.
At In Situ, Lee expands his reach in a unique dual role: chef and curator. In Situ's menu rotates to highlight the masterworks of 80 different chefs from around the world, none of them Lee himself. Lee contacts the chefs, who each choose a signature dish, and then they either pass along highly detailed instructions or Lee travels to the chef to learn the recipe firsthand. The dishes rotate through the menu like artworks in a gallery: The still life of Meyer lemon sherbet and ice cream, for example, is frequently served at Chez Panisse; it was recently swapped out on the dessert menu to make room for the Jackson Pollock-esque "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart," a creation served at Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy.
There's never been a culinary undertaking quite like In Situ, whose collaborative nature hinges on the enormous respect Lee commands among his fine-dining peers. The crux of the restaurant requires Lee to leave his ego at the kitchen pass — he's showcasing the magnum opuses of others, after all — while also displaying enormous confidence in his skill as an interpreter, his kitchen accurately recreating others' dishes, which are often bogglingly complex.
It's so easy to go wild with analogies for In Situ and its menu stratagem: This is the culinary equivalent of a Spotify shuffle or an anthology of poems; a meal here resembles a festival of short films or one-act plays. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Lee likened In Situ's approach to ballet, seeing himself as the choreographer. Point being, the mere existence of this restaurant attests to the ascent of food in our culture — as an obsessed-over, multi-sensory expression of creativity and individuality, as a window into societies both familiar and foreign to us. Yes, in one sense, it's only dinner. We can just shut up and eat. But the same is true of art: We can view it simply as pretty (or ugly) squiggles on a canvas, as twisted forms of clay and metal, as physical contortions or vibrations in the air. But like strolling through a museum or attending a performance, eating at In Situ invites us to engage with deeper nuances of meaning.
Not everyone will want to do that with their lunch. The reaction of that red-haired man I saw leave the restaurant reminded me that this is not only a radical, hyper-intellectualized idea for a restaurant in general, but also a disruptive concept specifically in the world of museum cafes, which are usually placid affairs designed for enervated souls seeking uncomplicated refreshment after hours on their feet. While an onslaught of press has kept the restaurant packed, to a museumgoer without prior knowledge of what Lee is doing, a quick scan of In Situ's wordy menu — where each description includes the originating chef and restaurant (or, in a couple of cases, cookbook) and the year the dish was conceived — might be enough to put them off a spontaneous meal. Once you're in the restaurant, though, and you've made it past all the verbiage and the theorizing and the high-mindedness to the food itself, so much what Lee and his crew prepare comes across as deeply pleasurable.
The kitchen offers separate menus for the lounge and the dining room. Eating in the lounge feels casual by design: small plates (mostly) in an airy, minimalist space framed by light woods, charcoal walls, a mural of a ghostly orchid by San Francisco artist Rosana Castrillo Díaz, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking bustling Third Street. Even within the narrow scope of the menu's eight or so items, Lee conveys the high-low aesthetic that defines contemporary cooking. For something heady and yet utterly satisfying, start with the caramelized carrot soup from Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine, a distillation of pure, sweet carrot topped with foamed coconut milk and chaat masala rippling with cumin. For a snack with universal charm: dadinhos de tapioca from São Paulo chef Rodrigo Oliveira, tapioca-cheese fritters fashioned into precise squares. They're crisp and pleasingly chewy, squeaky with halloumi-like queijo de coalho, and the tamarind in the agrodolce dipping sauce alongside brings in a gentle acidic bop.
Tapioca also makes an appearance in starch form, rounding out the gluten-free coating that encases hunks of fried chicken dusted with pine salt, a famed creation of Isaac McHale at the Clove Club in London. I had this dish made by McHale's himself while on assignment in England last fall, and Lee's team nails it. The batter crackles weightlessly; the woodsy, neon-green powdered pine perfumes the chicken without overpowering it. And I'm betting, as In Situ settles into a relationship with its community, that a salad will indeed appear on the lounge menu — is chef Michel Bras' famously kaleidoscopic gargouillou too obvious a choice?
As with any director or editor, Lee takes gratification from teasing out thematic connections. "Creole BBQ shrimp and grits," a filling bowl of happiness by way of Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen, across the bay in Oakland, is a centerpiece of the lounge menu. A bellowing note of Worcestershire sauce pierces through Holland's recipe, adding twanging alto harmony between the soprano sweetness of the shrimp and the baritone rumble of the cheddar grits. On the dining room menu, Holland's shrimp and grits find their analogue in "shrimp grits," from modernist master (and chef-owner of Manhattan's now-closed wd-50) Wylie Dufresne, who conceived of a variation in which the shrimp themselves are ground, in order to mimic the texture of grits. At In Situ, Dufresne's whimsy equals Holland's take in soothing texture, though his get feisty with a healthy addition of pickled jalapeño.
Certainly, many of the 15 dishes served in the dining room (a calm alcove separated from the lounge visually with some decorative bars and a serving table) stand completely on their own in style and composition. I love the surprising sumptuousness of "The Forest," a preparation from Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur in Menton, France: jumbled mushrooms, parsley sponge-cake "moss," and quinoa risotto lifted from the backwoods with an enriching slick of parmesan cream.
I find it poetic that Thomas Keller, for whom Corey Lee worked at both French Laundry and Per Se, chose a dish from French Laundry circa 1995, at time when the restaurant and its reputation were still ascending. The flavors send me time-traveling to that seminal moment in the Keller revolution when he was announcing his wholly American bravura as a chef, his creations at once cheeky and reverential: pan-roasted duck breast served with apples and lentils in a sauce of aged red wine vinegar. The natural crosshatch pattern of the bird's skin is echoed in the subtle houndstooth pattern around the edge of the serving bowl, a beautiful touch.
And I would be remiss if I did not push spice lovers to order the guinea fowl larp chiang mai from Australian chef David Thompson's restaurant Nahm in Bangkok. No punches pulled: This is a flame-thrower of minced meat, herbs, fried shallots, and mixed chilies and peppercorns, with cabbage leaves on the side for scooping the mixture. Quell the burn with dessert: Bottura's lemon tart, or (or and!) Rene Redzepi's combination of wood sorrel granita and yogurt mousse.
One of the early observations about In Situ, often repeated, is that the restaurant affords diners the opportunities to try many dishes that, in their natural habitat, are part of expensive and lengthy tasting menus — or, in some cases, would require a trip to another country. I see the merit in that argument, particularly as a matter of pure edification. I never imagined how much I'd relish Tim Raue's lobster tail coated with wasabi-flavored rice crisps on a plate festooned with star-shaped wasabi marshmallows. But I did, and now I want to eat at his eponymous restaurant in Germany.
But it is also magnificent enough to savor these dishes in their curated assemblage, maybe while pondering all the details and the distinctions and the similarities on dazzling display, maybe just taking all the highly finessed cooking at face value, without thinking too damn hard about any of it. In any case, as a reflection of the triumphs of others and as a reflection of Lee's own achievements, this restaurant is genius.
About the Artist
151 Third Street (San Francisco Modern Museum of Art), 415-941-6050, insitu.sfmoma.org
Lounge and dining room open for lunch Thursday to Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., dinner Thursday to Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Closed Wednesday.