One of the most noteworthy restaurant openings of 2016 is undoubtedly In Situ. Acclaimed chef Corey Lee debuted his newest project in June inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and there couldn’t be a more appropriate setting: As Lee told the Wall Street Journal, "I want to do something that best represents what a museum does. I’m thinking of it as a food exhibition."
While the chef is known for serving wildly creative, intricate (and expensive) tasting menu fare at his Michelin-starred restaurant Benu, he’s taken a very different approach at In Situ: He’s replicating dishes from some of the world’s best-known chefs, from David Chang to René Redzepi.
Shamelessly ripping off other restaurant’s dishes may seem like a head-scratching concept for a restaurant, but Lee attributes each dish to its creator on the menu, and even traveled around the globe to visit or otherwise corresponded with each chef in order to properly replicate their food. It all adds up to, as Eater SF puts it, "a museum within a museum," a place where food obsessives can go to sample an array of the world’s best cooking right now in the form of an edible art installation.
And so far, the critics are eating it up. Last month, New York Times critic Pete Wells declared it "America’s most original new restaurant," and one that is decidedly of-the-moment:
Would any chef have dreamed of building a restaurant like this 25 years ago? Would anyone have gone there? In Situ probably requires a steady supply of customers who care about restaurants in Lima and Copenhagen enough to have seen some of these dishes in cookbooks or at least in the Instagram accounts of the chefs in question. Mr. Lee depends on, and caters to, a class of eaters who pay attention to the global restaurant scene the way certain art hounds follow the goings on in Basel, Miami Beach and Venice.
Here’s what a few other publications had to say:
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 . . . 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.
Few chefs have the required technical prowess and global connections to pull off such a restaurant. As Lee noted, he’s the one with the ballet company capable of producing this. And maybe no one else will replicate this. Or, maybe they will. Maybe this is a flash-forward moment for the dining industry. Maybe this is when a new collaborative world of possibilities is opened, when chefs once again rethink what food, and a restaurant, can be.
But enough about the critics; what do people who don’t write about food for a living think of In Situ?
Over on Yelp, In Situ has a three-and-a-half star rating. While many reviewers rave about the food, others are decidedly less impressed, especially in regards to portion size. Jake V. writes:
I'm the target market for this place. 30s, educated, bit of a food snob, best meal of my life was at Alinea in Chicago. And I really didn't like In Situ, though I guess I came short of outright hating it . . . I get that they're small plates and I get that they're doing "food as art," but food also needs to be food. I walked out unhappy at spending $50 for lunch, ordering the heaviest things on the menu, and still feeling hungry.
Meanwhile, Yelper Joanna S. has some advice that might’ve come in handy for Jake:
A great new restaurant, but remember it's quality not quantity that counts the most. If you come when you are really hungry, you might not appreciate the nuanced flavors and you won't like the bill.
On Facebook, In Situ has a five-star rating. One fan writes:
Very modern venue with attention to detail — from the design of the menu to the minimalist chairs with a nook for ladies bags are all well thought out. Overall style, ambiance, curation style are very fitting with the MOMA setting. Food was amazingly presented. Timing and pacing was excellent. Was so happy and excited we get to savor all these dishes from around the world from these well known chefs that I've been reading/watching them about.
Local blog Female Foodie weighs in on a few of Lee’s dishes:
Our dining experience began on a high note with the savory Shrimp Grits from Chef Wylie Dufresne’s wd~50 in New York City. The pickled jalapeño and shrimp oil gave the dish a spicy zing. Next up was another spicy dish, the Octopus and the Coral from Virgilio Martinez’s Central in Lima, Peru. The braised octopus with seaweed was accompanied by a small cup of soup that balanced out the octopus sauce’s strong, salty flavor. The lineup of zing continued with the numbingly spicy sichuan peppercorn used in the Spicy Pork Sausage Rice Cakes from David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York City.
Yelp user Noelle T. says the wood sorrel and yogurt dessert a la René Redzepi is a must-try:
I wasn't expecting much from this dessert, mainly because it didn't sound very appealing to me. However, I did want to try a Noma dish so I decided to order it. WOWWWWW. Completely blew our socks off. The wood sorrel is a sweet granita type that's refreshing, and went perfectly with the sheep's milk's yogurt. I thought this might be a more savory dish but it was indeed a dessert. A definite must!
Another local blog, Bites & Bourbon, also has advice on what to order:
The Forest (Mauro Colagreco; Mirazur; Menton, France; 2011) was my favorite dish; wild mushrooms, tender green stems and a fuchsia sweet pea flower on a bed of quinoa risotto topped with fried strips of sunchoke peel as "twigs" and "moss" made of parsley-juice spongecake, plus some butter and Parmesan foam . . . The Liberty Duck Breast (Thomas Keller; The French Laundry; Yountville, California; 1995) with French green lentils, apples, aged red wine vinegar sauce. It was tasty, but basic and underwhelming in comparison to the other dishes.
• In Situ Has Built a Sleek Shrine to the World's Most Iconic Dishes [ESF]
• In Situ's Menu Brings the World's Best Dishes to SF [ESF]