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At Atelier Crenn, Modernism Expresses the Chef’s Childhood Memories

Dominique Crenn’s tasting-menu flagship is as thrilling as ever

This post originally appeared in Bill Addison’s newsletter “Notes From a Roving Critic,” a twice-monthly dispatch from Bill’s travels across the country. Subscribe now.

Hello from Brooklyn, where I’m packing for a three-week road trip through California. Eater’s travel editor Lesley Suter and I are working on a whopping project — as in, this kind of project — so I’ll be roaming from Sacramento to San Diego, zigzagging for as many stops as possible until early June.

I started wading into Golden State research in March, during a trip to the Bay Area to immerse myself in Oakland. Before crossing the Bay Bridge, I’d made reservations at the one San Francisco restaurant to which I’d most been wanting to return: Dominique Crenn’s tasting-menu flagship Atelier Crenn. She began her culinary career in the city in the 1990s, leaving to cook abroad and then returning to finally unveil her own place in the Cow Hollow neighborhood in 2011.

Her cuisine’s mix of childhood inspiration (she bases many dishes off the memories of her upbringing in Brittany, France), cerebral technique, tableside theatrics, and impeccable local ingredients was radical by West Coast standards. She presaged Los Angeles’s new generation of modernist restaurants, including Vespertine and Dialogue. She focuses on seafood and vegetables. From my first meal at Atelier Crenn three years ago, I still marvel over a single bite of banana mounded with caviar, pecans, and gold leaf — outlandish, yet so in balance and utterly exhilarating.

In almost every other way, this recent dinner was filled with greater fundamental pleasure than the first one. More masterfully than ever, Crenn and her team are mining the middle ground between intellect and emotion, between thrilling drama and flat-out satisfying flavors.

Kir Breton aperitif

The meal began with cups of pineapple kombucha and then the restaurant’s signature first bite: a nearly translucent orb of white chocolate piped with creme de cassis liqueur transformed into jam. Pop it in your mouth and the shell shatters, unleashing a shot of apple cider. (It’s a reimagining of a Kir Breton cocktail that Crenn might serve you at your home.)

Next: a platter of billowing dry ice. When the fog subsided, there were tiny tarts filled with pale, thinly sliced geoduck arranged like rose petals; butter-poached uni, gelled pineapple vinegar, and a compressed mix of winter citrus. Incredible.

“Grains and Seeds” tableside presentation

As part of a renovation last year, Crenn brought in gorgeous, richly knotted black walnut tables — roomy enough for the staff to incorporate even more tableside, or actual on-the-table, presentations. For a dish called “Grains and Seeds,” a dining room captain crushed pumpkin and sunflower seeds and buffed buckwheat in a white mortar, and then spooned over a gelee made from black truffle juice, buckwheat vinegar, fermented butternut squash, duck fat, marigold oil, and shiro dashi. There are more ingredients, but you get the gist: wild, heady stuff. I savored the bitter edge to the combination.

Along the way there were straight-ahead luxuries: a spoonful of osetra caviar with fermented koji rice cream and buckwheat crepe crisps; box crab dressed with pickled seaweed, whey, and apple butter, all of which heightened the crab’s sweetness; grilled abalone with sauerkraut; a beautiful loaf of brioche served with herbed butter and whipped wagyu tallow.

Sapote ice cream in cinnamon honeycomb cone

Desserts from pastry chef and business partner Juan Contreras now more strongly reflect his Mexican heritage — a cinnamon waffle cone filled with sapote ice cream preceded a reimagining of a coconut shell, its flavors zinged with lime and mint and shiso — but were less flashy in ways I really appreciated. The tea geek in me savored a finale of matcha whisked tableside.

Afterward my buddy and I drifted over to the newly opened Bar Crenn for one last glass of wine (after a baller wine pairing that sped through Austria, Italy, France, Germany, and Japan). We couldn’t think about eating; I left that to my colleague Rachel Levin, Eater’s San Francisco critic.

But I will say this about Atelier Crenn. At $335 per person, it is a splurge most of us can afford very, very rarely. But I will also say that this ranks alongside Benu and Saison as the mind-opening indulgences I would spend my own money to binge.

A reimagining of a coconut shell

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