Here's a question I hesitate to type, for fear of its nausea-inducing effect: What makes food art, and not just a meal? The cynic might answer "$300 and a good suit jacket," while the romantic might talk about how art engages the senses in tandem with the intellect. While you and I might sit here, mulling over the right words, Dominique Crenn one-upped us all with her response: opening up an entire restaurant. At Atelier Crenn, which opened in Cow Hollow two months ago, she calls her response to what makes food an art, "poetic culinaria."
Ambitious, no? That ambition earned Crenn the executive chef role at Luce, followed by an Iron Chef win and a Michelin star. Atelier Crenn gives her even more freedom to pursue her modernist, garden-centric cuisine, which she's developing in partnership with Gouge Eye Farm, north of Sacramento, which currently supplies her with 60 percent of her vegetables and meats and will eventually provide more, including exotics such as peacock and Iraqi watermelon.
The restaurant's format: to serve three- ($59), five- ($75), or 10-course ($95) tasting meals whose dishes are odes to the season. The menu descriptions, with titles like "The Sea" and "Walk in the Forest," read like Debussy préludes. And Crenn's plates are landscapes in themselves, terraced in soils, gardens, and honest-to-god rocks.
Over the course of two meals at Atelier Crenn, I found the beauty of some dishes eviscerating, while other dishes came off as overwrought or barely palatable. Terrence Malick films and Orhan Pamuk novels have the same mixed appeal, which doesn't stop me from devouring as much as those artists can produce. But I think, for Atelier Crenn to succeed artistically, the chef will have to resolve how to balance her food-as-art intentions with the food-as-meal expectations of patrons.
My first meal at Atelier Creen began with two of the dishes that best evoke Crenn's poetic blend of memory, mystery, and delight. The "Jardin d'Hiver" (winter garden) turned out to be fetal parsnips, beets, and radishes sprouting out of quinoa rice "soil" dusted in goat cheese "snow." The crackle of toasted grains, the firm crunch of a baby carrot, the way the tang of the cheese evaporated before I could properly taste it — the flavors shifted and shimmered as our forks dismantled the illusion. Across the table from the garden: a "Mémoire d'Enfance" (childhood memory). A few marble-sized potatoes, which had been roasted in their own soil (then cleaned of all dirt), floated in a clear, deep ham broth, garnished with a tuft of Comté fondue and a few chives. Did the childhood memory represent a cluster of grassy, snowy rocks lying in a pool of melted ice, or a motherly, cold-weather dinner? That it did both: Exquisite.
The backdrop to these dishes: pure gold. A lit ceiling washed the tight clusters of tables in 24-carat light, and more gold dust leached out of wire-wrapped pendant lamps to speckle the upholstered chairs. The small room rang with conversation by 8 o'clock, with waiters slipping sideways between chairs to tour the room, pirouetting at the end of their routes and returning, peering at every table they passed to see what needed to be done. The diners had bathed in the money that flows from Pacific Heights down to the bay, and the mood, while not stilted, was formal.
My meals progressed as a series of miniature tableaux, paired with glasses or half-glasses of wines chosen for their discretion. While the delays between courses often exceeded a half-hour, we were occasionally entertained with flourishes as we waited: foie gras pearls and vanilla gelée heaped onto rose petals, smoked potato chips displayed on a bare tree branch, a ball of frozen Meyer lemon "air" that dissolved into mist as we crunched.
Occasionally, a straightforward dish such as the salt-baked squab appeared: two small strips of deep-red breast meat flanking a nubbin of liver and garnished with rose petals and coffee oil. The meat had a stunning texture to it, so juice-infused it almost seemed to pop with each bite. More often, like the winter garden, the dishes were formed of many elements, such as "The Sea," a ring of thimble-sized cuttlefish gnocchi interspersed with rock shrimp, a lobe of uni, and a smoked oyster. Interspersed around the plate were flecks of squid-ink paper, wisps of lemon foam, and sesame oil and anchovy transformed into a silky powder with tapioca starch.
For every moment of delight, a jarring one: a "Walk in the Forest" of beautifully cooked mushrooms, chickpea crisps, and tiny greens was arranged on an unnecessarily sweet pine meringue. Seared foie gras (a $10 supplement) garnished with beet meringues, dots of rhubarb coulis, and oxalis leaves — beautiful flavors marred by a gummy mass of connective tissue that one of the chefs had forgotten to remove from the liver. A small slab of Arctic char was cooked sous-vide, garnished with a little shaved fennel, and placed on a large river rock set in a bowl. The server poured a floral tea into the bowl, and the rock was soon ringed in dry-ice fog. Lovely — except the fish was cooked 15 degrees too rare, and served 25 degrees too cool, to enjoy. A sous-vide egg served over a cluster of pickled yellowfoot mushrooms and garnished with a smear of green-black nettle purée could have been a spectacular dish. However, Crenn and I disagreed over the ideal texture of a slow-cooked egg. I like mine thick, custardy, and warm, not lukewarm and phlegmy, to be sipped unadulterated from a spoon. Would bread have helped? Yes, but it wasn't art.
Twice, Crenn and pastry chef Juan Contreras smoothed over some of the frustration with two spectacular desserts (a $10 supplement if you're getting the three-course dinner, but included in the five- and 10-course meals). The first, "Textures of Coconut," resembled a snow drift, white swirls of coconut mousse sprinkled with mint granita. Exploring what lay underneath the drift was like opening one of the drawers at 826 Valencia. Would I uncover freeze-dried coconut? Cardamom gelées? Kalamansi lime sorbet? Each spoonful pulled out a new prize. Even more astonishing was a Chinese miniature landscape of rocks and lichens. It was sculpted out of frozen ganache, airy pistachio cake, pear sherbet, and pistachio-purée vines. A dozen different components combined in new ways with each bite, the thrill crescendoing as I burrowed down through the boulders to the cocoa soil.
Given the attentiveness of the servers, the meal's many delays seemed to come from the kitchen. Since Crenn doesn't increase portion sizes for diners who pick the smaller, less expensive prix-fixe meal, those long intervals made hunger flare again. I'm no Falstaff, but my $130-a-person, four-course, two-and-a-half-hour meals both ended in a post-meal sandwich.
As he struggled to cut a slice of char off a mist-wrapped rock, one of my friends murmured, "I'm not sure if this place is a gallery or a restaurant." The same question weighed on me. A gallery — an atelier — is supposed to provoke, inspire, energize; a restaurant to welcome and restore. There are few chefs in the country composing dishes as lyrical and intellectually engaging as Dominique Crenn. But her restaurant doesn't serve dinner: It serves a performance. Is there a way for it to do both, I wonder?