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UPDATED: Petit Crenn: Little Brittany 

Wednesday, Sep 16 2015
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This story has been updated to reflect a few corrections, the most salient of which is that Petit Crenn does in fact offer a wine pairing.

I've never had the opportunity to eat at Atelier Crenn, Dominique Crenn's temple of impeccability in the Marina, where the peapods emerge from the kitchen looking like the seashell in Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. But now that Crenn has taken over the Hayes Valley space that used to belong to Bar Jules, the renowned chef and her deux étoiles Michelins have figured out a (slightly) more populist approach to the highest echelon of dining.

If you're looking for lots of foams and deconstructed salads served with vials of blue-green algae, or poetic menu descriptions that read like Cirque du Soleil liner notes, be advised that Petit Crenn is not a molecular gastronomy kind of place. (There was but one foam.) Here, the prix fixe dinner is $72 per person, with wine by the glass or bottle, or paired for $48 or $60 person. And the meal is one big ode to Brittany — Crenn's birthplace, where the climate is more Point Reyes than Côte d'Azur — so the ingredients are rustic, mostly uprooted from the earth or pulled from under the whitecaps. What's on the board is what you eat, but diners can choose from some optional chef's specials, including blackberry pink peppercorn soda ($9), an abalone with carrot and a beurre noisette ($24), and a $5 charge to add sea urchin espuma to the omelette.

I'm always surprised to see brazen upsells like that at restaurants like this. Putting filthy lucre front and center feels out of place, but the love of food triumphed over the love of money right away. Dinner opened with two little off-menu bites, a gougères made with sheep's milk cheese, and a French omelet made with fresh herbs that was presented as eight thin layers of egg in an oval, like the lanes of a racetrack. It's the show-off equivalent of a flexed and oiled bicep, no doubt, but a beautiful bit of foreplay.

Things plunged into the ocean with Pacific Gold oyster with pousse pied (a goose barnacle, two species of which are found on the French Atlantic coast and here in California) and a magnificent tomato gelée. While translucent and subtle, it catalyzed all the brininess out of the oyster. Then it was back to the land, to an escargot-mushroom broth with chanterelles that came with a dim-sum-like pancake and purslane-like baby greens. The broth, as earthy and opaque as the preceding tomato gelée was clear, tasted nourishing, like it could ward off the common cold (and maybe a genetically engineered flu virus, too).

More vegetables followed, starting with potatoes and charred leeks. There are all kinds of ways to make taters do crazy stuff, from parboiling before sautéing, to investing in expensive kitchen equipment, but Petit Crenn's fingerlings were boiled and roasted before getting shocked with vinaigrette. Grilled Brussels sprouts with crispy shallots and an espelette dressing came next, and even though this was hardly the main event, it embodied the spirit of the kitchen's approach. However humble and approachable those two veggies are, I couldn't help but be struck by the synthesis of color and flavor. I've never had shallots quite like those pebbly little crumbs, a warm orange hue that popped against the sprouts' deep green.

Then it was time for the only vertebrate of the night, a whole rainbow trout with cider sabayon (in other words, a zabaione). Not content with a mere whipped custard, Petit Crenn went all the way to foam. I'm not a big foam fan, because they look like jetsam on the high tide line, but this one made me laugh because the fish was wrapped in it the way someone might conceal her boobs while taking a bubble bath. The trout was flavorful; I went right for the head and collar; we left it looking like Sylvester from Looney Tunes had picked it clean.

A little gem salad with heirloom tomatoes and an anchovy caper vinaigrette followed, and in spite of containing the two most intense-tasting things there are, it could have used more anchovy and more caper. But dessert came through. A mini cheese course included a funky cow's milk cheese whose rind is brushed with walnut liquer, and the Valencia orange mousse was a frozen orange that had been decapitated, hollowed out, and filled with zest-flecked cream. What a stunner that was. Strictly speaking, petit fours were the final flourish, but I couldn't get the orange out of my mind, so I have no recollection of what they were.

While the $72 price tag is reasonable for seven stated courses plus whatever little bites find their way to your table, the gratuity-included policy (which Atelier Crenn switched to earlier this year) sweetens things further. And when the check appears, it comes in a coiled napkin ring on an abalone shell.

Compared to Salsipuedes, where I ate one thing after another and still managed to be out the door in under 75 minutes, Petit Crenn operates at a glacial pace. There is an eros to this restaurant, and the attitude that diners should be allowed to linger is almost jarring. What really threw me off was when Crenn herself suddenly materialized at the table. She was being filmed by a professional camera crew, and it took me a second to realize she was making chitchat for the B-roll and hadn't recognized this locally quasi-prominent nobody (whew). But when she asked how everything was, we made eye contact for a second as I replied that it was wonderful, and I have no doubt that she was genuinely touched.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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