Atelier Crenn is a restaurant that only appeared on my radar last October. While on the train headed to downtown Vancouver, I happened to read an article about the recently released 2013 Michelin guide for San Francisco. In it, Atelier Crenn was awarded two stars (a promotion from one star it received the year earlier); this making Dominique Crenn the first female chef in North America to achieve this honour. So keeping with the string of Michelin starred restaurants headed by female chefs we enjoyed visiting in 2012 (Arzak and Sant Pau being the other two) and knowing of C’s interest in supporting strong women, I immediately made a reservation without thinking twice.
Two menus are served at Atelier Crenn, a shorter five course option and a substantially longer Chef’s Grand Tasting menu, which during our visit comprised of 15 courses. C and I went with the latter to experience the full line-up of Chef Crenn’s work, and what a line-up it was.
Throughout the dinner, I was constantly amazed at how thoroughly I was delighted by each course. From the amuse to the petite fours, my palate was tingling with excitement from the various flavour and textural combinations that were being deftly churned out by the kitchen. And surprisingly as the meal progressed, I was not overcome with that oh too common sluggish/tiring feeling one usually experiences once their personal food consumption limit is reached. A testament I credit to the meticulously portioned courses and pacing of the meal.
The courses that really stood out included: the hamachi, the oyster, the French onion soup and the mackerel. Served right after the amuse and in succession of one another, this opening quartet set the stage for the rest of the night.
The hamachi, which was topped with beads of caviar and served with a celery sorbet, was finished off table side with a pouring of beet root juice. Visually, the pink hue, bright green and scarlet red, made for a stunning composition of colours. Taste wise the course was a successful blend of sea and land flavours (a trait shared by many of Chef Crenn’s creations). It was luscious from the hamachi, refreshingly cool from the celery sorbet and earthly sweet from the beet root juice. And after finishing my last spoonful, I knew immediately that we would be in for a great night.
Next, we had oyster that was poached in its own liquid and served with wheat grass juice; an ingredient which usually turns people off due to its strong aggressive flavour. However in this setting, it did not overpower the oyster at all. The tartness of the wheat grass actually worked well with the subtle sweetness and briny flavour from the oyster, forming a delicately balanced course.
If there ever was a dish that speaks to the soulfulness in Chef Crenn’s cooking, then it would have to be her take on French onion soup. Eaten with a cheese cracker and dumpling, the full bodied aromatic onion broth was fuel for my soul, and with one sip instantly filled me with comfort and happiness.
The last of the quartet, was the mackerel served on a jasmine and seaweed cracker with grilled mackerel skin and onion. Eating the dish with your hands, the cracker acted as an edible base and added a crunchy texture to contrast the soft mackerel. The grilled skin imparted a smoky flavour and together with the acidity from the onion, paired well with the natural oiliness of the mackerel.
Showcasing a more imaginative side, two of the more unique dishes that evening which come to mind are, for a lack of better words, “Cereal for Adults” and a course called a “Walk in the Forest”.
The “Cereal for Adults” was a mixture of grains and seeds, smoked sturgeon roe, smoked trout roe and botarga shavings. It was finished off with a pouring of an umami packed dashi broth. As it was being presented, we were told that the term “Cereal for Adults” was coined by a previous guest of the restaurant. And after having this course, I would have to agree whole heartedly with this terminology. The devilish interplay of crunchy to popping textures from the seeds, grains and roe was sensational, and when eaten with the dashi broth, added a dimension of richness to each mouthful. However, my favourite part of the dish, and why I would call it a “Cereal for Adults”, would have to be the unexpected gingery smoky after-taste that lingered in my mouth well after the last drop of dashi broth was finished. I relate it to the prickling heat sensation imparted after having a puff or two on a smoking pipe, but rather than filling the pipe with actual tobacco, katsuobushi shavings would have been used instead.
The “Walk in the Forest” is the epitome of what Chef Crenn calls Poetic Culinaria – the idea of making food not just a meal but also as a representation of edible art. Here, using the plate as a blank canvas, it is painted over with burnt meringue, powdered basil, edible flowers and a mixture of mushrooms each prepared differently (from pickled to dehydrated). The result, a delicious trail that brings you through sharp valleys of sourness, mellow mounds of sweetness, earthy chunks of meatiness and a variety of textural terrains.
While the dessert courses were created by Pastry Chef Juan Contreras, it was hard to notice any personality and style disconnections with the preceding savoury offerings. It started off with a series of smaller bites: a palate cleansing yuzu infused sugar cane stick and a cooling eucalyptus and menthol ice pop.
And culminated with a cinnamon aroma, butternut squash tea infused with herbs, spiced brioche toast, pumpkin seeds and ice cream – a dessert which embodied the festive holiday season nicely.
Not to be out done by the food, the wine chosen by sommelier Ian Burrows was exceptional as well. The 1992 Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Riesling had a unique quality to it. Not dry but not sweet; the flavour reminded me of early morning dew with hints of mushroom. This was a perfect match to suit both C and my own personal white wine tastes, and at the same time, provided a strong compliment to the nature inspired courses.
As for the service and front of the house staff, they were attentive and gracious all evening; none more so than Chef Crenn herself who would dip in and out of the dining room every now and then to chat with the guests. And having had the opportunity to speak with her in greater length after the meal, gave me a greater understanding of her as a person and how it correlates to her vision and cooking style.
Though a restaurant first and formost, Atelier Crenn should be considered more than that. It is a place where Chef Crenn’s personality shines not only in the food but also in the smallest of details, such as how the menus are written out in the form of a poem rather than in the traditional way. This is where her soulfulness is most infectious and spreads throughout the back and front of the house teams, making the environment feel more like her home and an extension of her family. In addition, it is where Chef Crenn continuously tinkers to evolve her work, which in her mind can always be improved on. And on that December evening, Atelier Crenn was the setting to as close to an enchantingly perfect experience as I have had in a while.
To view pictures of our meal in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading,
S & C