Around 2 1/2 hours into dinner at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, I was presented a bowl filled with sticks, leaves and stones.
“Let me show you what’s edible,” the captain deadpanned. He’d already counseled me on eating a rhubarb-filled cocoa-butter nugget that bore an uncanny resemblance to a rock.
He pointed to a gumdrop-size bite of ice cream and had me use a twig as a skewer. I obeyed and cool eucalyptus filled my mouth.
These theatrics are the norm at Dominique Crenn’s avant-garde restaurant cum poet’s cafe. Diners opting for the long tasting receive, in lieu of a menu, an original poem by the chef, printed on good stationery, no less.
Each line of poetry corresponds with a course. So instead of “sea urchin torchon with caviar and yuzu,” we have, “Mellow serenades of colors licorice and orange.”
Some might deride this as a niche experience for a niche city, a strain of fussy French tweezer fare of the sort that may have led to Paul Liebrandt’s separation from Corton in Manhattan.
I’ll counter that Atelier is an exhilarating food lab where guests are rewarded with the seamless blend of sweet-savory fare that make Atera in New York or Alinea in Chicago such hits.
Take Crenn’s “Walk in the Forest” course. Roasted trumpet, oyster, chanterelle and maitake mushrooms are served standing up, funghi foot soldiers on china. The robust, salty flavors work by themselves, but Crenn tosses in a bit of hazelnut praline here, some burnt pine meringue there, and the result is a wild Willy Wonka ode to the woods.
Or consider the squab. It’s covered in raspberry leather. The gel helps tame the more liverish parts of the bird, while other bites betray a lingering beefiness worthy of dry-aged steak. It’s magnificent.
Dishes like this explain the French-born Crenn’s two Michelin stars. She’s also among the very few women in America overseeing a tasting-menu-only restaurant, a remarkable statistic in an era where long, set-menu dinners are increasingly at the highest levels of gastronomy.
None of this comes cheap. The tasting is $180 around 16 courses, more or less the going rate for a luxurious prix-fixe in Northern California. A shorter menu is $95.
My advice: Go long. Calamari strands, soft as the noodles in a bowl of Campbell’s, sit in a heady pool of Iberico consomme flecked with black truffles. Crenn isn’t the first to have squid mimic pasta in broth, but she might be the best at it.
Shima-aji, lightly cured, becomes a neutral whiteboard for cilantro snow, cilantro glass, micro cilantro and coconut pudding. If Crenn served this fragrant piscine plating for dessert, I doubt anyone would complain.
The cozy Marina District space, with its pastel walls, cushioned chairs and natural light, is a civilized place to spend an evening contemplating such creations, meant to be consumed with razor sharp Rieslings ($12) or taut Champagnes. Try the Chartogne-Taillet “Cuvee Ste. Anne” that sommelier Ian Burrows pours for $25.
Crenn, in white shirt, mauve apron and jeans, sets a relaxed tone in the dining room, chatting with just about every guest during a busy service and looking about as stressed as a cat napping. It’s contagious.
Soups appear three or more times, none of them simple. Clam chowder is a mix of sweetbreads, seaweed, shellfish broth, milk, razor clams, plankton gel, tomato foam and marrow.
Then comes onion soup, its sharp vegetable flavors softened by a milky comte flan. And finally a mound of buckwheat, quinoa and seeds as foil to a bonito dashi, with pearls of trout roe and sturgeon “Dippin’ Dots” floating about.
By this point, pastry man Juan Contreras has worked some of his magic on you already with that rhubarb stone -- a kir breton encased in white chocolate. So at dessert time Contreras takes things easy, with tubes of guava juice, a light sundae of hazelnut ice cream and petits fours.
You leave invigorated, ready to return. And assured that Crenn is a vital outlier in the male-dominant world of fine dining.
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: Menus at $95, $180; wine pairings at $150.
Sound Level: A bit shouty when full, in the 70s.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside Tip: Dietary restrictions are accommodated.
Special Feature: Supplemental cheese course for $25.
Back on my own dime? Can’t wait.
Atelier Crenn is at 3127 Fillmore St. Information: +1-415-440-0460; http://ateliercrenn.com.
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Eat, don’t talk.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com.)
Muse highlights include hot art and Zinta Lunborg on Linda Fairstein.