Atelier Crenn (San Francisco, CA)

Atelier Crenn
3127 Fillmore St
San Francisco, CA 94123
Dining date: 12/23/11

crenn window

Atelier Crenn opened almost one year ago, last January. It was a hotly anticipated opening and seems to have met the hype, regarded as one of the top restaurant openings of the year (and awarded a Michelin star). The chef is Dominique Crenn, a Morrocan-French chef who grew up in France but has spent much of her culinary career in California. Her experience primarily spans stints in San Francisco and Los Angeles, most recently at SF’s Luce, where she garnered a Michelin star (that they’ve since retained). She left Luce early last year to focus 100% on Atelier Crenn.

interior

I’ve been following Crenn for a little while now. One of my biggest dining regrets in 2010 was missing Crenn’s one night gig at Test Kitchen (there was a conflicting dinner), but I did get to eat some of her cooking at Luce a couple weeks later.

My parents dine out a fair amount and a previous visit to Atelier Crenn was one of their top SF meals of the year (for my dad, it was #1 while my mother really enjoyed Commonwealth). So, I came in with high expectations.

Two menu options were available: a 5-course menu with some options or an extended tasting menu for $135 (currently $160). We went with the latter.

menu

The meal started off with a trio of amuse bouche-like small bites.

The Cold pear custard, foie gras pearls, pistachio
NV Domaine Julien Fouet, Cremant de Loire, Rose

pear

The first dish was a light and cool pear custard with frozen foie gras pearls. So pretty. The foie pearls warmed in the mouth and became a creamy and rich complement to the sweet pear custard. Pistachios and some toasted bread added some welcome texture. A pretty nice starter, for sure.

The Smoke arctic char skin, salmon roe

arctic char skin

The second was a fried piece of arctic char skin. I’m not sure why I haven’t seen a standalone piece of fish skin before – delicate, crispy, fishy; it was quite tasty especially with the salty salmon roe. My mother and I were debating whether we were supposed to eat the greens – I ate it, finding it overpoweringly bitter. We later learned it was meant purely for garnish. Oops!

The Crisp yuba, daikon

yuba daikon2

Lastly was a fried piece of yuba with pickled daikon. I liked the crunchy yuba but found the daikon to be overly tart.

Kir Breton
The French 74

kir breton

french74

Next we had a sort of apertif – a play on a kir breton cocktail encapsulated in a delicate shell. Biting into it yielded a burst of apple flavor – refreshing and another great way to whet the appetite. Fun!

Another cocktail was the drink pairing here, essentially a take on a French 75 but without the hard alcohol.

Oysters “Japonaise” kushi oysters, sake, mirin, tapioca
2008 Domaine Vocoret et Fils, Chablis 1er Cru, Montmains

oyster

These were good oysters, complemented by some Japanese accents and some herbal notes too. I liked biting on the chewy tapioca with the tender oysters.

“Ocean and Land” american wagyu beef, smoked sturgeon, cornichon
2010 Christian Vergier, “Saint Lager,” Brouilly

steak tartare

The beef was good; I thought the addition of the smoked sturgeon balls (frozen via liquid nitrogen) really elevated the dish, adding a smoky, slightly fishy flavor. The slivers of cornichon added some acidity, while the cracker added the bulk of the texture.

Carrot, Aloe Vera, Quinoa

carrot sorbet

More of a palate cleanser than an actual course, but I really enjoyed this one. The carrot sorbet was vibrant and quite delicious. The aloe vera gelee by itself was slightly off-putting (a flavor I’m not used to), but actually helped balance the sweetness of the sorbet when eaten together.

Foie Gras, Nuances of Winter cocoa nib tuile
2009 Domaine Sylvain-Gaudron, Vouvray Demi-Sec
Strubbe’s Grand Cru, Flanders Red Ale

foie

The flavors here were very subtle; the textures were more interesting. The foie had a very light, almost snow-ish texture while the cocoa nib tuile (something from Crenn’s childhood) provided a delicate crunch.

Spot Prawns, Rouille, Hay
2008 Morey-Coffinet, Chassagne Montrachet, 1er Cru

prawns

I expected these hay-smoked spot prawns to be sweet and sort of spongy. The flavors were there (accented by a smoky, grassy flavor), but I found the flesh to be rather creamy and mushy. Hm.

A Walk in the Forest chanterelles, maitake, pine meringue, hazelnut
2009 Domaine Gris des Bauries, Cotes du Rhone Villages

forest

From what I’ve read, this has been one of the most raved about dishes, and for good reason. A myriad of mushrooms were carefully placed with a bruleed meringue and flowers resembling a forest landscape. While the plating was fun, the flavors were on point too with the earthy ‘shrooms and hazelnuts complimented well by the pine-scented sweetness of the meringue. I appreciated the varied textures and flavors of the different mushrooms too.

Rooibos Tea, Orange Granita

Rooibos Tea, Orange Granita

A large egg-shaped stone was plopped down on the table and opened to reveal a rather light and refreshing palate cleanser, with strong citrus flavor from the granita.

Mackerel, Verbena beets, radish
2009 Dr. Deinhard Halbtrocken, Riesling, Pfaltz

mackerel

This mackerel was seared rare; the richer, oily fish was complemented by the sweetness of the beets and textures of the radish. Overall though, I didn’t find it quite as exciting as some of the other plates.

Arctic Char “Basquaise” mussels, romesco
2008 Domaine Mucyn, Crozes-Hermitage, Syrah

arctic char

I thought this fish was cooked a nice medium rare. The dish had a fun flavor profile with the romesco, as well as added depth from the mussel jus foam. Pretty interesting. The lone mussel was tasty, though I’m not sure it totally fit in with the rest of the dish.

Guinea Hen “Thailandaise” coconut, cilantro, basil, bok choy
2010 Berroia Txakolina de Bizkaia, Basque

guinea hen2

I liked the concept of this dish but thought the guinea hen was overcooked – it was on the dry side. Still, the southeast Asian flavors came through, with balanced coconut and cilantro accompaniments.

Eucalyptus

eucalyptus tree

eucalyptus

Eucalpytus trees are found throughout San Francisco but I don’t think I’ve ever eaten it. Here, a little bit of eucalyptus ice cream (on a stick!) was presented under a small eucalyptus tree. How fitting. I liked the ice cream…not really woodsy at all, it actually had a bright, clean flavor.

Next, a siphon came out to create a beverage pairing with dessert. Cinnamon, vanilla bean, and star anise were infused with quince tea right at the table. Pretty cool!

siphon

Pear, Quince, Sage
Quince tea infused with cinnamon, vanilla bean, star anise

Pear, Quince, Sage

I thought this was a standout dish, both in presentation and flavor. What looked like a lone pear in a snowy landscape was actually a creamy pear sorbet with wonderful delicate textures from an herbal sort of crumble. The sweet sorbet was nicely balanced by the Greek yogurt snow. As good as it looked!

Lastly, we had a pretty robust selection of sweets.

Mignardises

mignardises

Atelier Crenn met my high expectations. I marveled at the creativity and personal touch/story in the menu, and this was some of the best plating I’ve ever seen. The menu showed a lot of restraint; flavors were at times subtle, but rather refined and always well-balanced. Execution-wise, I thought there were a couple of misses on the spot prawn and guinea hen, but outside of that I thought the plates were spot on. Plus, the meal showed a lot of technique throughout, working with varied textures and preparations. And seriously, that dessert was one of the most memorable plates all year. Service was very warm, attentive and accommodating. Overall, I’d say this was my best complete dining experience during my San Francisco trip and would not hesitate in returning.

 

Brunch @ M.B. Post (Manhattan Beach, CA)

Manhattan Beach Post (M.B. Post)
1142 Manhattan Ave
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
Dining date: 1/7/12

MB post signage

I visited M.B Post in May of last year and walked away both completely stuffed and impressed. Since then, chef/owner David LeFevre has racked up the accolades, being one of LA Times critic S. Irene Virbila’s best meals of 2011 and seemingly on everyone’s “best new restaurants” list for 2011. And, the restaurant’s bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits have become somewhat of an L.A. phenomenon, a must-order for sure.

I’ve wanted to return but scheduling and lack of proximity have kept me away. However, this past weekend the restaurant launched brunch service – a perfect reason to pay a visit.

MB post interior

The menu is fairly brief with a number of fresh baked breads/sweets, a few meat/potato side dishes and around nine more substantial composed plates. Similar to dinner service, the full wine/beer list is available as well as a selection of cocktails. Being a little under the weather, I passed on any alcohol but Wes did order this Asian-inspired mojito.

Mo-Pho-Jito mojito with starr rum, kaffir lime, mint, ginger, coriander honey

mo-pho-jito

Sticky Buns pecan and brown sugar

sticky bun

While pondering what to order, I saw one of these go to another table. I had to get one. Coming out on a still-hot cast iron skillet, it was quite the sight, especially with the rich sugary glaze dripping and pooling at the bottom. The dough was soft and pillowy, while the pecans added crunch to these sweet bites. Quite delish!

Benedict bacon cheddar biscuit, arugula, la quercia prosciutto, hollandaise

benedict

benedict2

The much-talked-about bacon cheddar biscuits were the base of this benedict. Slivers of proscuitto and arugula topped the biscuit, as well as a soft-poached egg and hollandaise sauce. I liked the combination of flavors, with the arugula standing up to the bacon and prosciutto, and the rich runny egg yolk adding a rich creaminess to the dish.

Nueske’s Bacon rosemary, brown sugar, chili

bacon

The brown sugar lended a maple-y sweetness to the bacon while some fresh rosemary brightened things up a bit. For me, not as memorable as the other plates we tried.

Weiser Farm Fingerling Potatoes lemon buttermilk ranch

fingerlings

Fingerling potatoes were prepared “French fry” style with fresh herbs and garlic. These were fried to a crisp, and I thought the herb flavor definitely came through (aided by herbs and garlic being fried in the oil with the potatoes, as well as a dash after cooking). It came with a zesty citrus dipping sauce.

Truffle Honey Laced Fried Chicken kohlrabi slaw

fried chicken truffle honey glaze

This all-white-meat serving was surprisingly moist and juicy. It was elevated by the honey glaze (reminded me of honey’s kettle) with a subtle truffle essence. The sweetness and the earthy truffle flavor were an ideal accompaniment to the crusty fried chicken. Nicely done.

Fritatta weiser farm potatoes, sprouting broccoli, white cheddar, piperade

frittata

A kitchen favorite; the scrambled egg, potatoes and cheese combined to make a very filling dish that would be great for absorbing all the alcohol from the night prior. Rich and hearty, the peppers and tomatoes of the piperade added a lot of the depth of flavor.

Similar to my previous visit, M.B. Post delivered with its version of elevated comfort food; it was one of the better brunches I’ve had in some time. While the food isn’t as refined as what he was doing at Water Grill, LeFevre’s cooking is now an entirely different beast showing a lot of thought and full of varied flavors; it’s both interesting yet comforting at the same time. This meal confirmed my belief that it’s one of the top restaurant openings in LA last year. Selfishly, I just wish it was closer to where I live/work, but I’m glad the South Bay has something like this. Judging by the crowds, I’m sure they’re glad too.

MB post exterior

New England Lobster (San Francisco, CA)

New England Lobster
170 Mitchell Ave
South San Francisco, CA 94080
Dining date: 12/28/11

truck

My dad is a big fan of seafood and will go to great lengths to find the good stuff, particularly if it’s crab or lobster. So, when he proposed driving down to South San Francisco for this ‘truck,’ I was intrigued. I’m pretty food truck fatigued, but figured this had to be something special if we were going to make a drive out here.

The New England Lobster trailer is only a couple months old, an extension of a large retail and wholesale seafood company (the largest lobster wholesaler in California). It’s parked right outside the company’s storefront, where they sell fresh lobster, crab and other seafood year-round. Direct from the source…perfect. It’s actually the place where my dad gets the lobsters for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and presumably this is how he stumbled upon the trailer.

menu

The menu is fairly brief…focused, I should say. They make only a few things and they make them well. The rolls are $10-$15.50 which is a bit more expensive than typical food truck fare, but hey, it’s fresh crab and lobster. They definitely have a competitive advantage in terms of their seafood pricing and it’s rather no-frills eating; you’re really getting a lot of value out of those dollars.

It was a little chilly out, so I started with a bowl of soup.

Lobster Corn Chowder Soup

lobster chowder2

Rather light and creamy, the soup had a nice sweetness both from the corn and lobster. It was kind of like a lobster bisque; there was definitely a lobster/shellfish stock base. I was a little fearful that the lobster would be overcooked in the hot soup, but my fears were assuaged as I bit into the plump and juicy pieces. Nice!

Lobster Roll

lobster roll

lobster roll2

Now, what we were most looking forward to. The roll was generously sized, about 8 inches long and packed with Maine lobster. The bread was toasted and soft, while the lobster was lightly dressed in what I think was just mayo, salt and pepper. Quite simple. The sweet lobster had the spongy, springy texture I was expecting and was quite tasty, especially with a splash of lemon.

Served with potato chips and coleslaw, but I didn’t think they were even necessary. Though, it’s hard to go wrong with some simple potato chips with a sandwich like this.

Crab Roll

crab roll

crab roll2

Similar to the lobster roll, this one was filled with a good amount of fresh crab. I don’t think it was dressed in anything. I personally prefer lobster over crab so I liked that one better, but this roll was equally well-executed. I think the potato chips were more important with this sandwich to add that crunchy texture, since crab just doesn’t have the springy bite that lobster does.

Given this was just after dinner at Saison the night before, I was ready for some sort of letdown but it wasn’t found here. The food exceeded my expectations and was quite good for any restaurant, let alone a trailer.  The seafood is, expectantly, very fresh and simply prepared; the quality of the seafood really came through. My only regret was not taking any fresh seafood home with me.

Right now, the trailer can only be found parked outside their marketplace. However, once the staff hits its stride, I suspect we may be seeing them soon in other locations on the peninsula and in San Francisco proper. In my opinion this would have to be a marquee option, especially when pitted against other mobile vendors.

Saison (San Francisco, CA)

Saison
2124 Folsom St
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dining date: 12/27/11 

saison signage

Saison may have been my most anticipated meal in San Francisco in 2011. Chef Josh Skenes (Chez TJ, Stonehill Tavern) is cooking very modern French-Californian cuisine using locally sourced (including foraged) ingredients centered around a dining room hearth. A lot of restaurants are doing the local and farm-to-table thing nowadays, but Skenes is bringing a deceptively simple, restrained yet very thoughtful, approach to his food.

hearth

Opened in 2009, it was a SF Chronicle best new restaurant in 2010 and exploded onto the national (international?) scene in 2011. This past year, Skenes and Saison achieved a seemingly endless list of accolades, perhaps none more noteworthy than 2 Michelin stars in the latest guide.

While I happily would have paid full price to dine here, I stumbled upon a LivingSocial deal at the end of October for the full tasting menu & wine pairing for $189 (valued at $246 then, $306 now). I’m typically averse to these Groupon-like deals given annoying restrictions or abbreviated menus, but this deal was for exactly the same menu with the only stated stipulation being that it had to be Tuesday-Thursday. So, I went for it and purchased two.

Unbeknownst to me until the day of (it was my fault for not mentioning the deal when making the reservation), only two tables are able to redeem the voucher per night (Tue-Thu). Given there is a 72-hour cancellation policy of $198pp, I was stuck. I understand it’s the restaurant’s prerogative on how the vouchers are redeemed, but I would’ve appreciated more disclosure on this (there was nothing on the LivingSocial website, the restaurant’s website, or even any mention when the restaurant called to confirm). I don’t know how many vouchers were sold, but allowing two tables per night for three days a week doesn’t sound like easy redemption. Given I don’t live in San Francisco, redemption of the voucher was not reasonably possible and I likely would not have purchased it in the first place. In the end, I was able to plead my case and have the paid value of my vouchers ($189 each) applied to the cost of the dinner, essentially making it a net-zero deal. Still, the damage was done.

Currently the menu lists 8 “courses,” but that’s more of a guideline – the actual number of courses tends to be in the low-teens. That menu is $198 (making this the most expensive restaurant in the city), but there’s also an option to dine on an extended menu at the chef’s counter for $498pp (all-inclusive). However, each seat in the main dining room includes a view of the open kitchen – a nice touch.

saison open kitchen

We started with a trio of egg dishes.

eggs
Domaine Carneros Brut 2007

eggs1

A hearth-roasted chicken gelee was topped with sea urchin, a delicious combination. A subtle but present woody, smoky flavor clearly came through too. Cool, refreshing and a perfect dish to get the appetite going. Quite nice.

eggs2

eggs2b

Next was this shooter of trout roe in tandem with a fried quail egg, mermaid’s hair seaweed, dehydrated shrimp and cornichons. Again, a smoky sea flavor came through in the roe shooter, while the bite provided additional depth of egg/sea flavor, with some texture from the dehydrated shrimp and dried seaweed.

eggs3

Lastly, we had a (large) bite of egg, both well-cooked and soft-cooked, accompanied by smoked creme fraiche, flowers, and greens. Subtle flavors, but a nice play on textures.

Next was the first “off-menu” course.

grilled oyster, cucumber, lemon verbena

oyster

Light and refreshing, it was a good oyster. The lemon verbena added a slight lemon flavor without the tartness or acid.

cru
Donnhoff Riesling, Nahe, Germany 2010 

cru

The first in a duo of dishes featuring bluefin tuna. The meat was pulled apart by an oyster shell, giving it an almost stringy feel to it. Japanese flavor profiles of soy and a rice vinegar added a lot of savory depth to the dish, while some of the tuna fat was roasted in the embers of the hearth, lending more richness. The rice cracker added some fun texture to the bites. A delicious dish.

cru2

The next dish had a lot of components: artichoke, tomato, capers, seaweed vinegar and fried bluefin head. I thought the bluefin got lost in the mix, and also found the dish to be heavy-handed with the salt.

At the conclusion of the course, we received the first bread – kalamata olive bread baked fresh in the hearth (and served piping hot!). Loved that there was fresh bread…it was pretty tasty. Served with a creamy house-churned butter with gray salt.

olive bread

butter

brassicas brassicas, grains, quail egg
Sandhi Chardonnay, Santa Barbara 2010

brassicas

I thought this was another outstanding dish – a play on different textures, greens and grains. I liked the balance of various hearth-tinged vegetables and grains, while a warm dashi broth and quail egg brought everything together.

crustacean lobster tail, meyer lemon creme, compressed aromatics, prawn roe salt
Marisa Cuomo Ravello, Campania, Italy 2009

crustacean

prawn salt

A small piece of lobster floated in a delicious, herbal broth. Some meyer lemon creme added citrus flavor, as well as a little more body to the soup. Deep, savory flavors. The prawn roe salt was fun too.

liver foie gras toffee, milk foam, pomelo
Reutberger Dunkel, Germany

liver

This was an interesting dish, a mad scientist’s experiment creating a creamy foie gras with a clear toffee flavor. Was it sweet? Savory? How about both – and it really worked well.

The second bread out of the oven was this milk bread, also served hot. Definitely less flavorful than the olive bread, it was really light and kind of airy.

milk bread

wood pigeon thirty-eight day aged squab, persimmon, tangerine, pomegranate, huckleberry, chili, olives
Selvapiana Chianti Classico, Italy 2009

38 day aged squab

I was highly anticipating this piece of dry-aged squab; for sure something unique for me. Very chewy, sort of stringy but definitely full of the characteristic squab flavor. Pretty interesting. I’m not sure I preferred it to fresh squab, but I’m glad I tried it. Some fresh winter fruits added sweetness to counter the rich meat, while some chili and olives added extra heat and salty tones, respectively.

Next up was the cheese course.

sheep’s milk cheese, almond croquant, brioche, honeycomb

cheese

The cheese was warm, mild and creamy, filling the brioche…basically like a cheese puff. I liked the use of honey with both the honeycomb and honey-glazed brioche.

preserved lemon 1:27 preserved lemon, chrysanthemum
Domaine d’Orfeuilles Vouvray, Loire, France 2009

preserved lemon

The lemon in this dish was preserved for 11 months; clean flavors and quite refreshingly sweet, I especially appreciated the balance of the chrysanthemum foam.

nawlins chicory ice cream, dehydrated milk foam, new orleans style coffee, beignet
Badia di Morrona Vin Santo 2006

nawlins2

nawlins

beignets

I liked the coffee and chicory flavors at play in this dessert, as well as the texture particularly from the crispy dehydrated milk foam. The deep, bitter coffee flavor was countered by the sweetness in the dessert, while a beignet was a nice touch to complete the dish.

roasted green tea & popcorn ice cream

popcorn ice cream

Reminiscent of Urasawa, here a cup of roasted green tea. Apparently, Skenes likes to end his meals on this tea too. Also, we were served a simple scoop of ice cream. As advertised, it truly tasted like popcorn. Fun!

Lastly, a couple of sweets to end the meal.

blood orange petit four

blood orange

Saison was an excellent meal and one of my strongest of 2011. The food was both creative and interesting and, most importantly, was quite delicious. Skenes is working with, for the most part, familiar flavors and ingredients but creating unique and sometimes unexpected combinations. It’s pretty easy for me to say I preferred the food here to other SF 2-stars Benu and Coi and it impressed me enough that I’d be interested in returning for the chef’s counter.

It’s just unfortunate that the LivingSocial deal detracted so much from the overall experience (just the opposite of its intention); I regret buying it. It kind of spoiled an otherwise great dining experience.

saison exterior

Hong Kong Lounge II (San Francisco, CA)

Hong Kong Lounge II
3300 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94118
Dining date: 12/24/11

HK Lounge exterior

Hong Kong Lounge (formerly Hong Kong Flower Lounge) has been a popular dim sum option in San Francisco for decades. I haven’t been there in a long time (maybe over a decade), but it’s a consistently popular place capturing much of the Richmond district dim sum market. Just earlier this month, they opened up an offshoot a few blocks from my parents house where the old Straits Cafe used to be. It was time for a return.

After a breakfast of porchetta from the Roli Roti truck and a cheeseburger from 4505 Meats at the Ferry Building Farmers Market, I awoke from a long nap hungry for something  a bit lighter. Some steamed dumplings sounded like just what the doctor ordered.

There are no carts here; everything is ordered off the menu upfront. It was just me and my dad for lunch and we ordered many of our standbys.

Shrimp Dumpling

ha gow

The skin was a bit thicker and denser than what I was anticipating, but the shrimp was plump and juicy. I prefer a thinner skin, but these were good dumplings.

Siu Mai

siu mai

In my first bite I thought to myself “these are really tender and moist.” My second thought was the realization that there was a high level of fat content, much more than I usually see. I didn’t really like this – I wanted more meat. Also, there was hardly any shrimp.

Juicy Pork Dumpling

XLBs

A little doughy but I appreciated the fact that these were quite soupy. Presentation-wise not so hot, but the porky flavor was right on.

Baked Pork Bun

pork buns

pork bun

These were interesting. I usually see the crispy stuff on the top on sweet buns filled with a cream or custard or something. Here I thought it added a nice textural element to the BBQ pork and onion filling. Not too shabby.

Shrimp Noodle

shrimp rice roll

Similar to the ha gow, the noodle was good…but a little thick and dense. The shrimp pieces were pretty large and cooked well.

Fried Pork Dumpling

salty pork dumplings

This wasn’t as flavorful as other examples I’ve had. It needed more pork filling; the glutinous skin dominated in both texture and flavor.

Fried Chicken Wings

chicken wings

These were quite good, juicy with a crispy skin. The chilies and scallions added much of the complementary flavor.

It’s been too long since I’ve been to the original so I can’t compare them, but this was pretty close to my expectations. The dim sum was good, but nothing was particularly noteworthy in the world of dim sum. All of this food was thirty dollars after tax, so I thought the price was pretty good. I suspect if my parents ate dim sum on any regular basis, this could be the spot for them out of sheer convenience. However, I’m sure they would agree with this assertion – Koi Palace is worth the drive.