Saturday 26 October 2013

4 Michelin Stars in 3 Days in San Francisco- Awestruck at Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore St  
San Francisco
CA 94123
+1 415-440-0460

Tastiness Factor: 10/10 (as close to perfection as I have ever experienced!)
Atmosphere: 5/5
Service: 5/5
Locavore Approved? YES- Although Dominique Crenn's menu is inspired by her childhood in far-away France, her ingredients are sourced right next door.  It is amazing that Chef Crenn is able to change her menu at such regular intervals to keep up with the seasonal shifts in produce availability.  I cannot imagine the amount of time that she must spend creating dishes that not only enlighten the palate but also appeal to all of the senses.  Crenn not only achieves outstanding flavours with the local bounty of the surrounding Bay area, but also makes each plate a piece of art that ties in nature elements of the season.  She certainly does Mother Nature proud!

I first met Chef Crenn in August of this year at the First Harvest Dinner on Lummi Island at the Willow's Inn (see my post here), where she and five other chefs prepared an unforgettable meal.  At the dinner, we had the opportunity to meet Chef Crenn in person when she personally served us the many of the dishes that she created for the evening.  Her passion for local ingredients and nature was front and centre in all of her dishes, both through taste and presentation and I left with a yearning to learn more about Chef Crenn's unique style of cuisine.
And, fortunately, I had my chance this past Thanksgiving Day long weekend when Hubby and I did our epic "4 Michelin Stars in 3 Days" trip to San Francisco (see other posts from the weekend here).  And, and much as I enjoyed Chef Crenn's dishes at the First Harvest Dinner, I discovered that she is truly in her element in her own kitchen where her culinary and artistic talent are sure to exceed one's highest expectations.

Atelier Crenn is located in the Marina district of San Francisco, known for its chic shops and its its vibrant night life.  The storefront of Atelier Crenn is quite inconspicuous, with a small sign tucked in beside the door.  The room is quite casual with earthy colours and minimalistic decor.  I felt as though I had walked right into Crenn's own home, which was not far off considering that the restaurant is named after her father (Atelier "Papa" Crenn) and the walls are decorated with his artwork.  I felt that the space had a very calming and earnest quality that I liked very much.

Service here was nothing short of perfection.  It had the perfect balance of professional and approachable.  Both our server and the sommelier were wonderful in terms of their knowledge of the food and drink, as their ability to connect with us on a personal level.  I owe a special thank you to the sommelier kindly went to the back where she was working on her new menu to tell her that we had met her on Lummi Island a few weeks earlier.  To my great excitement, Chef Crenn left her work to come say hello to us at our table.  This made the night extra special and is something I will never forget.
Chef Crenn offers both a 5-course tasting menu and a 12+ course "Chef's Grand Tasting Menu"during the weekdays but on weekends, only the latter is available.  No matter what night you visit, I highly recommend that you spurge on the Grand Tasting Menu as you are guaranteed to be taken on the culinary adventure of a lifetime.  They are very accommodating dietary restrictions and they kindly designed me a pescatarian menu upon my request.  The menu here tends to be more fish and veg-focused than meat-heavy, so there were only a few substitutions required Based on previous reviews, this meal can last for 3.5-4 hours, but for us, who made the latest possible reservation of the evening (9:30pm), the pace of the meal was a bit quicker at about 2.5 hours. 

The menu is unique in that it does not actually name any of the dishes that you will be treated to.  Instead, it is a poem written by Chef Crenn, with each line dedicated to a course on the menu.  Although it would be near impossible to guess the dish based on the line of the poem, it was very fun to  go back to the poem after eating the dish to interpret Chef Crenn's message.

Wine pairings are available with both tasting menus.  Although we were tempted, we decided instead to  do a couple half bottles of wine.  The sommelier was very helpful in guiding us through the wine list based on our likes and dislikes.  We started with a lovely glass of sparkling wine, also suggested by the very engaging and knowledgeable sommelier. 

Although I usually provide a brief description of dishes in my blog posts, I feel as though do not feel as though I could do Chef Crenn's dishes justice in retrospect.  Her dishes are very complex with many components that would be impossible to accurately remember, especially in the absence of a printed menu.  Instead, I will post my pictures from the evening to give you a little glimpse of Crenn's artistry, imagination and attention to detail.  As for the flavours, I can honestly say that I could not find fault with any of the amazing dishes that we were served that evening.  Although we naturally liked some dishes more than others, there were no "misses", with the dishes being either good, great, amazing or "insanely awesome".  

Let the procession begin:

As you can see, Chef Crenn is both a chef and an artist.  She takes fresh, local ingredients, mixes in a bit of molecular gastronomy, diverse cooking techniques, amazing flavour, a ton of imagination and beautiful artistry to create delicious dishes that are both playful and beautiful.  And, at this moment in my life, I can confidently give it the designation of my "best meal EVER".

Thank you, Chef Crenn and her team for such an unbelievable dining experience.  It was nothing short of perfect.

Atelier Crenn on Urbanspoon

Monday 21 October 2013

4 Michelin Stars in 3 Days in San Francisco- Starting With a Bang at Aziza

5800 Geary Blvd  
San Francisco, CA 94121, 
+1 415-752-2222

Tastiness Factor: 9/10 (11/10 for the flatbread!)

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 4/5

Locavore Approved? YES- Although it may not be as apparent during the actual dining experience (they do not make a big deal of it during service), a quick glance at their website will make you realize that Chef Mourad Lahlou and his team are hard-core locavores.  A whole section of their website is devoted to describing i detail where their ingredients come from, by including not only the name of the farm but also the name of the farmer, the distance of the farm from San Francisco and the specific products that were purchased at that farm.  I applaud the folks at Aziza for giving credit where credit is due and rightfully including farmers as members of the production team!

Aziza was the first place I booked for our Michelin star-packed weekend in San Francisco over the Thanksgiving Day log weekend.  I have always had a fascination with Moroccan food and its amazing flavours but have not eaten a whole lot of it (Morocco is on the bucket list!).  Aziza is the only Michelin star restaurant to feature Moroccan food, so there was no way that I was leaving San Francisco without trying it!

Although this should not be a deterrent to checking it out, Aziza is located quite far outside the downtown area and will take a bit of a trek to get to.  It is located in the Little Russia district, and as you approach Aziza you will note several Russian restaurants and bakeries on the way.  Aziza has quite a large lit-up sign on their storefront, making them easy to locate at night.  Inside, there is certainly a Moroccan flavour to the decor without being too cheesy or over the top.  The space is quite a bit larger than it appears from the outside, with a snazzy bar set up at the front, a large main room, and then a few smaller rooms in the back where we were seated.  The division of the space into separate rooms provided a more intimate dining experience than one may have experienced in one large room.

I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the service.  At the outset, it took quite a while to get our cocktails.  Having said that, they brought us a nice glass of sparkling wine on the house to enjoy as we waited which definitely put them back in my good books from that respect. The rest of the service was efficient was seamless.  The only general comment I have is I found the service rather cold.  I felt almost intimidated by our server, making me a bit reluctant to ask questions about the restaurant or the food.  I am not sure if this was just a one-off experience or the norm but I would have appreciated a bit more personality and interaction.

Fortunately, as far as the food is concerned, there is no shortage of personality!  Because our other restaurant pics for the weekend both had "mandatory" tasting menus, we decided to go "a la carte" here at Aziza so that we would not go into a tasting menu food coma by the end of the weekend. Here were our choices for the evening:

Cocktails are a major focus at Aziza and are a must-try.  The head of the bar program, Farnoush Deylamian, has compiled quite a list of unique creations which he cleverly organizes into categories according to type of alcohol (gin, whisky, brandy, etc.).  The cocktails contained an impressive assortment of fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits, most of which were locally sourced.  I am a big fan of more savoury cocktails so I chose a drink with thyme, cardamom and gin that was very clean and fresh.  This is a feel-good cocktail if there is such a thing!  Hubby chose a whisky-based drink with concord grape (a new favourite fall flavour of his), elderflower, peas smoke, and scotch. Even if you have no idea what some of those flavours are, take Hubby's word for it- it tasted amazing!

Now, on to the food.  We were quite impressed by the generous portion size for this type of restaurant.  Although there are Moroccan elements incorporated into most of the dishes, there was less of an emphasis on Moroccan flavours than I had anticipated.  Having said that, Chef Lahlou certainly has a way with flavours and was able to really elevate the locally-sourced produce without hiding their deliciousness.  Here is what we were treated to on our visit:

Flatbreads and Spreads- Do not even think about stepping foot in Aziza and not ordering this.  I am forever grateful to all of the blog posts and restaurant reviews of Aziza that I have read beforehand because, had it not been for the rave reviews of this appetizer, I would likely skipped right over this on the menu.  I cannot even bear to think about what a shame this would have been, as these flatbreads may have been one of the best things I have ever ate.  

This sharing plate seems to have a permanent place not he menu but the spreads change regularly.  On the night that we visited, we were treated to a combo of tomato jam (my personal favourite, loved the zing from the lemon rind!), yogurt bottarga and piquillo-almond (Hubby loved the combo these latter two).  The spreads were served with the most delicious flatbread I have ever had- chewy of the inside, beautiful grill marks on the outside and a touch of salt to finish it off.  This dish was so good that, instead of ordering dessert, we asked for a second order of flatbread so that we could scoop up our remaining spreads.  All I can say is "WOW"!

Tomato Salad- I have developed a new-found respect for this amazing summer vegetable after tasty so many delicious varieties from our local Farmer's Market over the past month so I was very excited to see it featured on the menu.  What I loved the most about this salad was the simplicity.  The perfectly sweet tomatoes made up most of the dish and they were pretty much left alone.  Why mess with such a superb product?  All of the other elements on the dish, including melon, harissa, green beans and harissa, added extra flavour and textural elements without overshadowing the tomatoes.  I was impressed by how a dish could so simple, yet so refined.

Chicken wings- As soon as Hubby saw the menu, his eyes were drawn to this appetizer.  What man does not like a good plate of chicken wings?  Chef Lahlou took this classic American dish and kicked it up a notch with Moroccan flavours (nigella seed, cashew, yogurt).  The skin was perfectly crispy an the meat was moist, as every good chicken wing should be.  As with the flatbreads, this also seems to  be a mainstay on the menu based on previous reviews which is not a surprise considering how much Hubby enjoyed it!

Market Fish- Although it was tough to forgo the black cod on the menu, I am aways drawn to the market fish which is usually the freshest and most local bet in terms of seafood.  On our visit, it was a rainbow trout from Northern California, which was cooked to perfection, crispy skin and all!  It was served with fried rutabaga, salty green olives and beans.  Just a word of caution- the red charmoula sauce sitting underneath the fish was ultra-spicy so if you are not into heat (which I fortunately am!), this may not be your thing.  Overall, a lovely dish.

Cornish Hen- This was hubby's entree choice.  He expected it to come as a full bird, but instead, there were little "medallions" of hen on the bottom with a pate of sorts stacked on top.  Scattered around the little "towers" were a variety of mixed mushrooms and frisee for a dash of colour.  Our server poured a lemon-chili broth over the dish tableside which was a nice touch, and added nice flavour to the dish.    

All in all, we had a terrific first night in San Francisco at Aziza.  The dishes were all very well-executed (we will be raving about the flatbread for years to come!), and our meal from the a-la-carte menu was very reasonably priced as compared to other Michelin star restaurants.  I must applaud the chef and his team for their dedication to supporting local farmers, thereby treating his customers to the best possible ingredients.  

We look forward to a return visit to Aziza on a future San Francisco weekend to try his highly acclaimed tasting menu, so stay tuned!

Aziza on Urbanspoon

Thursday 3 October 2013

Local Vendors Strut Their Stuff at the Hawker's Market

I have been wanting to get to the Hawker's Market now since its inaugural market back in March.  So it was with great anticipation that I headed down to the East Van Studios on East Cordova with two friends to find out what this event is all about.  

The Hawker's Market is an initiative to support local food producers and give them a venue within which to promote their products.  There were a few vendors that I recognized from their multiple appearances at the weekend Vancouver Farmer's Market (Nice Pops, Aussie Pie Guys) but many vendors were small "Ma and Pa" businesses that I had not come across before.  

The East Van Studios where it takes place is fairly "cozy" so expect to be elbow to elbow with your fellow Marketers as you meander around the crowded room and make the tough decision about what you sample.  The youngish crowd all carrying around their drinks, the frequent bumping of elbows and the high decibel level made the event seem more like a night at the club than a market!  Quite unique to say the least, and not exactly what I had expected.

Myself and my two friends had not had dinner before going (I highly recommend you not!) so we got to sample from almost all of the vendors.  A few words of advice- PRE-PURCHASE YOUR TICKETS as the event sold out at this latest market early on the day of the event so those who showed up at the door looking to get in were turned away.  You will also save a few bucks by purchasing online ($11.59 vs. $15).  Secondly, ARRIVE EARLY, as some vendors had already run out of some/all of their products by the time we arrived at 8:45 (the event starts at 7pm).  Lastly, DO NOT EAT DINNER BEFOREHAND as there are lots of tasting things that you will want to try so you want to arrive hungry!

Here are some of the highlights from our evening at the 4th ever Hawker's Market on September 28, 2013:

The Endless Meal- This Underground Supper Club, with roots in Gastown, was serving up tender braised short ribs in a chocolate-stout sauce (great flavour combo!), mashed potatoes (unfortunately they had ran out by the time we got to the front of the line) and a refreshing pear and pumpkin seed coleslaw.  Find out more about what they offer on their very pretty website (click here).

Wonton Girl- These friendly folks were serving up a great bargain, offering 5 wontons plus a very delicious broccoli and cauliflower salad for only $5.  We especially enjoyed the vegetarian wontons (sweet potato, mushroom).  Click here to see their website, where there is info on how to order some of these little gems, and also about their home catering services.

Yayas Kitchen- The nice ladies at this stand were offering South Asian food, mostly Pakistani, just like Grandma would make it (Yaya is a name of endearment for a Greek grandma).  The portions that they were serving would also make grandma proud (what a great deal!) and you were guaranteed to be greeted by a smile:)

Chouchou crepes- This lovely french lady (love her sign!) was singlehandedly tossing sweet and savoury crepes out of her truck to the long line up of hungry marketers.  We chose the Juliette, a sweet crepe with apple compote, ricotta and salted caramel.  Although it was a bit messy to share, it was pretty decadent!  Find Chouchou on Twitter (@chouchou crepes) to locate her find out where she is hanging out when you have a crepe craving!

Nice Pops- I absolutely LOVE the Nice Pops ladies and always look forward to chatting with them at the Mount Pleasant Vancouver Farmer's Market on Sundays.  They are the sweetest!  And their pops are equally awesome!  They put together unbelievable flavour combinations, including the cucumber rosermary and plum ginger pops that we enjoyed at the Hawker's Market.  Find out what their weekly flavours are (they change all the time based on what is locally available) and where you can find them here.  They are almost closed for the year so you better hurry!

Happily Stuffed- The name pretty much tells the tale.  The cookies here are available in neat flavours (chocolate chipotle bacon, how cool!) and inside, you will find a hidden surprise (nutella stuffed inside a cookie just has to be yummy!).  Their other claim to fame is that they are gluten-free!  They are on Facebook (Happily Stuffed Baking Co.), where you will find pics that will make you drool!

Ramen Burgers- Last but not least, I must make mention of the infamous Ramen Burger, that had a long line-up of marketers running through the middle of the market all night long.  We did not try one ourselves so I cannot comment on how they tasted, but putting a burger on a bun made of deep-fried ramen is certainly a unique concept!  With all the hype around this burger, I would not be surprised to see it reappear at the next market!

If you are interested in coming out to show your support for these hard-working small business owners (a very noble cause!), the next Hawker's Market will be taking place on November 9th and tickets will soon be available for purchase on their website (see here).

Endless Meal Supper Club on Urbanspoon

Chou Chou Crepes on Urbanspoon

Nice Pops on Urbanspoon