[Pigging by Wilfrid: April 10, 2017]
Petit Crenn had been on my San Francisco list for the better part of a year--when I've been in town during large-scale conferences, it's been an impossible reservation--and I've heard nothing but consistently good things about it.
Boulevard has been around for more than twenty years, but it wasn't on my radar, and I was strong-armed in for a spontaneous dinner by the howling wind and driving rain. Guess which I liked best?
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Petit Crenn is the casual offering from Dominique Crenn, whose career in high end San Francisco kitchens winds back through Campton Place to Stars in the early '90s. At her flagship, Atelier Crenn, dinner with optional wine pairings starts at $485 per person, so Petit Crenn is not only small in size but modest in its demands on a diner's dollars: $87 for food, $65 for the sommelier's choice of wines (there's an extended $200 tasting available as well).
It almost seems like a fish out of water. I arrived by BART, which means a traipse through the surprisingly unattractive cluster of theaters just beyond the Civic Center, from which you emerge onto the main strip of a neighborhood called Hayes Valley. It's upmarket with a vengeance: pretty low rise buildings housing fancy boutiques and countless bustling, popular restaurants. It reminded me not so much of Brooklyn as the nice end of Oxford Street in Sydney.
Petit Crenn, is one of many shopfront eating places, but unlike its neighbors, it's very brightly lit, much more sparsely seated, and meditatively calm. I almost wanted to go to one of the livelier places nearby.
There are a few tables, with strangely sculpted white plastic chairs. As a solo, I was seated at the chef's counter and greeted with a slice of sweet, crisp-crusted brioche. I was glad it was a cool evening, as the heat from the stoves was borderline oppressive.
I drank Domaine Desire, a pink Jura sparkler, through the first few courses, switching to a Dureuil-Janthial Chardonnay with the fish.
The style of cuisine here was very well-captured by Bill Addison at Eater, just a couple of days ago. One might carp at the label he uses--"New Romanticism"--but it is indeed a movement: "(L)ayered but not towering, polychromatic, and, ingredient-wise, often as rich in flora as it is in fauna. Dishes are rendered as pretty, geometric, often artistically chaotic landscapes."
Things started well: the salmon with dill was the winner of the fish bites: the tuna was bland. Really outstanding were the warm gougères, pumped with silky, aerated Gruyère.
The brigade behind the counter was small: there were three cooks, bristling with efficiency, tasting and seasoning, and snapping out "Oui chef" to every instruction. A small brigade, but straight out of Escoffier.
The saffron-scented bouillabaisse was tasty, but betrayed the cost-control necessary to meet the menu's reasonable price. One mussel (and mussels are not expensive) flanked by a few small clams. To add ballast, a hefty slice of toasted country bread played the role of crouton.
Thickly spread with a potato-based aïoli, this would have been good for dipping, except it was almost larger than the bowl.
There was a lag between courses, and I watched the tasting and seasoning and tasting and seasoning, and then...
...what I had anticipated from the menu as the next three courses were all served at once. Not just to me: the couple next to me received the same service. So: pasta, fish, and a vegetable dish, and why not put them all on one plate if we're expected to eat them simultanenously?
I didn't really think the gnocchi and turbot went together, so I moved the fish aside and ate the gnocchi first.
À la Parisienne, apparently, and quite nice, with a little toasty crust to them, and plenty of mushrooms. I finished the plate, the pulled the turbot towards me, and here's where the evening crashed. Petit Crenn is a vegetable and seafood restaurant--no meat is served--so the turbot unavoidably presents itself as the star of the show. And it looked very prettyunder its "charred" lemon beurre blanc.
Unfortunately, it was inedibly salty. Just a salt bomb. And as I probed a little further, the edge of the filet turned out to be just about raw and gelatinous. Not feasible. I turned to the roasted cauliflower, just pulled from the oven, and found that beneath the dusting of almonds and herbs, it was just undercooked, crunchy cauliflower. And rather a lot of it. Roast cauliflower, of course, can be terrific. This wasn't.
I did explain to my server why I wasn't eating the turbot, and she offered to have the kitchen make me another. I declined: we were a long way into the meal, the next course was being put together, and as I watched a line cook tasting and seasoning and tasting and seasoning--seasoning portion of gnocchi no less than five times (I counted)--I decided to put it down to experience.
Up next, and all by itself, either the salad or the cheese depending how you look at it. A tangle of crunchy, halthy things, anyway, with shaved Comté, dressed with a slightly aggressive vinaigrette. A slice of chilled ganache arrived after, but didn't get photographed.
The check would have been around $150--service is included--but I see I was comped a glass of the Jura--whether or not for the returned turbot I don't know. Others have done much better here.
Nancy Oakes has been cooking in San Francisco almost as long as Dominique Crenn, but almost entirely, it seems, at the one place, Boulevard, which she co-owns and which opened in 1993. I must have walked by it in the past, but took it for a cheap and cheerful bistro and bar, and never considered it for dinner. But the night after I dined at Petit Crenn, rain was sweeping the Embarcadero, chill winds were whipping down Mission and Market, and I decided not to walk up to Chinatown after all.
I had a drink or two at Harrington's. Pondered Tadich Grill and Schroeder's, both nearby. Decided to give this Boulevard place, within sight of my hotel room, a chance. Was blown in through the revolving door, and my goodness: it's huge, it's lusciously decorated, it's swarmed with uniformed servers, and absolutely packed. I was inserted at the chef's counter, and after I looked at the menu prices and realized this was much more than a cheap and cheerful bistro, I had a good time.
The complimentary squash and goat cheese was pleasant, but didn't really spark up the tastebuds as an amuse should.
It was the second night running I watched a well-drilled brigade at work (minus the "Oui chef") and it was a real pleasure. There were six or seven cooks, working flat out, under great pressure at times, but still smiling. A diverse team, a multi-lingual team, but clearly a team. Not only were the orders flying in; the plates here have many components, artfully arranged, and require great coordination to arrive at the pass properly composed.
And the style could hardly be more different from Addison's New Romanticism. To be honest, the look of the food does kind of say "1993." On the other hand, it's really good to eat (and should be, with starters in the upper teens and twenties, and mains ranging from $32 to $51).
It was a night for the pea soup, but I put that urge aside and ordered chilled Dungeness crab. It came partnered by some blood tangerine wedges and their sauce, thinly sliced tiny radishes, all kinds of edible leaves and flowers. But what was the yellow layer beneath the crab?
It had the texture of mashed fruit, but it wasn't overly sweet and it went well with the crab meat (there was a claw hidden in there too). It was familar, but...no, I had to ask. Quince. What an unusual use of quince, and successful too.
I liked the look of some big scallops exiting the kitchen, but decided to console myself for the previous night's turbot with some line-caught Petrale sole. It may not be evident from the photos, but portions are big here. Two thick filets of sole, topped with not one but two mussels, stuffed with a crab remoulade before being deep fried. Hearty asparagus supporting the display, some lusty olive oil-smashed Yukon gold potatoes, and a Meyer lemon-egg emulsion.
A lot happening, then. But every element was well-executed, and they all pulled together. This is good, old-fashioned, restaurant cooking, and very satisfying. So satisfying I couldn't fit in a dessert, but did manage a glass of Calvados.
With just a couple of glasses of wine and service, around $130. In the same ball park as Petit Crenn. To my surprise, much better.