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At Her New Bar, Dominique Crenn Doubles Down on French Classics—and Butter

A French master pays tribute to the French masters.

SLIDESHOW 

Bar Crenn’s version of a classic pâté en croûte.

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The dining room resembles an eclectic living room.

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Bone marrow custard, smoked crème fraîche, and caviar, served in eggshells.

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It was late afternoon in the Marina, not midnight in Paris, but you’ll pardon my confusion. Cool jazz was playing. Fine cutlery was clinking. And I was camped in a leather club chair, bathed in chandelier light and sipping sancerre under the enigmatic gaze of the ’30s style icon Madame Wellington Koo, whose enlarged visage looked out from a mural on the wall.

My own gaze toggled between Madame Koo and a serving of quenelles Lyonnaise—airy seafood dumplings in a dark lobster-and-crayfish sauce with enough butter in it to slow the Seine. The quenelles were a recipe from Alain Ducasse, the famed French chef who, for all his acclaim, is probably not as much a household name around these parts as the chef who put the item on the menu. That chef is Dominique Crenn, the French-born, San Francisco–based celebrity toque known for wedding classic technique with West Coast whimsy.

Her re-creation of Ducasse’s dish came my way at Bar Crenn, which is not to be mistaken for the bistro-style Petit Crenn, in Hayes Valley, or for Atelier Crenn, the two-Michelin-star art project with which this bar-restaurant shares a courtyard. It is closer to being a missing link between the two. At once a casual bar and a refined restaurant, it has a dining room designed to resemble an eclectic living room, with flea-market-chic chairs and couches arranged around lounge tables and an antique shop’s worth of vintage goblets and plates. Crenn has said she thinks of this new location as an extension of her home. If it really is, then her home must be a very pretty and expensive place indeed—one filled with many things I’d be afraid of breaking as well as lots of rich, delicious stuff to eat.

Rich deliciousness is what many of us associate with classic French cuisine, which is what Crenn is out to conjure here. So where Crenn’s flagship restaurant aims to reimagine cuisine as a kind of free-form poetry, Bar Crenn’s kitchen repertoire revolves largely around tribute dishes: a short list of greatest hits from Gallic giants of gastronomy. Included in the lineup are cromesquis—or croquettes fried in pork fat—as conceived by the vaunted French-Pakistani chef Sylvestre Wahid, whose take on the dish consists of golden spheres with a molten inner medley of ham, artichoke, black truffles, and Comté cheese. You risk scalding your mouth if you eat them quickly, but odds are you’ll eat them quickly anyway. Also on the menu are iced poached oysters à la Guy Savoy, whose trick with the shellfish is to cold-shock them to firm up their flesh, set them back in shells lined with Meyer lemon cream and a gelée of their own liquor, then overlay each of the bivalves with a single spinach leaf. The result is sweet and briny, lush and bracing. A case could be made that oysters are best when you simply shuck and slurp them. But if you put that case before a panel of judges, my guess is that Savoy’s argument would win.

There are two ways to order your dinner: à la carte or as an $85, three-course prix fixe. There are also two ways to get a seat: by buying a ticket online or walking in. You’re taking a chance with the second option. This is not the sort of bar you drop by just anytime. On my first visit, out of luck with reservations, I showed up at 4:30, when the place opens, a very un-French hour for a tasting menu that began with a palate-teasing gift from the kitchen presented on a très chic silver tray with built-in silver eggcups. In each cup was an eggshell containing bone marrow custard, smoked crème fraîche, and a crowning dollop of sturgeon caviar. Spooning through these creamy, salty, smoky strata was an indulgent act of excavation.

Next came a delicate crab-and-avocado salad bejeweled with borage flowers, bits of grapefruit, and toasted marcona almonds. Less dainty was the salmon mousseline that followed, the fish baked in a soufflé-like cod-and-egg-white encasement and flanked by a miniature puff pastry and a bright-red orb of tomato confit for a little levity amid the richness. The French chef Marc Haeberlin dreamed up this dish, and credit to him, though a quibbler might suggest that the butter sauce poured tableside verges on overkill.

This is white-tablecloth cuisine presented in a stylized setting that favors fashion over function, requiring servers to sidestep couches while stooping awkwardly to coffee table height. On one visit, I watched an older couple with bemused expressions settle slowly into their low, soft seats, then struggle to get upright into dining position. Across the room, an ample-bellied gentleman was squeezed into a club chair like a sumo wrestler on a Southwest Airlines flight.

The bar itself is more pragmatic, though it, too, is plenty stylish, with a white marble top and fur-draped stools. This was where I perched late one afternoon, tipping back a pamplemousse negroni and tucking into another Ducasse recipe: tarte flambée, or blistered flatbread streaked with lardons, Comté cheese, alliums, and fromage blanc. It was so good I thought of ordering another, but I saw many enticing reasons to move on.

Though the tasting menu is available at the bar as well, I prefer Bar Crenn as a place to pick and choose, sipping and nibbling in the festive spirit of a cocktail party. One must-try is a contribution from yet another Michelin-starred chef, Arnaud Lallement, whose interpretation of potée de cochon features fork-tender pigskin-wrapped pork shoulder in smoky bouillon broth that wows with every spoonful. Another I’d go back for is not a tribute dish but a Crenn signature: a bread course of brioche that all but oozes butter yet is offered with whipped beef fat, you know, just in case.

That the brioche could almost double as dessert didn’t stop me from tacking on a tarte tatin. Picture what apple pie might be if it had a lot more character and caramelization. I should have stopped there, but, swept up in the atmosphere—and maybe by the negroni—I made my one mistake and got the mignardises, bite-size chocolate-and-hazelnut confections whose $6 price tag snapped me from my reverie by striking me as stingy. Je ne sais pas comment le dire en français, but those itty-bitty chocolates should have just come with the bill.


The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Bar Crenn

Tart eflambée . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $17
Cromesquis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $7.50
Two iced poached oysters . . . . . . . . . . . . $10
Brioche et beurres . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $10
Quenelles Lyonnaise . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $29
Potée de cochon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$19
Tarte tatin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $12
Pamplemousse negroni . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $14
Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $118.50

Bar Crenn
3131 Fillmore St. (At Pixley St.), 415-440-0460
3 Stars

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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