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Petit Crenn Brings French Cooking Down to Earth

At her second restaurant, Dominique Crenn mines her native Brittany for gastronomic gold.

Roasted trout with cider sabayon.

 

If you want to know the difference between Dominique Crenn’s first restaurant, the two-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn, and her new Hayes Valley project, Petit Crenn, I’ll describe it in a nutshell—or, better yet, a half shell. When I had oysters at the former a few years back, they appeared as an elaborate set piece: grilled a la plancha, then laid on volcanic rocks atop a dry ice–filled terrarium that a server carried to the table like a longshoreman lugging a crate, his back arched from the burden. At Petit Crenn, raw miyagis arrived at my table performance-ready—spritzed with the juice of a charred lemon and capped with shimmering smoked-tomato gelée—but these oysters had been stripped of their stage props, their backdrop nothing more than a white plate strewn with seaweed. Minimalism to the max. And there you have it, embodied in a bivalve: evidence of a refined chef loosening her apron—or, more specifically, of a Frenchwoman reaching toward her Brittany roots.

The result—smart, charming, and carefully conceived right down to its currents of orchestrated chaos—is a stunner. Occupying the former home of Bar Jules, it’s situated in a neighborhood that, as much as any in the city, seems outright giddy from the latest gold rush. The same energy that bubbles in the nearby beer halls (and the dungaree retailers and the churn-to-order ice cream shops) percolates in Petit Crenn. Its atmosphere is a little bit French country and a lot contemporary chic: A pair of chalkboard menus bookend a curved bar that wraps an open kitchen in its casual embrace; white ceramic installations inscribed with whimsical French phrases (“De temps en temps”; “C’est moi, cherie”) hang on the pure white walls over wooden banquettes softened by linen throw pillows; globe lights dangle from thick, knotted ropes. The kitchen staff, who double as servers, sport aprons with the blue-and-white-striped Breton pattern that Coco Chanel made voguish a century ago. Crenn wears Breton stripes as well, but she has taken off her toque (former Atelier Crenn sous chef Aaron Thayer wears it now) and taken up a post at the front of the house. On my visits, she greeted guests with a firm handshake and a “Hi, I’m Dominique”—an aptly personal touch at a restaurant that draws on Crenn’s grandmother’s recipes and is meant to strike the mood of a festive sit-down at a friend’s home.

I wish I had more friends who cooked like this. In a refreshing break from today’s inhale-a-whole-pig fashion, Petit Crenn builds its menu around vegetable and fish dishes compiled into a $72 five-course prix fixe. But the restaurant does adopt one conceit of contemporary dining: two nightly seatings, at 6 and 8:30, for which tables are held in advance with a credit card. (Walk-ins may order à la carte at the bar.)

Citrus mousse.

To call the food an homage to French home cooking is another way of saying that it comes off as worldly without trying too hard. As good as I imagine Grand-mère’s gougères to have been, Crenn has improved on them, tweaking tradition by piping the cheese puffs full of creamy sheep’s milk cheese in a tangy retort to the pickled shallots that garnish them. Pop one in your mouth, and you’re ready for another. But the kitchen moves on quickly to those miyagis, their brininess infused with a hint of wood fire from their gelée overlay. Smoked tomato on the water—you could write a song. Given the way things work at Atelier Crenn, where I once had a dish called A Walk in the Forest that featured mushrooms standing in edible “soil,” you might expect the snails at this offshoot to show up scattered about a twee “garden.” But here’s how it goes with the escargots: The kitchen bathes them in mushroom broth, along with chanterelles (their textural twin), then ladles the medley into potbellied porcelain soup bowls, supplementing each with a buttery herbed-buckwheat wafer that melts eagerly into the mix. It’s a terrific dish, and its welcome mingling of earth and turf makes it even more grounded than an ersatz garden.

Each course comes to you courtesy of multitasking staffers who rotate from the kitchen to the floor and back, carrying out their duties in a cheerful frenzy. Given that you signed up for this informal dinner party, you’re likely to forgive its imprecisions. When I visited, a waiter–line cook bungled the tableside deboning of a whole roasted trout stuffed with dill and lemon and blanketed in foamy cider sabayon. The fish itself was all that I could have asked for—moist and sweet, perfumed with herbs, and kissed by the acid of the citrus and the cider—but I would have enjoyed it more without the spindles of its spine stuck in my teeth.

No such problems afflict the side dishes, a lush cauliflower gratin with smoked breadcrumbs, and grilled cabbage with charred leeks. And no complaints about the salad that follows, a jumble of Little Gem lettuce, torn croutons, and poached heirloom tomatoes tossed in a bright and bracing anchovy-caper vinaigrette.

Like the wine list, which is rich in burgundies, rosés, and champagne, that post-entrée salad is very French, as is a bright dessert of orange–and–Meyer lemon mousse cupped within the hollowed peel of a whole orange. But the clearest Gallic accents come from Crenn herself, an energetic presence who spends the evening flitting from table to table and sharing memories of favorite madeleine moments. “This is the food of my mother and my grandmother,” she says. Her imported syntax is authentic and endearing—much like her latest restaurant.

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Petit Crenn

Prix fixe menu (per person).............................. $72
Miyagi oysters with smoked-tomato gelée
Escargots, mushroom broth, and chanterelles
Grilled cauliflower gratin
Cabbage, charred leeks, and crisp shallots
Fire-roasted trout with cider sabayon
Little Gem salad with anchovy-caper vinaigrette
Cheese
Citrus mousse

Provence rosé................................................. $11
Grand Mouton muscadet.................................$13
Total................................................................ $96

Petit Crenn
609 Hayes St. (near La Guna St.), 415-864-1744
Three stars

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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