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The Art of the Meal

At In Situ, Corey Lee stages a rotating exhibit of dishes that’s as (intentionally) derivative as it is divine.

SLIDESHOW

A spread at In Situ.

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In Situ’s dining room.

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Carrots with sour curd.

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One recent early evening at the reborn San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I gazed down at what might have been a Pollock, if the painter’s medium had been lemon zabaglione. A bright yellow ker-splat of the zesty citrus custard streaked the white plate; a scoop of lemongrass gelato sat at its center, sheltered by a shattered pastry crust.

Like many modern pieces, this one had a distinctive title—Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart—but the work itself was not an original. It was, rather, a replica of a dessert that first appeared four years ago at Osteria Francescana, a famed modernist den in Modena, Italy. 

I don’t know all this just because I’m a food nerd. I read it on the menu at In Situ, the intentionally derivative but delightfully distinctive restaurant that Corey Lee opened this June on SFMOMA’s ground floor.

As the three-Michelin-star chef behind Benu, Lee is someone others in the industry want to emulate. But with this, his third San Francisco project—he also runs the French bistro Monsieur Benjamin—he has turned to a first-of-its-kind concept devoted exclusively to re-creating dishes from culinary innovators near and far. The result, overseen by executive chef Brandon Rodgers, is a global exhibition of faithful reproductions ranging from a copy of the spicy pork-sausage-and-rice-cake combo served by David Chang at New York’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar to the Forest, a whimsical diorama first dreamed up by Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur in France. This walk in the woods features sunchoke peel as a stand-in for dried leaves; quinoa risotto plays the “forest” floor.

Cooking this eclectic risks becoming disjointed. But In Situ proves it’s a risk worth taking. Yes, there’s something jarring in the leap from the Cal-French comforts of Thomas Keller’s roasted duck with green lentils to the five-alarm guinea-fowl-and-raw-vegetable larp chiang mai that David Thompson stokes at Nahm Bangkok in Thailand. But, you know: first-world problems. What’s more important is that almost everything on the menu is linked thematically by the fact that it tastes very good. 

Lee’s gallery, so to speak, is a hardwood-and-concrete space sleek enough to pass as a wing of the museum but chic enough to stand on its own. Its floor plan is split in two, lounge in front, dining room in back, each with its own menu. In the former, all seven savory items are described as “snacks,” a term that understates their sophistication. Take the caramelized-carrot soup credited to Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft exec turned Modernist Cuisine maestro. Cupped in a round glass, capped with coconut foam, and dusted ruddy with chaat masala, it got me thinking, with its exotically autumnal flavors, about what Thanksgiving might taste like in Mumbai. 

In Situ is like that. It roves around the map. And its dining room menu doubles as an atlas of sorts: Printed like a museum brochure, it contains footnotes for each dish. On my maiden voyage, my first stop was for shrimp grits (Wylie Dufresne, WD-50, New York, 2013), a boldly briny dish that has no grits, only an approximation achieved by cooking ground shrimp with dried corn until its texture mimics creamy cornmeal.

From there, I ducked beneath the waves with Octopus and the Coral, a dish whose latter namesake was represented by squid ink crackers and dehydrated egg white crisps. They were tangled with braised tentacles, tender and bolstered by a hot pepper sauce laced with coriander and lime. They say that octopuses are smart; I’d like to see one match creative wits with Virgilio Martinez, the chef who came up with this stunner at Central, his restaurant in Lima, Peru. 

In Situ could easily be pretentious or pedantic. It isn’t. Yes, I may have winced while skimming the chef quotes on the menu, among them an eye roller from Noma chef René Redzepi about looking toward the landscape to rediscover history and shape the world to come. But once I’d tasted an homage to his wood sorrel granita with sheep’s milk yogurt, a dessert as bright and bracing as a walk on a wintry Nordic shore, I decided that Redzepi had earned the right to blather.

Not every reproduction is a masterpiece. In the lounge, I had buttermilk fried chicken nuggets (Isaac McHale, the Clove Club, London, 2008). Sprinkled with pine salt and presented in a nest of pinecones and pine needles, they still tasted very much like chicken nuggets. And in the dining room, the $38 bowl of udon soup with slivers of miso-marinated wagyu beef (Hisato Nakahigashi, Miyamasou, Kyoto, 2015) was more notable for price than flavor.

My other issue is with the restaurant’s glaring gender bias. On my first visit, only one of the 24 dishes served in the lounge and dining room represented the work of a female chef. The menus do rotate, and feature names like Alice Waters and Tanya Holland. But less than 14 percent of the chefs whose work In Situ will feature are women. It’s a huge blind spot. It’s also emblematic of the swinging-dick swagger of most restaurant kitchens, to say nothing of a broader culture that treats chefs as “artists” of such import that they get prime billing in an art museum.

But I digress.

And I’d be lying if I said that any of this troubled me as I ate that smashed lemon tart, which wasn’t a Pollock but a Massimo Bottura—a man regarded as one of Italy’s most innovative chefs. Like the original, it was framed by pointillistic dots: mint oil, chili oil, candied bergamot, salt caper. “I like the way the caper works with the citrus,” I almost said to my dining companion before I stopped myself. There’s a time for fancy food talk. There’s also a time to just shut up and eat.

 

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at In Situ
Shrimp grits...............................................................$16
Octopus and the Coral..............................................$28
Liberty duck breast....................................................$24
Spicy pork sausage and rice cakes...........................$22
Guinea fowl larp chiang mai......................................$24
Wood sorrel granita with sheep’s milk yogurt............$16
Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart...............................$16
Total........................................................................$146


In Situ
151 3rd St. (near Natoma St.), 415-941-6050
3 ½ stars

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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