Friday, January 6, 2012

ATELIER CRENN: An Evening of Art and Alchemy

Opening Notes, Foie & Pumpkin caviar...

Some people are born possessed of a boundless desire to make beautiful things and to share that beauty with the world around them.  It is how they communicate.  I have always identified myself as an artist.  When I was younger I envisioned my future self living in a dark and barren garret, filling canvas after canvas with mood, beauty and emotions — my world view would be realized in oil paint.  I imagined I would sell these paintings to earn my way in the world.  I took every class offered in high school and applied to be accepted at what was then the California College of Arts & Crafts.  For a young painter, it seemed the Julliard of its time.  Though I was accepted, I never made it to art school.  When it came time to put down the deposit, my father casually informed me that he could no longer afford it.  He’d paid an overdue bar tab with the monies in a trust account reserved for my tuition.  Visions of my garret faded as life took me on another journey.

Crackling fish skin
and bits of caviar
Although my imagined successes in art school failed to materialize, the need to express myself artistically never diminished.   I continued to interpret life via my muse, and the mission to create  tangible beauty fueled many youthful decisions. It shaped who I became.  Born with an artist’s brain, I struggled with math, yet could focus for hours on a pencil sketch in an attempt to capture the shadowed minutia of a human hand; the gentle slope at the nape of a neck.  A free-spirited child of the seventies, the only college classes I never missed were art-related.

A tiny bubble of chocolate,
more fragile than an eggshell,
meant to be lifted to the mouth
where it exploded in a burst
of liquid ambrosia
spilling across the palate
Once I started working there was less time for painting, but I always managed to find some outlet, eventually becoming a professional designer of theatrical costume.  Manipulating the fluid and dramatic lines of fabrics and millinery to enhance an actor’s performance on the stage was a rewarding pursuit indeed.  There were moments of personal and professional triumph that will last me a lifetime.  Before retiring several years ago, I was fortunate to find myself mentoring the next generation of talented young designers.  Watching these gifted young women flourish as they expressed themselves in the creation of beauty was inspirational.  We experimented together.  We shared successes and failures.  We grew.  We spoke the language of art, and it was good.

Unable to live a life absent some artistic endeavor, I now use language.  My labor of love is to craft a sentence precisely, to capture the essence of the emotional flavor of everything I experience,  and to share that joy with others.  There is no success greater than having made the effort.  No matter the medium, the process of translating life to art has always felt familiar, coming to me as naturally as I breathe.  I am connected to it, and it to me.

The infamous Foie Gras Log.  Nuff said
When I stepped into Atelier Crenn in San Francisco for a holiday meal with my visiting daughter, the Wandering Lawyer,  I was flooded with a palpable sense of connection to Chef Dominique Crenn's sensibilities.  It was clear we shared a kindred spirit.   Atelier is French for “workshop,” but I believe its usage in this context more closely resembles what we would term an “art studio”.  Her father was an artist, his Atelier Papa Crenn providing the inspiration for the name of her own establishment, which is decorated throughout its minimalist interior with an artist’s eye for detail.  The furnishings are precise, there is no doubt that a great deal of thought went into its layout. Sprinkled with sleek, amber tables whose wood glows beside soft green walls, the back wall is glass and provides a view into the kitchen, where Chef Crenn can be seen darting about, working her magic.  Occasionally one can hear a vibrant voice shout something in French.  The frenetic activity behind the glass is mesmerizing.    The restaurant manages to be clean and modern without being cold or dispassionate.  One wall is lined with elaborate lamps, sconce-less crystal spirals in appearance more fuse than lightbulb—  they are intriguingly beautiful.  There are personal touches— a small oil painting of a sailboat that hung on the wall just by our table.  Signed only “D. Crenn, 1973.”
Magic Mushrooms.  Flavors varied from woodsy
to something perhaps reminiscent of marshmallow
then to an herbal acidity... mind-boggling
in its complexity

I recognized something of myself in that simple little painting.  I have small canvases tucked away in corners of my home, recalling a time when I sat in my mother’s house and created for creation’s sake.  It is easy to imagine a young Dominique standing at an easel in her father’s atelier, painting to pass the time, sharing a passion with a parent.  My mother was a painter.  That’s how it starts.  If one is inclined, any exposure to art leads to that self-awareness: the knowledge that this is what one was born to do.  Starting a fire that burns for a lifetime.  I smiled in the realization that she’d been born to it, too.

The Alchemy Machine
prepares a warm concoction
of cinnamon and citrus
That Chef Crenn’s world view is that of an artist is unmistakable in everything she does. Throughout our meal we were presented with one remarkably expressive dish after another, each stunningly beautiful.  It was December, so her visuals on this visit recreated a lengthy foray into a dark and wint’ry forest.  My palate was tantalized as the various combinations of flavor danced on my tongue, daring me to experience them, to give myself over and succumb entirely.  Often these flavors seemed to me to defy any single identity of taste.  A plate of mushrooms, tasted at one moment of umami and earth; the next bite of the same dish gently sweet and effervescent.  It was a little like listening to a carefully orchestrated piece of music, the melody pleasing to all but each of us hearing a slightly different song.  Sirens performing variations on a forest.

Chef Crenn succeeds on a grand scale.  The thoughtfulness in her dishes dares her diners to travel down that forest road beside her.  I could hear the wind in the trees.  I felt the roar of a campfire.  I experienced this meal with a sense of wonder, at her almost alchemic skill with ingredients.  Maybe her mushrooms were, indeed, magic.

Re-purposed Pear... in appearance a faux fruit,
in taste a heavenly ice cream
in a bed of powdery goodness
Her website says it beautifully: “Atelier Crenn, a painting.  An empty white canvas.  With tools... a brush, paint and a vision, creativity is given its breath.  Here from this place, the artist can suggest emotions.  A lasting moment from childhood... little drawers of heartbeats.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Go.  Treat yourself to an experience that will last a lifetime.  For myself, I can’t wait to see where she’ll take her diners in the Spring.  A budding garden?  The French countryside?  Wherever it will be, it will be an adventure not to be missed.

Atelier Crenn - Poetic Culinaria
3127 Fillmore
San Francisco, CA

Note: Parking is non-existent, so the restaurant shares valet services with the Balboa Café at Filbert and Fillmore for $16.

Service: Excellent
Noise level: Perfect for conversation
Price: $125/pp for pris fixe - excluding wine