San Francisco's farm-to-table revolution

Terrific, freshly harvested ingredients have been the trademark of Bay Area restaurants for decades. Now there’s another delicious revolution
Amy Machnak

It’s with Crenn’s study on alliums that my belief in this blended, and balanced, style of cooking deepens. For this third course, a dozen varieties of the bulbous plant arrive in different forms: a shallot marmalade, a grilled baby leek, a thin dehydrated “onion ring,” and a tiny bud of garlic scape (the flower). I finish my last bite of this extravagant ode to an ordinary vegetable and think, Who would have imagined serving an entire dish of just onions?

Then comes “Walk through the Forest,” a stunning play on what might grow on the forest floor. On my visit, the course has a pine-scented meringue with four mushroom varieties prepared differently: grilled, sautéed, puréed, and dehydrated into dust, with hazelnut crumbs that look like soil. Many of Crenn’s ingredients are sourced from Jacobsen Orchards in the Napa Valley town of Yountville, and in her hands they become an edible fantasia—magical and feminine.

Can a restaurant go too far? Sure, when the finished dish looks like a science project. This is, after all, San Francisco, and we still want to eat real food. But the next time I’m at the farmers’ market, I’ll be looking at the organic carrots and wondering what’s possible.

6 CHEFS YOU SHOULD KNOW

These Northern California chefs are masters of the farm-to-foam style. Menus are rare—and even if there is one, descriptions can be vague and dishes may not look the same between visits. Dietary requests can’t always be accommodated (so call ahead).

James Syhabout, Commis (Oakland). A delicious demonstration of both technique and subtlety. Soft-set circulator egg yolk floats in a sweet onion “soup” with smoked dates. The eight-course menu, with exceptional wine pairings, is a bargain at $120. commisrestaurant.com

Daniel Patterson, Coi (San Francisco). A 12- to 14-course meal made from foraged and farm ingredients that are prepared with jaw-dropping skill by a leader of the modernist style. The regular menu is $165, the vegetarian $145. coirestaurant.com

Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn (San Francisco). Whimsical courses inter­spersed with one-bite treats, like an eggshell-thin sphere of white chocolate filled with cider and crème de cassis and set on a miniature pedestal. The 12- to 14-course menu is written like a poem and is $160 before wine. ateliercrenn.com

Jason Fox, Commonwealth (San Francisco). Herbs, flowers, and sprouts picked from the restaurant’s roof become garnishes for bacon gelée, microwaved but amazingly tender cakes, and ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen. From each six-course $65 tasting menu, $10 is donated to a local food-based charity. commonwealthsf.com

Joshua Skenes, Saison (San Francisco). Courses come from both the kitchen and the wood-burning hearth. Vegetables from the wild or Skenes’s garden are sliced just before plating to ensure the freshest flavor. Expect to pay $198 to $498 for 16 to 22 courses, with weekend seatings and a place at the Chef’s Counter at the upper end of that range. saisonsf.com

Christopher Kostow, the Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena). A nine-course edible waltz with notes like sweet peas, flowers, and greens so tiny that they’re handled with tweezers—all picked each morning from the on-site half-acre garden—along with an occasional dusting of vinaigrette “snow.” The price at this three-Michelin-star restaurant starts at $225. Wine pairing? Another $225. The Chef’s Counter is more. therestaurantatmeadowood.com

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