In the years since opening the doors to Atelier Crenn in 2011, chef Dominique Crenn has steadily produced some of America’s most inventive dishes, racking up two Michelin stars, and developing a unique style of storytelling along the way. She also opened Petit Crenn, took a turn on Chef’s Table, and has plans in the works for a new wine bar, opening in September.
The menu itself is a poem written by Crenn, who created the restaurant as a tribute to her father— each course corresponds (albeit loosely) with a line from the poem, offering diners tastes of caviar, abalone, and other modernist interpretations of California’s bounty.
The chef is now extending the natural evolution of things to the newly remodeled dining room, which she says she wants to feel like her home. And since buying majority control of her restaurant from investors last year, Crenn and partner/pastry chef Juan Contreras are ready to make some changes.
Adding to the intricate fabric of Crenn’s inspirations, the new Atelier Crenn officially debuted on April 18, what would have been Crenn’s father’s 93rd birthday. The date is an emotional one for the chef, who says that her flagship restaurant is an homage of her father’s philosophy, and the lessons he taught her.
“It's a story of my life but also my team's life,” said Crenn. “To create a decor, it's not about spending a million dollars, but its about doing things with purpose. The table, the chair... when you walk in, we want you to be connected with people.”
The Dining Room
Crenn’s desire to have guests feel like real visitors to her home was one of the primary forces behind the remodel, which changed the room from a beige, nondescript dining area into a more intimate environment. It’s not quite like entering Crenn’s home (one assumes), but it is at once warmer and moodier, an intersection of the chef’s interior environs and her team’s modernist approach to cooking.
That change from a house to a home includes the addition of a foyer, so guests aren’t immediately thrust into a quiet dining room. Crenn also took out a banquette, and changed all seating to Shelton Mindel side chairs (a very comfortable, very expensive option) and Goby tables made of black walnut from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Area rugs are scattered throughout the room, while artwork from Crenn’s father is displayed on the walls at random, unframed and revealing the canvas with a small “A. Crenn” and year in the bottom right of each. (The restaurant’s name is derived from the nickname given her father’s art studio, which the family dubbed “Atelier Papa Crenn.”)
Dining implements also received an upgrade, with Futagami cutlery from Japan, chosen for the particularly smooth texture of the silver-plated surface. Carbon steel knives with black walnut and maple handles accompany the steak course, made by Oregon artist Michael Lishinsky; when not in use, they rest comfortably in a handmade knife box made by Jens Sehm out of black walnut and cherry wood. Zalto stemware, the hallmark of Michelin-starred restaurants like Saison, graces the tables.
Accompanying the new environs is an updated menu (which typically changes with the seasons), in both the savory and pastry departments. Partner and pastry chef Juan Contreras is deeply rooted in modernist technique—his new menu delves into his Mexican heritage, with Mayan references, and use of carefully chosen ingredients like cacao and tobacco.
The menu itself is punctuated by dramatic, custom-made plates and artwork upon which the food is delicately balanced and displayed. Contreras work extends to the serving pieces, including an open hand, a Mayan sun, and a three-tiered cement tower revealing different chocolates. To accompany the vanilla course, servers pour an aromatic vanilla tea onto dry ice, creating a swirl of smoke across the table; on a sculpture of an open hand carved from cacao sits a “vanilla bean,” a completely edible creation of vanilla and cacao butter, filled with soursop curd.
New hires and promotions are also part of Atelier Crenn’s growth. Chef Jonny Black started as executive chef on April 18, while Felix Santos was promoted to R&D chef, and Kevin Finch to executive sous chef. “We are growing and I want to make sure that everyone that works with us now is getting promoted and growing with the team,” said Crenn. Sommelier Matt Montrose is now the wine director for the entire Crenn Dining Group; a new general manager is running front of the house, making changes that Crenn says now match what the team has been doing in the kitchen.
"It's time to showcase what we have and continue the journey," said Crenn, who is now turning her attention to opening Bar Crenn, a wine bar that will open next to her refreshed atelier in September. "It's not about opening your place and being a machine of a restaurant; it's the continuation of being where we are."