In Situ is one of one of the city’s most anticipated openings, right up there with the revamped SF MOMA where it is housed. After a recent lunch there, I think the museum setting is perfectly fitting, and it’s also perhaps the exclusive context in which such a restaurant can exist.
The concept at SF MOMA’s new “exhibition restaurant” is unique. Unlike Restaurant Ikarus in Salzburg, where international guest chefs are invited to present their menus for a month at a time, In Situ features facsimiles of collaborating chefs’ signature dishes recreated by Corey Lee of Benu and his capable crew. Chef Corey has assimilated an impressive list of chefs from whom he’ll borrow recipes to reproduce some of the most celebrated dishes in their oeuvre; currently, In Situ is exhibiting food from Andoni Luiz Adruiz of Mugaritz (Spain), Virgilio Martinez of Central (Peru), Rene Redzepi of Noma (Denmark), and of course his mentor Thomas Keller of The French Laundry (USA), among others. The list rotates often – I’ve already noticed a change since I went – and this is encouraging, not only because the menu is in constant flux(us) like the museum’s rotating collections (the museum is great, by the way), but also because it feels relatively safe in its current iteration. The restaurant just opened, but it was buzzing, and the kitchen was firing on all cylinders, the service felt well-coordinated, and the operation was smooth.
About the menu: it’s solely a la carte, so while Chef Corey has managed to cull a mosaic of international haute cuisine, it’s the diner ultimately that plays curator. There’s helpful keys on the menu, though, on portion size and suggested wine pairings for specific dishes. The result is that one can sample some very good dishes from around the world faithfully recreated to a T (I found the food at Benu more impressive for its technical execution than anything else). However, the best of tasting menus, the natural framework for most of these dishes, have a certain flow, and such dishes have a very specific purpose therein. When such dishes are taken out of the context, as they are at In Situ, sometimes something is lost.
About the food…“Shrimp Grits” (Wylie Dufresne, wd~50) had a very concentrated shrimp flavor, since the “grits” are actually shrimp, too (it’s not shrimp and grits, it’s shrimp double-ground and cooked down to mimic grits, mixed with shrimp oil and freeze-dried corn). Pickled jalapenos were nice way to cut the dominant rich ocean flavor. My dining partner thought it was a bit one-note after the initial realization of the trompe l’oeil grits.
“Carrots, Sour Curd, Pickled Pine” (Matt Orlando, Amass) had a great mix of flavors, especially from the nasturtium taken with the reduced yogurt. The texture of the dehydrated carrots, between jerky and putty, was a bit off-putting.
“Brown Oyster Stew” (Sean Brock, Husk) was a delicate but quite earthy “Lowcountry” oyster stew over rice. The famed “Charleston Ice Cream” (Carolina gold rice) was soft but earthy tasting (think omachi for sake), and together with the sesame and herbs, heightened the oysters’ minerality. I can appreciate the heirloom ingredients, but I’m not familiar with Southern food, so this was lost on me a bit.
“Octopus and the Coral” (Virgilio Martinez, Central) was the most successful savory dish. Compressed seaweeds mimicked the coral under which octopus hide, and a side of octopus jus with konbu tasted strongly of the ocean. The hot sauce and the accompanying Mosel Kabinett, with its oily petrol note and racy sweetness, were key to making the dish work with the inky seaweeds and their slight oceanic funk. The seaweed notes were fairly strong, and I think this dish would be received differently if it were part of a tasting menu. For example, this dish appears in the “Ecosystems” tasting menu at Central, and this “Coral” dish is followed directly by the “Lake Floor” dish which features chicken. The seaweeds here have glutamate in ample measure, and the following chicken course in Central’s tasting menu has inosinate, which would round out the umami flavor. But taken a la carte at In Situ, “Octopus and the Coral” might not make as much sense, as it’s informed both in theme and flavor progression by the context of Central’s tasting menu. This leads me to think of recent meals at Restaurant at Meadowood, Saison, and Californios, where the flow of the menus were brilliant, with flavors from a preceding course lingering into and pairing with those in the next…
The only actual flaw with the cooking was that the octopus was a bit tough. I like some chew with the right types of seafood, but this was a bit overcooked. More a reflection of the original recipe, I’m guessing, than a fault of the talented kitchen staff here.
“Liberty Duck Breast” (Thomas Keller, The French Laundry) was similarly overcooked, but again, I think this is more about the original recipe, as I found several of the meat protein dishes at The French Laundry a bit overcooked in my visit two months’ ago. This felt like a 1-borderline 2 Michelin star dish, but that’s about consistent with what I’ve thought about The French Laundry recently. The lentils du puy and aged red wine vinegar sauce were pitch perfect, though. This was a shareable dish and since it’s quite classic, it didn’t need the tasting menu context like the “Octopus and Coral” did. Same goes for the surprisingly simple “Guotie” (Cecilia Chang, The Mandarin), which is really just potstickers (since replaced by Matt Abergel’s “Uni, Fresh Nori, Panko” from Ronin).
“Wood Sorrel and Sheep Milk’s Yogurt” (Rene Redzepi, Noma) was the best dish of the day. Delicious flavor combination with spot-on textures here (sorrel granita vs. yogurt mousse). A little star anise perked things up and olive oil (a recent modification to the dish, as Chef Rene once said he wouldn’t use olive oil since it wasn’t native to Denmark) were key. The medium-plus body, green notes, and mild polyphenol spiciness from the olive oil (my guess is Arbequina) really bound all the flavors and textures together. It’s all the smallest nuances that made the dish successful as a whole.
“Interpretation of Vanity” (Andoni Luis Aduriz, Mugaritz) was essentially bitter cacao in contrasting textures: static bubbles and a dense mousse. It’s not that sweet, but rather refreshing in its earthy bitterness. A nice end, especially if you don’t like your desserts too sweet, but it makes even more sense when placed in its original tasting menu context where it has at times followed grilled figs.
Judging by neighboring tables’ comments, some of the nuances of these dishes are lost on the diner. Because the dishes are pulled out of their original context, some of their merits are lost in translation and the dishes could be underrated. My fear is that SF diners will just write off certain restaurants based on their experience from In Situ (“I’ve had food from the ‘best in the world,’ and it was pretty good but not great”), when in reality there’s no replacement for experiencing the restaurant first-hand. At In Situ, one gets to sample a very faithful representation of each dish in isolation, but the resulting meal might not necessarily impress to the dishes’ potential. The context of the original menu isn’t necessary for everything (e.g. The French Laundry’s duck, which is very classic), but at times the original context can be key to fully appreciating the dish (e.g. “Octopus and Coral,” “Interpretation of Vanity). Still, even at say 85% of its potential, the food can nonetheless be quite tasty and interesting. San Francisco is fortunate to be able to sample these dishes recreated by a talented kitchen, and I’ll be back as the menu continues to rotate.
Here’s a sampling of “participants” whose dishes will be showcased in the future: Kobe Desramaults (In de Wulf), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana), Richard Ekkebus (Amber), Massimilano Alajmo (La Calandre), Alexandre Gauthier (Le Grenouillere), Adeline Grattard (yam’Tcha), Gert de Mangeleere (Hertog Jan), Peter Goossens (Hof Van Cleve), Hajime Yoneda (HAJIME), Tim Raue, Blaine Wetzel (The Willow’s Inn on Lummi Island), Stephen Harris (The Sportsman).
The Lounge, which is opening seating, has a different menu. Currently, there’s some very interesting dishes from L’Astrance and Maaemo for which I’ll be sure to return.
In Situ is open from 11am-4pm, but dinner service is planned.