In Situ, SF MOMA: Context Matters

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.

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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).

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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).

Notes:

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.

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Thank you for the well thought-out commentary!

It’s cool that the menu parallels the structure of a museum by playing with, and noting, both geography and time (e.g. “Cecilia Chang, The Mandarin, 1960”).

The “Wood Sorrel and Sheep Milk’s Yogurt" sounds delicious.

Huh, I’ve been lamenting the loss of defunct Chino’s rice cakes, but it sounds similar to the David Chang dish served at In Situ. I should have considered Chang as its inspiration and looked for his recipe sooner.

Their website is literally dizzying.

http://insitu.sfmoma.org/

Thanks for the detailed report! I am curious, did you have any of the same dishes at the original restaurants? and if so, set aside context for a second, how did they compare?

I am curious how they are going to try to duplicate such a wide range of cuisines when each of them takes quite a lot of effort to master individually.

Sure thing. Yes, time and place matters. Context might illuminate some dishes which might feel trite or even anachronistic on a menu now - a dish might have been revolutionary at the time of its introduction. Much like Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon. It would be cool for the menu to work in concert with museum exhibits - e.g. how about featuring Massimo Bottura’s “The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna” when some Arte Povera is on display? But then the restaurant is interpolating a new context for interpretation, and that’s not what I think they’re setting out to do.

I’m not well traveled enough to have sampled the dishes from Noma, Lima, etc. The only dish that I’ve had which was quite similar was the duck at The French Laundry about two months ago. I don’t think it was the exact same duck dish, as the menu changes almost daily (except for the “Oysters and Pearls” dish). But, we did have duck and lamb at The French Laundry, and they were both slightly overcooked just like the duck was here. The sauces, though, are pitch perfect at The French Laundry, and the sauce was perfect at In Situ, too. To answer your question: no I have not had any of the exact same dishes, but the duck was right at the level of a similar duck dish from The French Laundry.

I have every confidence that the In Situ kitchen is reproducing the dishes to a T. Chef Corey is extremely technical, perhaps the most precise chef in SF, and In Situ is learning the dishes of “participants” either by 1) the chef visiting and teaching the crew in person (e.g. James Syhabout of Commis), or 2) a chef sending in a detailed recipe complete with pictures (e.g. Seiji Yamamoto of Ryugin sent in 43 pages, 126 photographs for his one dish). It’s not that In Situ is experimenting to recreate a dish, it’s that the “participating” chefs have agreed to share their exact recipe with In Situ.

I am curious, however, about some ingredients or cooking methods native to another place/restaurant that are difficult to reproduce in San Francisco. Saison isn’t participating, but if they did, would In Situ recreate the live burning hearth and smokestream to dehydrate the beet for Saison’s “Fire in the Sky” beet? Maybe that’s why Saison isn’t participating - their cooking setup is fairly unique and not reproducible in a conventional kitchen. Also, I forgot to ask if the seaweeds from Central’s “Octopus and the Coral” were local seaweeds or seaweeds like the ones used in Peru (did they import them)? The provenance of the kombu does make a difference.

With that said, I don’t want to wholly write off a dish from one of the partnering restaurants based solely on not liking its iteration at In Situ. I could say that I didn’t like the effect in my meal at In Situ, but unless I’ve tried the food at the restaurant and at In Situ, I’ll say that the dish’s original context and place in the flow of the menu could have benefitted the dish. There’s some room for imagination that a dish which may not have impressed that much here could be better received at the original restaurant. But what you’re left with is a rare opportunity to get a good feel for each of these dishes a la carte.

The closest i’ve found to Chino’s rice cakes is the (crunchy) fried rice at Progress. They’ve switched over from their squid/clam/snap pea fried rice to a duck fat fried rice with eggplant puree, Thai basil and peanut (and duck breast), but it’s still crunchy, thankfully.

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I can’t imagine that they source from the same place as the original restaurant, unless it is easy to do so. If so, that could be one reason how the replica may differ from the original. I can’t imagine the replica of Chez Panisse sorbet (or other dishes should they decide to replicate) will be the same unless they source from e.g. Green String also.

That about sums up why cooking from recipes of famous chefs’ in their cookbooks never seems to quite measure up to the original dish.

For a supposedly high end restaurant, I’m pretty disappointed at how they handled a fairly simple and straightforward request - I paid for a meal last week using the wrong (business) credit card by accident and I called the restaurant to provide a different card and request that they charge that instead and credit the previous transaction. I even offered to come in person with both cards to correct the issue. Granted, it’s entirely my own fault but I’m very surprised that they refused to do anything, citing their accounting as a reason. I don’t know why, but this really aggravates me.

I had a very satisfying meal at In Situ.

First, I could get a reservation on a week’s notice. The room is fairly large, the bar-area was entirely empty, and it’s a very decent michelin one-star. That alone should put it on a certain list ( last minute one-stars! ).

Second, there’s a lot of room between tables, and the room is a bit hushed. Maybe that’s partially the pecular few days before christmas, but I credit the relative lack of excitement ( a restuarant in a museum? ).

I took my parents here ( I’ve taken them to saison 2.0 and 3.0, manresa, sushi zo in La ( epic ), crenn, and a few others), they’re not neophyites to SF style high end dining.

My mother loved it… but she loved the room. Lots of space, moderate interruptions from servers. The only negative was they were making a special dish for a special table near us, and I could see she was itching for that kind of treatment.

Two weeks later, what was memorable ( none of the dishes reported were on offer ) was the smoked fish appetizer, which was brought to the table with a lump of charcoal, so was delivered fragrantly but you ate… more with the taste. And a “cheesecake” made with a Jasper Hill cheese. It was served like a bloomy rind, but was… cheesecake. In retrospect, the “grape” desert, which involved some amount of liquid nitrogen, would have been a better addition.

Overall, I think this is a great addition to “sheeeet, I’ve got to make a reservation for a last minute for a guest”. The food is very solidly one-star, it’s a la carte, the alcohol program is decent, you can talk because the noise level is low. While the. food isn’t of the FIRST rank, it’s maybe in the top-50 or better, and that’s saying something

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Agreed on all counts! I’ll add that unlike many stuffy Michelin starred restaurants, they are so accommodating to infants and toddlers that they have $300 high chairs ( Plus, as with much modernist cuisine, you don’t need teeth to eat a few dishes)

Wow, crazy about the toddler thing. I actually invited my 7 year old niece but parents wouldn’t have her staying up that late.

Add Commonwealth to the list too. Its one star that always have tables earlier or later. And you can always walk in and sit at the bar.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold