Chef Dominique Crenn’s bold Paris homecoming
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The opening of Dominique Crenn’s first restaurant in Paris is being billed as a homecoming. Crenn, 58, was born and raised in France, outside Paris, and spent a lot of time growing up in Brittany with her adoptive parents. But in the 1980s she left for America. As she wrote in 2019: “If I wanted to become an accomplished chef, I had to leave France… as a woman, I would not be able to achieve my goals in France the way I would be able to in the US.”
Arriving in San Francisco with no culinary training, she went on to launch her modernist restaurant Atelier Crenn in 2011, followed by the more relaxed Petit Crenn in 2015 and wine bar Bar Crenn in 2018. That same year she broke all ceilings and became the first – and still only – woman in the US to earn three Michelin stars for her flagship restaurant.
Lest this homecoming be seen as a victory lap or vindication, Crenn is keen to stress: “I am here with humility, not to take anyone’s place.” Her arrival in Paris is, she says, for “very personal” reasons. Recently she found out that before she was adopted, aged 18 months, she lived in Paris with her birth mother. This discovery chimed with vague memories and fuelled her wish to return. Then she was offered a gig running the restaurant, café and rooftop bar in a buzzy new hotel on rue Cadet in the 9th arrondissement called La Fantaisie.
Designed by Martin Brudnizki, the hotel’s interiors are a fanciful cultivation of pattern and colour based around a horticultural theme (rue Cadet is named after 16th-century master gardeners to the royal court). The ground-floor restaurant Golden Poppy resembles a Beatonian sunroom, and gives onto a leafy terrace and garden. It’s an apt backdrop for Crenn’s gastronomic concept – Californian cuisine showcasing the global flavours that drive West Coast food culture, but using local French produce.
The à la carte offering at Golden Poppy is a lot more casual than anything at Atelier Crenn. There, the tasting menus are written as if poems. But Crenn hasn’t submitted to the usual demands of hotel brasseries either. No sandwiches. No French fries. And no meat (in keeping with her pescatarian credentials). Her instinct for bold, even challenging pairings sometimes feels at odds with the clubby surroundings. Will Golden Poppy be greeted as a radical breath of fresh air by the It crowd or leave them nonplussed?
Alongside a selection of raw and cured fish and “California Soul” small bites such as popcorn infused with seaweed, smoked brown butter and maple syrup, the three mains on the pre-launch menu I try are sharing platters you assemble yourself. These include a collar and rack of grilled pollock that you fillet into lettuce wraps before adding kimchi, vinegary puffed rice and hazelnut miso.
Some dishes are sublime: the whole sea bream, for example, in chewy sesame-topped bao buns and dribbled with fermented carrot hot sauce and/or nori XO sauce. Other dishes are more confounding. The abalone tacos come with pineapple relish, whipped avocado and kimchi. The combination looked thrilling on paper – a Mexican/Korean “freestyle” to use Crenn’s term – but failed to ignite in my mouth. But you don’t get Michelin stars by playing it safe.
By launch date, things will have evolved, Crenn tells me: the bao buns are sadly gone due to issues with the ovens and the sea bream comes with lettuce wraps instead; the pollock is now served as-is (“I love to assemble my food but some people want a beautiful fish,” concedes Crenn); the popcorn seems likely to move to the rooftop bar.
Happily some winning dishes remain unchanged. Among the starters, the bottarga flan tastes like chawanmushi with a sweet-salty “maple syrup of the sea” fish-sauce-mirin-bottarga topping. And the Parker House Rolls arrive with lime-zest-sprinkled smoked butter, peppered raw egg yolk and a meringue-white dollop of koji butter. Caviar is an optional extra. It single-handedly revived my interest in the bread course.
The meal ends on a high with gorditas – Mexican-inspired coconut cream and caramelised pineapple-filled fritters, by pastry chef Juan Contreras. “Californian beignets”, Crenn calls them. What’s not to love?