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Luce's Iron Chef
by Anne Pao on Dec 02, 2010
Like many patrons, I have scoffed more than once at the thought of eating at a hotel restaurant. So many fail to impress with their lack of inspiration and creativity. There is one other thing they lack: a compelling story — and SF diners love a good story. Fear not San Francisco. One chef is helping to restore the reputation of hotel restaurants, and the name of that chef is Dominique Crenn.
Every story needs inspiration
“Know the story…the story on the plate.” Dominique Crenn, head chef of Michelin star recipient, Luce restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel, offers this simple advice when we sit down to chat. It is a cold and blustery Saturday, yet after entering Luce I feel my body warm. The ambiance is upscale, sleek, intimate, and inviting. Beats from Groove Armada whisper in your ear and muted black and brown colors adorn the airy space. Ceiling-to-floor windows suggest a fishbowl, but curtains provide just the right amount of privacy. Luce (pronounced “Loo-che”) is not your stereotypical hotel restaurant with bad décor and even worse food. Luce has something failing hotel restaurants do not: inspiration, and more importantly, a story.
Chief Protagonist: Dominique Crenn
Chef Dominique Crenn, with her large brown eyes, dark hair, and kind smile is both striking and welcoming. Ethnically Moroccan, but raised by adoptive French parents in the farming town of Brittany, France, Dominique developed an appreciation for food early on.
While the rest of us were busy learning table manners, Dominique visited Michelin restaurants with her politician father and his best friend, a well-respected food critic. Do not be fooled by Dominique’s pretty features, or by the fact that she was once a ballerina-in-training. With her crisp, white chef’s outfit and tattooed arms, sheis here to cook. When asked about her recent win against Michael Symon on Iron Chef America, she flashes a smile and playfully admits how she did not just win, she “kicked his ass.”
Honor Thy Farmer
Dominique is a chef unafraid to speak her mind, but shares her passions with a sincere softness that immediately wins you over. When asked for her thoughts on the recent trend of organic, sustainable food, she emphasized that “it’s never been a trend to me. This is a part of me.”
She is the genuine article, a chef with substance. “Food is about memories and understanding where food comes from. The story starts with the soil,” she says.
Dominique collaborates with farmers and has tremendous respect for the amount of work they contribute. In her eyes, “chefs are responsible for bringing the view to the public … it is much more than being organic.”
This passion for relating farmers’ stories influenced her to partner with CUESA to launch the “Moveable Feast” dinners. The concept? Honor relationships between Bay Brea chefs and farmers by creating a multi-course menu showcasing the bounty of the evening’s featured farmer.
Commitment to Creativity
Dominique’s worldly upbringing is the DNA of Luce’s new American fine dining. She creates the moderately portioned menu and adjusts it with input from her fifteen-person staff. She aspires to run a restaurant that gathers everyone’s input and unites it around creativity.
Jeremiah Tower (formerly of Stars restaurant) sculpted Dominique’s philosophy with his liberal approach to cooking. Tower would write the menu the night before, provide modest guidelines, and then leave dish interpretations up to the responsible cook. Dominique admires the practice for the way it garners trust and allows for unbridled creativity.
A true competitor, Dominique was a contestant on The Next Iron Chef and also a victor in Iron Chef America. She credits her victory for “Challenge: Yogurt” to ingredient ingenuity. She utilized yogurt in a variety of forms, manipulating texture to create different experiences. Dominique swept the competition with dishes like cucumber consommé and yogurt sorbet, fried yogurt, and yogurt pot de feu. The inventive dishes highlighted Dominique’s risk-taking and breadth of experience, and smartly contrasted with Symon’s heavier offerings.
Yet the cameras did not show Dominique’s tough-as-nails perseverance. The taping coincided with the 10th anniversary of her father’s death. She also prepared the entire meal with a bandaged hand after suffering a laceration. Dominique is a woman who does not believe in excuses, and we love her for it.
Food a la Crenn
Dominique believes people have grown tired of heavier meals and are nostalgic for experiences where they can learn about food and its journey to the plate. The menu at Luce echoes seasonality and an exotic range of ingredients.
The protein selection is impressive, with venison, quail, abalone. and foie gras. I mentioned my love for foie and Dominique hustled to the back to whip some up, accompanied with compressed persimmon and slightly sweet marmalade. The entire dish danced elegantly on the clean white plate. The rich foie delicately perched atop house-made toasted brioche cut neatly into small rectangles. The persimmon added brightness and its complementary fruity notes balanced the earthy foie. The marmalade was a quick reminder of Dominique’s love affair with texture.
I will most definitely return to try the abalone and pork belly appetizer and the beef tenderloin with oxtail, Gouda, and comte gratin. The bar menu is equally delectable, with the roasted bone marrow catching my attention.
Where Dominique Eats
Dominique loves Vietnamese food, especially from hole-the-wall spots in the Tenderloin. She never regrets a trip to Zuni and has recently been frequenting Bar Jules. She speaks glowingly about Coi in North Beach, a restaurant also known for fine dining. Finally, if you have not dined at Frances yet, go quickly and save Dominique a seat at the bar.
With holiday season upon us, I asked Dominique for tips on larger parties. She shares that the first step is to “create an element of dining where everyone can relate.” Add personal touches with seat cards and small thoughtful gifts, or engage everyone with a story. If hosting is not your forte, make a smart decision and keep Luce in mind for the Christmas or New Year's Eve menu.
by Anne Pao on Dec 02, 2010