One of the most talked about restaurants in San Francisco these days features dishes not from one chef but as many as 30.
I’m talking about In Situ, the new restaurant on the ground floor of the recently expanded SFMOMA. The modern and contemporary restaurant is the creation of Chef Corey Lee, who owns the fine-dining restaurant Benu (which is around the corner from the museum). But instead of featuring creations from Lee’s head, the menu reflects dishes originating from other restaurants around the globe whose chefs have given Lee’s kitchen permission to recreate them on In Situ’s menu.
I visited In Situ for dinner recently with my other food blogging friends, Brenda of Bites and Bourbon, Christina of East Bay Dish and Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging. The night started off at the lounge, where Sandy and I tested the bar menu because we’re often the early birds in the group.
The bar menu features dishes that aren’t available in the main dining room, and they’re also dishes from other chefs, including ketchup fried rice from LA’s Roy Choi, BBQ shrimp and grits from Oakland’s own Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen and buttermilk fried chicken from The Clove Club in London.
Sandy and I both tried the caramelized carrot soup ($6), which comes like a soup shot. Created by Nathan Myhrvold of “Modernist Cuisine” fame, we were told to sip the soup like a macchiato. The soup had a coconut foam like a coffee drink, and the flavor was intense from the caramel flavor with chaat masala spices blending with the carrot soup. It was my favorite bite of the night.
Menu Featuring Signature Dishes
When Brenda and Christina arrived, we were seated at the table and began to study the menu, which includes maybe a dozen dishes (and a few additional dessert plates). The menu, which folds out like a museum map, lists the collaborating chefs who either taught In Situ’s crew how to recreate their dishes or came to San Francisco to demonstrate the techniques. The dishes by the various chefs will rotate out as time goes.
Since we’ve eaten together often, we decided to order a bunch of dishes and share them. But I want to note that some of the dishes, which can be minimal in that fine-dining-tasting-menu-way, are probably best not to share because, like Christina sometimes found (being the last to grab her bite), you can’t get the full concept of the dish if you don’t get to try every component.
Note: In Situ does note which dishes they feel can be shared, and they’re really just four items out of the dozen options. So even they agree that you should just order plates for your own enjoyment.
Some of the dishes amazed us for their presentation, like the Wasabi Lobster ($24) from Restaurant Tim Raue of Berlin, serving up a lobster tail cooked like tempura, with wasabi tinted cereal as a coating and mango jelly, Thai vinaigrette, and wasabi marshmallow shaped like stars.
Another dish whose presentation created a different perception than the reality was the carrot, sour curd and pickled pine plate ($18) from Amass of Copenhagen, where the roasted carrots came out studded and looking like the legs of a star fish. (As for taste, this was our least favorite dish to eat.)
Some dishes amazed us in its ingenuity, like, of course, the “shrimp grits” dish ($16) from noted chef Wylie Dufresne of New York’s wd-50 (pictured at the very top). The “grits” are actually made with the essence of shrimp, with pickled jalapeno. Everyone at the table enjoyed the flavor and the simplicity of the dish.
During and after our dinner, In Situ’s concept raised a lively debate about whether simple dishes should be highlighted with high-concept dishes like wd-50’s shrimp grits and a vegetable dish called “The Forest” ($28) from Mirazur restaurant in Menton, France. These dishes come to the table with simple dishes like New York Chef David Chang’s spicy pork sausage and rice cakes ($22) dish from Momofuku Ssam Bar, which is packed with umami-bomb flavors but is like any rice cakes dish you’d fine in Korean restaurants.
The same could be said of the “umami soup” ($38) from Miyamasou restaurant in Kyoto, Japan, which is an udon noodle soup with thin slices of miso-marinated wagyu beef. I enjoyed the taste but didn’t find the presentation worth grabbing my attention, while Christina argued that a simple dish done well can be compared with some of the finest and complicated dishes in the world.
I was excited to try the dessert called “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart” ($16) ever since I saw it featured on season one of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table.” The dish, from Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Fancescana, came out looking like a tart that dropped on the floor (which is how Bottura originally got his inspiration to create this dish), but most people of the table felt that would have enjoyed a lemon tart that wasn’t broken up (the dish actually was lemon ice cream instead of an actual lemon curd filling).
And sometimes high-concept dishes can mis-fire, just like our other dessert called “Interpretation of Vanity” ($16), a moist chocolate cake bar covered with cocoa bubbles from Mugaritz restaurant in Errenteria, Spain. None of us enjoyed or enjoyed the reason for the bubbles, harkening back to the period when everyone threw foam onto the plates for no other reason than because they could.
The last bite
Some people might find In Situ’s menu disjointed and one without cohesion. But that’s the point since the dishes come from different kitchen. The plates and the entire dining experience should mirror the experience of visiting a museum, where you’ll find a mix of artistic theories, some that you’ll enjoy while others you won’t.
What Lee has created is a new experience for dining out. You get the chance to try the flavors of some of the world’s best restaurants without leaving San Francisco. In Situ provides a blank canvass that’s then filled with the many colors of the culinary world and leaves you thinking and talking about when food becomes art. And like art, it’s all subjective.
The rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: In Situ, 151 Third St. (inside SFMOMA), San Francisco. PH: 415.941.6050. Open for lunch, Thursday through Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and dinner, Thursday through Sunday, from 5 to 9 p.m. Closed Wednesday. Reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted (20 percent service charge automatically added to bill). insitu.sfmoma.org
BONUS: Check out our full dinner in this special video I pulled together below.
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