Bay Area’s fine dining scene is still alive as takeout

On a recent weeknight, I squinted at my phone while making a salad — well, to be specific, a salad course delivered from San Francisco’s avante-garde restaurant Merchant Roots. The components arrived with a video of the chef, and mimicking his movements, I used tweezers to carefully place lettuce leaves and sliced English peas into an edible facsimile of a flower pot. The result: an explosion of greenery meant to evoke an overgrown spring garden — art as food, the way Merchant Roots might serve it in its typical multicourse tasting.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been able to eat meals from almost a dozen of the most esteemed fine dining restaurants in the Bay Area. The only catch? I had to put together a lot of the food myself.

A year into the pandemic, diners who hope to bring a little bit of that Michelin starlight into their own homes will find themselves rich in options. Where once the idea of grabbing a last-minute table at Palo Alto’s modern French Baumé seemed ridiculous, now you can dig into the restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu without having to put on a jacket, let alone pants.

It’s a stark change for the local restaurant scene, which has become nationally known for its high-end options. Many of these restaurants had never done takeout before the pandemic, and each faced the challenge of turning what was once an exclusive, often once-in-a-lifetime experience into something that is replicable by the average home cook.

In my modest apartment kitchen, I pored through restaurants’ instruction manuals and watched YouTube videos of their chefs as I cooked. To prepare a seven-item dinner from three-starred Saison ($114/person), I flipped through a bound booklet full of color photos and 23 steps to follow, including carving the breasts off an aged duck. The mise en place for the Californian cuisine restaurant’s game- and seafood-focused menu — Japanese sweet potato rounds filled with liver mousse, amberjack tartare and little glass jars of seaweed and passionfruit gelee — took up all my counter space.

The architecturally fascinating green salad from Merchant Roots in the Fillmore, made to look like a garden pot.

The architecturally fascinating green salad from Merchant Roots in the Fillmore, made to look like a garden pot.

Soleil Ho / The Chronicle

With all of the work involved, the question of whether these meal kits are worth the trouble arises. One could simply avoid the laboriousness of a tasting menu and pick up a belly-filling, ready-to-eat pizza for $25. Trust me — I thought about that a lot as I scraped the creamy dregs of baba au rhum out of my sink after a five-course New American dinner from Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant Gary Danko ($80/person).

People don’t go to places like Gary Danko or Baumé with the expectation that the food is mere sustenance to shovel down their gullets. They go for a sense of place — where granular details like the number of shakes in a martini or the particular crease of a server’s collar are carefully considered. They go to really dine “somewhere else.”

Restaurateurs are certainly trying to bridge the difference, attempting to communicate luxury and personability with takeout. The aesthetic of French-Japanese Atelier Crenn ($155) is intimately tied to the narrative of its chef, Dominique Crenn, and in the hope of maintaining connection. The staff do all of their own deliveries, showing up to people’s doors wearing the same chic black pantsuits and matching face masks they would wear at the restaurant. Crenn has even run some orders out herself. The staff star in instruction videos so they can walk you through the menu, course by course; restaurants like Saison and Merchant Roots do something similar.

Union Square’s French fusion restaurant O’ by Claude Le Tohic ($185/person) presents its seven-course menus on thick, custom paper. They arrive rolled up like scrolls and tied with proprietary ribbons, just like at the restaurant. A plethora of miniature fresh breads and the restaurant’s duck pithivier — an enormous, golden brown dome reminiscent of a Russian Orthodox church — gave the meal an air of extravagance.

But there are still certain things these restaurants can’t control.

A spread of dishes from Saison's meal kit, featuring aged duck breast, Japanese sweet potato and salad.

A spread of dishes from Saison’s meal kit, featuring aged duck breast, Japanese sweet potato and salad.

Soleil Ho / The Chronicle

These meal kits gave me a serious inferiority complex about the readiness of my home for the fine dining world. Part of the five-course kit from Eight Tables ($90/person), the Chinese fine dining restaurant, was a small jar of caviar meant to be spooned into puffed beef tendon chips and preserved quail eggs. I don’t have a proper caviar spoon, an alternative to metal spoons to prevent giving the ingredient a weird aftertaste; I instead used my scratched-up Chinese melamine soup spoons. (Atelier Crenn actually does include a pearl caviar spoon in its kit.)

I also don’t have a dining-room table, so I carefully squeezed the 10 dishes recommended for presenting Saison’s takeout meal atop the stack of luggage that I use as a coffee table. For background ambience, my spouse put on the sweet sounds of vintage episodes of “This Old House.” While charming in its own way, the setting didn’t always match the meal. The indulgent O’ by Claude Le Tohic dinner, the most expensive of those I tried, was almost too intense and rich for at home, though it did mean there were plenty of leftovers.

Some of the meal kits also assume quite a lot of the restaurants’ audience, and I wondered if the process might be a little overwhelming for some. To cook along with Saison, you need several mixing bowls, multiple sheet pans with resting racks, an oven with a broiler and a carving knife. Gary Danko’s directions ask the diner to keep mashed potatoes warm in a 200-degree oven while also heating up a Dungeness crab pot pie at 350 degrees — a task that seems impossible if you only have one oven.

The gap was a reminder that one of the most interesting things about fine dining restaurants is being able to interact with artifacts that one might not normally get to mess around with: the fragile Riedel wine glasses; the bespoke knives; the custom-made ceramic plates. It’s like going to the Louvre and being allowed to lick the Mona Lisa. It’s not the restaurants’ fault that I don’t have a caviar spoon; actually, the fact that they do and I don’t will be a point in their favor once their dining rooms reopen.

An optional cheese course from Atelier Crenn, which is now offering takeout and delivery of its fine dining menu.

An optional cheese course from Atelier Crenn, which is now offering takeout and delivery of its fine dining menu.

Joe Weaver

Other restaurants simplified their usual wares and, in turn, sell their meal at comparatively lower prices. The hot dishes on Baumé’s menu ($98/person), including ora king salmon mousse wrapped in poached leek, required only a quick zap in the microwave. Nothing from the four-course menu of Acquerello ($85/person), which changes weekly and included a gooey saffron and Parmesan arancini when I tried it, seemed like an over-the-top gesture. The whole package felt thoughtful and human-scale.

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