One of San Francisco’s most imaginative new Northern Italian restaurants is not actually Italian at all—at least not according to its chef. "It would be a lie for me to say I’m doing Italian food," says executive chef Dominique Crenn of Luce, located in the city’s new InterContinental hotel south of Market Street. "I’m not Italian, and my history is not Italian. But I do embrace all of my experience through the years, and I apply it to my cooking. Every dish tells a bit of the story of my own journey."
That journey has been a long and varied one for the chef, who is of French-Moroccan descent. Raised in Versailles, France, she learned from her parents—both avid gourmands—an appreciation of great French cuisine and its relationship to the countryside farms that supplied the raw ingredients. Although she holds a degree in international business, Crenn moved in 1998 to San Francisco to study the culinary arts. After working for more than two years under Jeremiah Tower of Stars, she contributed her talents to the kitchens of Campton Place, the 2223 restaurant, and Yoyo Bistro before accepting the position as the first female executive chef in Indonesia at the InterContinental hotel in Jakarta, in 1997. Through her contacts there, she learned that the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi planned to open a restaurant called Luce in InterContinental’s new hotel back in her favorite city. Crenn was intrigued.
Named after the Super Tuscan wine that the Frescobaldi family created with the Mondavis of Napa Valley in 1995, the new establishment would reflect the heritages of both houses. "I learned the history of the Luce wine and the two families," says Crenn. "They wanted the restaurant to be a kind of California brasserie with a little bit of Italian because of the wine. I just loved the story. So I went to spend some time in Italy with them, and that is how it came along."
Much of that time Crenn devoted to observing the techniques of chef Alessandro Zanieri at the Ristorante & Wine Bar dei Frescobaldi in Florence. Each day, vendors would visit the restaurant with fresh ingredients from the local farms, which Zanieri would incorporate into his ever-changing menus. "In Tuscany, everybody is connected to the seasons and to the farmers," Crenn explains. "It was so similar to my philosophy living in California and, of course, France—taking the dish from farm to table."
Like Luce’s interior, a cool and invitingly contemporary composition, Crenn’s Californian-Tuscan menus are sophisticated yet unpretentious. They rely primarily on local ingredients sourced from throughout the Bay Area, though certain items are flown in from other locations. Among the latter is the cheese that flavors Crenn’s unctuously creamy soup of onion and Grana Padano, to which she adds a savory drizzle of parsley oil. Italian classics, such as a wild-mushroom-and-truffle risotto, share billing with more exotic combinations like herbal-coffee-and-vanilla-encrusted venison with blackberry compote, asparagus, and spiced chocolate, or quinoa risotto with beets, aged goat cheese, and curry oil.
As Crenn’s culinary journey continues, her menus also evolve. "If I could change the menu every day, I would. I drive the staff crazy," she laughs. "I want it to reflect what Luce is. I remember Marchese [Lamberto] Frescobaldi asked me that question once: ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘It’s simple, it’s innovative, and it’s elegant.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You know what? That is exactly my philosophy of wine.’ We both felt in our work this human connection with the earth." And that, as they say, is Italian.
Luce, 415.616.6566, www.lucewinerestaurant.com