My neighbor K and I ate our first meal together under the fluorescent lights at a beloved pho dive on Geary Street. Three years and many shared meals later (mostly cobbled together from leftovers), we're at In Situ, Corey Lee's new restaurant in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the three-star Michelin chef painstakingly recreates standout dishes from more than 100 of his talented colleagues all over the world, including the French Laundry's Thomas Keller and David Chang of Momofuku. We're toasting—K with a glass of Koan cabernet and me with a refreshing 0% ABV hibiscus-ginger infusion—to the next chapter in her life, one that will take place in the midwest, closer to family. Quick backstory: She got pregnant within days of moving upstairs, after years of trying; her baby now speaks in full sentences using two different languages, so this major restaurant upgrade seems to be an appropriate indicator of her trajectory.
We spent a few minutes amusing ourselves by deciphering the menu using a legend of symbols, which indicated the size of a dish, its sharing potential, and vegetarian credentials. Our waiter explained that like the museum, the menu was designed to be explored. The dishes comprise just one thin column of the one-page menu, while the rest of the space is filled with short bios of the featured chefs and a world map pinpointing the origin of each dish. Here are a few that made a big impression on us.
The Wasabi Lobster (above) by Tim Raue of Berlin, Germany, was the first to arrive. K and I were deliberating, as girlfriends often do, the natural asymmetry of relationships. I had to pause intermittently during my long discourse, not because I needed to collect myself, but because the wasabi was working its way through my nasal passages and speaking just wasn't an option. Kind of like when your partner says or does something so contemptible—or, for that matter, so heart-explodingly awesome—that words escape you. Cleverly, the appealing crunch of the rice-crispies coating and the tender sweetness of the lobster were like metaphorical spoonfuls of sugar to help the wasabi go down. (The duo of cute wasabi star-shaped marshmallows—representing Raue's second Michelin star—being another translation of this Mary Poppins SOP.)
Apocalypse Burger/lettuce wrap(Photo: Eric Wolfinger)
Usually, if there's a lettuce wrap on the menu, I'm not ordering it. I simply don't find lettuce flavorful and its textural attributes leave much to be desired. I realize that I'm in the minority in this town of die-hard leaf lovers. Luckily, my dining partner counts herself among the majority, and she didn't blink when she ordered two Apocalypse Burgers for us to try. These inside-out sliders, conceptualized by Anthony Myint of Mission Street Food, feature an incredibly succulent, cheddar-topped mini Wagyu beef patty contained within a pappadum-like shell, colored with squid ink to represent a charcoal briquette (a statement on carbon footprints). Eating instructions are two-fold: First, swaddle briquette in lettuce leaf slathered with caper aioli. Second, marvel at how tasty lettuce wraps can be.
Liberty Duck Breast: French green lentils, apples, aged red-wine vinegar sauce(Photo: Eric Wolfinger)
There's a certain beloved, but nevertheless malodorous, body of water in the East Bay that's made me despise live waterfowl. They're everywhere, flapping their dirty plumage and just plain stinking up the place. (Shout out to the guy who walks the perimeter of this particular reservoir wearing a gas mask—you're onto something, dude.) Dead water fowl, however, has been my preferred protein since the age of three, when I had my first taste of duck. It might seem blasphemous to even mention Thomas Keller's exquisitely composed Liberty Duck Breast in such close proximity to the foul fowl of my recent memory, but I'm just so happy to have exacted my revenge upon these filthy creatures by consuming an elegant dish in which the demise of one of their flock was required. Granted, this was the most classical plate K and I shared that night, but the familiarity of a plump and juicy pan-roasted duck breast—served over lentils and apples in a red wine vinegar sauce—was a welcome, homey touchstone in an otherwise otherworldly meal.
Interpretation of Vanity: Moist chocolate cake, cold almond cream, bubbles, cocoa(Photo: Eric Wolfinger)
The recipe for Interpretation of Vanity, the chocolate dessert by chef Andoni Luis Anduriz of Mugaritz in Spain, contains such alluring phrases as "cocoa-bubble liquid" and "gold dust and vodka," which also reveals the dish's juxtaposition between whimsy and refinement. More than anything, this dish made me aware of the psychology of eating: K popped every bubble before starting on the glazed chocolate-mousse biscuit, perhaps indicating a preference to clear the field of distractions. Had this been my dessert, I would have tried to preserve every bubble, digging the biscuit out from under its globular blanket—demonstrating, it would seem, a preference to tread lightly. This dessert is more bitter than sweet, so if your personality happens to match the flavor profile, eating this dish could be considered your interpretation of vanity.
Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart(Photo: Eric Wolfinger)
Massimo Bottura's iconic Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart could be considered the mic-drop of this meal for a few reasons: 1) Lemongrass sorbet and lemon zabaglione under a shattered pastry crust—what's not to love? 2) By consuming one micro-condiment—from a single caper to diced candied bergamot to a drop of chili oil—in each bite of O!IDTLT, new taste horizons are discovered. You are the Marco Polo of flavors that pair well with lemon. 3) The life lessons inherent in this accidental dessert (the pastry chef at Bottura's Osteria Francescana dropped a lemon tart on the counter, and they've been recreating the beautiful disaster ever since) stem from wabi-sabi—embrace the beauty of imperfection, or as Bottura puts it, "Make room for poetry in your life."
// In Situ, 151 Third St. inside the SFMOMA (SoMa), insitu.sfmoma.org