By avoiding originality, In Situ is the most original new restaurant in the country.
The restaurant opened a month ago inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in a space off the lobby that was built during the museum’s transformative recent expansion. Inside, the chef, Corey Lee, faithfully replicates dishes dreamed up by Sean Brock, Alice Waters and other innovators. None of the recipes is his own.
As one of the managers told a group of people interested in renting out the restaurant for the night when I ate there this month, “The easiest way to understand this restaurant is as an art installation.” Strangely enough, they didn’t appear frightened by that statement. Even more strangely, it makes some kind of sense once you eat at In Situ.
Lee’s concept – for once, the industry jargon is apt – sidesteps some basic assumptions about what chefs are supposed to do. In Situ’s closest peer in this regard is probably Next, the Chicago restaurant founded by Grant Achatz that inhabits a new period and style of cooking every four months.
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Each chef, of course, has another restaurant that works as a showpiece for his own expressive temperament. For Achatz, that is Alinea. For Lee, it is Benu, a short walk from In Situ, where he offers some of the most exquisitely varied and controlled tasting menus I’ve ever had; his cooking there runs variations on Chinese, Korean and Japanese dishes that are possible only because he seems to understand each one so thoroughly.
There are more-famous chefs in the United States, but few whose technical mastery is as deeply respected in the business. “I couldn’t have more faith in anyone than Corey Lee, in terms of execution,” chef Wylie Dufresne said.
The Latin phrase “in situ” is used when a work of art is embedded in its original location. This is just what In Situ’s dishes are not. The menu, folded and fastened with a metal museum admissions tag, looks like a guide to a gallery exhibition of works on temporary loan. One side shows a map of the world on a tilted axis – “a dislocation that hints at the shift from a recipe’s origin to its new situation at In Situ,” says a note from Andrea Lenardin Madden, an architect who designed the menu, the table settings, the servers’ uniforms and other details.
Circles on the map show the birthplaces of the 15 dishes In Situ is offering. A key in the right margin gives each dish’s chief ingredients, its originator’s name and location and the year it was invented.
My lunch began with Shrimp Grits (Wylie Dufresne; WD-50; New York City; 2014). Anybody who knows the Carolina incarnation of the dish will notice that there are no shrimp on top of the grits. This is because the shrimp are in the grits or, to be exact, the shrimp are the grits. They’ve been ground and cooked with dehydrated table corn until their resemblance to coarse hominy is close enough to fool the eyes and tongue.
These look-alike grits packed a remarkable concentration of shellfish flavor. A significant part of the appeal was bittersweet: WD-50 closed in 2014, the year that shrimp grits went on the menu.
Lunch then took off east toward the French Riviera. The Forest (Mauro Colagreco; Mirazur; Menton, France; 2011) is an experiment in cooking as a form of landscape representation. Wild mushrooms, tender green stems and a fuchsia sweet pea flower were scattered on and around a bed of quinoa risotto that had the dappled look of the forest floor. Fried strips of sunchoke peel mimicked dried leaves or twigs. Clumps of moss were represented by a parsley-juice spongecake. It was much more delicious than it sounds, helped along by more butter and Parmesan foam than you typically tasted grazing your way across the woods.
An image of underwater life was next. Fronds of seaweed poked out of a construction of egg white wafers and squid in rice crackers that stood in for a coral reef. Inside the reef, an octopus was supposed to be hiding, although this one didn’t hide well enough to escape the braising pot. Octopus and the Coral (Virgilio Martínez; Central; Lima, Peru; 2014) may have followed the same naturalistic impulse as the Forest, but the sauce was unmistakably Peruvian. It was a mix of several tiger’s milks, or leches de tigre, with wave after wave of flavor from shellfish, lime, coriander and hot peppers.
Like the shrimp grits, Wood Sorrel & Sheep’s Milk Yogurt (René Redzepi; Noma; Copenhagen; 2005) was a trip to the past. Noma is still there, but the dessert, which puts yogurt mousse alongside a granita of foraged wood-sorrel leaves, isn’t. This is early Redzepi, the beginnings of a style that has gone through several evolutions since this dish left the menu.
Two points about this lunch struck me. First, everything was delicious. Second, the flavors veered wildly different from dish to dish – they were, so to speak, all over the map – and it didn’t matter.
At In Situ, the food loses all the context provided by time and place, which are reduced to words printed on the menu. At a restaurant such as Noma, for instance, your enjoyment of dessert is helped along by a host of surrounding cues. Among them are all the other dishes you’ve tasted by that point in the meal, along with the shape of the fork, the grain of the table, the Scandinavian light in the windows.
My mix-and-match lunch was more like listening to a playlist, in fact, than walking through a museum. A new dish would come to the table, and I’d get into it, and then it would end and something new would start. Being unconnected to one another didn’t seem to hurt the dishes; if anything, they gained something from the surprise of each new segue.
In a phone interview, Lee said he’d heard something similar from other customers. “They look at the menu, and if they don’t know the concept going in, there’s a little bit of being disoriented,” he said. “’How does this work? How big are the dishes?’ But I have found once they order and start getting food, it kind of goes away.”
Lee said that the kitchen, under Brandon Rodgers, the executive chef, has practiced about 65 more dishes that will roll on to the menu as others come off over the coming months. He and his cooks work closely with the recipes’ originators to learn fine points of technique and presentation. In some cases, he travels to their restaurants, and in others, he invites them to his.
The kitchen was designed to be more flexible than most. It’s not organized by the traditional French model, with a sauce cook, fish cook, grill cook, garde manger and so on. Instead, most dishes are prepared in a single work area equipped with one piece of equipment that’s crucial to that recipe: a steam-injected oven, a fryer, a flattop, a freezer.
Undeviating precision is the rule for many recipes. Nathan Myhrvold’s carrot soup, for instance, specifies weights to the tenth of a gram. A few chefs have given him leeway for interpretation, though. Colagreco suggested that the mushrooms in the Forest should reflect what’s in season in the Bay Area at the moment.
Would any chef have dreamed of building a restaurant like this 25 years ago? Would anyone have gone there? In Situ probably requires a steady supply of customers who care about restaurants in Lima and Copenhagen enough to have seen some of these dishes in cookbooks or at least in the Instagram accounts of the chefs in question. Lee depends on, and caters to, a class of eaters who pay attention to the global restaurant scene the way certain art hounds follow the goings-on in Basel, Miami Beach and Venice.
One thing In Situ proves, just by existing, is that certain chefs are now cultural figures in a sense that once applied only to practitioners of what used to be called high culture: literature, concert music, avant-garde painting. A Redzepi dish can be visited in an art museum in 2016, and nobody finds this very strange.
In Situ makes a good case that restaurant food can be highly expressive of an individual chef’s sensibility and of the sensibility of a particular place and time. But it probably won’t provoke the complex, shaded, sometimes contradictory personal reactions that many works of art do. Whether that means food is or is not art is something you can talk about over a sticky glass of Madeira from D’Oliveiras at the end of the meal.