I’m no stranger to high-end food and its attendant insane price tags (see my recent $500 sushi meal). But I did a double-take when I saw that In Situ, the new restaurant at the recently renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), is serving a bowl of soup on its dining room menu (pictured above) that comes in at a whopping $45— that's $38 plus the mandatory 20 percent service charge added to the bill. I’ve eaten a $75 foie-gras-and-truffle-strewn burger and a $100 caviar-laced donut, but the idea of charging this much for a single serving of soup seemed particularly outrageous. And of course I couldn't wait to try it.
Photo credit: Eric Wolfinger
In Situ's concept is brilliant: The menus at the walk-in lounge and reservations-only dining room include new and classic dishes made from recipes by famous international chefs. In the lounge right now, for example, you can grab a plate of ketchup fried rice conceived by L.A. chef Roy Choi and chase it down with a sage-smoked dark chocolate brownie from Dominique Ansel, the New York City pastry chef behind the cronut craze.
In the dining room, you might choose a main course of spicy pork sausage rice cakes, a favorite at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar in Manhattan; or you might go for a duck breast with French green lentils, apples and aged red wine vinegar sauce (both dishes pictured below), a 1995 recipe from Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in Napa, where In Situ chef Corey Lee cooked before opening his first San Francisco restaurant Benu in 2010. As for the duck itself? It has a famous pedigree too: It comes from Sonoma’s celebrated Liberty Ducks.
Spicy Pork Sausage Rice Cakes and Liberty Duck Breast photo credit: Eric Wolfinger
Those dishes can be followed by a palate-cleansing dessert of icy wood sorrel slush and sheep’s milk yogurt from superstar Danish chef René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, or the luxe Interpretation of Vanity, a chocolate cake served with cold almond cream and cocoa bubbles by Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz in Spain (both pictured below).
Wood Sorrel & Sheep's Milk Yogurt photo credit: Eric Wolfinger; Vanity photo credit: Tamara Palmer
It's now common for chefs to pay tribute to other chefs on a menu or to invite guests in from around the world to cook at their restaurant in pop-up-style dinners, but In Situ is the first West Coast restaurant to create entire menus in collaboration with so many leading international minds. Food & Wine has had success with a similar concept at its two Chefs Club restaurants in New York City and Aspen, where seasonal menus are created with the help of the magazine's Best New Chef honorees and celebrity chefs worldwide come in to cook for brief stints.
It’s a bold statement for chef Cory Lee to open an ambitious restaurant like this within SF MOMA, and to essentially declare that food should also be respected and showcased as fine art. Perhaps that valuation is part of the reason why the Umami Soup from Japanese chef Hisato Nakahigashi of Miyamasou in Kyoto is priced the way it is (it's the most expensive item on the menu, by the way)—a price-point determined not only by the slivers of high-priced, miso-marinated Japanese Wagyu beef that crown the top of the bowl like shimmering red jewels.
Umami Soup photo credit here and top: Eric Wolfinger
The soup has bits of local asparagus (the chef’s nod to California) and Inaniwa udon, thin strands of wheat noodles made in the Akita prefecture in Northern Japan. I split the order, which is about the size of a typical ramen bowl, with a friend. Neither of us are cheap when it comes to treating ourselves with food, but we were each determined to get our $22.50 worth, if such a thing is possible. The soup was, in fact, extremely delicious, a few slurps of pure heaven: The light broth has a subtle tinge of citrus and a heavy dose of umami, the Japanese term that translates to “pleasant savory taste” and tugs on your tongue in a way that straightforward sweet, salty and bitter flavors don’t.
A psychological block about the price tag did slightly get in the way of enjoying the Umami Soup to the fullest. I tried to let my fleeting tastes transport me to the serene Kyoto mountain where Miyamasou is located, and the sensation was briefly blissful. But would I ultimately rather have two large gourmet pizzas for the same price? Possibly, because I was so hungry a few hours later I actually had to order one.
There were other issues too: The service at the restaurant one week after opening was still not where it should be at such an ambitious place. Errors that would annoy a diner at any restaurant, let alone one with such high prices, kept happening—basic things like receiving a dish we requested as an appetizer in the middle of one of our main courses, a tiny “Apocalypse Burger” from Anthony Myint of Mission Chinese Food in SF and NYC (pictured below). That burger was served in a black rice cracker fashioned to look like a charcoal briquette, a commentary on food-related carbon offsets ($1 of the dish is donated to nonprofit org Zero Footprint). We took confused pictures of it for five minutes and wondered what the heck it was before someone bothered to tell us that an actual cheeseburger, tiny and terrific-tasting, was inside. Art doesn't always have to be explained, but a little tip on that would have been swell.
Apocalypse Burger photo credit: Tamara Palmer
We also had to hound the servers for refills of regular and hot water, which wouldn’t have been a huge deal had the staff not stretched out our lunch for hours. But our senses of humor got a kick out of the mistakes that happened in between the wonderful dishes; those screw-ups added to the theatricality of the whole meal. I decided, after all that, to admit that this was still one of the weirdest and coolest food experiences (and not just bowls of soup) I’d ever had.
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