Three-Michelin starred chefs behind In Situ restaurant in San Francisco

Like most great ideas, the concept behind In Situ is so devilishly simple you wonder why someone hasn't done it before. Invite a selection of the world's top chefs to contribute a dish then create a restaurant to showcase them.

Headed up by three Michelin-starred chef Corey Lee, In Situ features recipes by more than 80 gastronomic greats – including Rene Redzepi, from Noma, David Chang, from Momofuku, and Peter Gilmore, from Quay.

The inspiration for the restaurant came from its setting inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The museum presents a curated selection of the world's finest art; In Situ does the same for food.
It's a concept that certainly impressed The New York Times. Shortly after In Situ opened in June last year, the paper declared it "America's most original new restaurant". 

As a result, I arrive with suitably high expectations. And not just about the food. Surely Michelin-starred cuisine deserves a lavish, glittering setting?

Apparently not. My guest and I are escorted into what looks like an Ikea cafe. The concrete-floored space is flanked by two plain black walls and lit by simple down lights suspended from a wooden ceiling. Diners sit on unforgiving wooden benches or chairs around unadorned wooden tables. There's not a plush carpet or velvet tassel in sight.

The only colour comes from a collection of 50 simplistic paintings of food on the far wall – an installation that to my untrained eye resembles the art wall of a kindergarten. 
I tentatively open the menu. If I see Swedish meatballs with lingonberry jam, I'm out of here.

To my relief, the menu is meatball-free. And surprisingly simple. There are 14 dishes (categorised as small, medium or large) and 14 wines (all available by the glass). A handy lettering system suggests which wines to pair with each dish and another symbol indicates if a dish is "shareable".

We kick off with the caramelised carrot soup. Served in a shot glass topped with coconut foam, it's thick, sweet, creamy and delicious. The dish was devised by Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief strategist of Microsoft, who went on to write Modernist Cuisine, an encyclopaedic guide to the science of contemporary cooking.

Next up is Anthony Myint's diminutive but tasty Apocalypse Burger, whose "bun" is a black crispy hollow shell made to resemble a charcoal briquette. As the founder of Mission Street Food, Myint is famous for donating a percentage of his profits to humanitarian causes. It's a principle that's been implemented here too – a dollar from every Apocalypse Burger goes to Myint's carbon offset program Zero Foodprint.

On paper, the next dish sounds like a car crash: fried lobster (surely a mistake?) smothered in wasabi mayo with Thai vinaigrette, mango jelly and two wasabi-flavoured marshmallows. 

On the plate, it's a triumph. The lobster is light and tender, there's a delightful tartness to the vinaigrette and the creamy wasabi sauce delivers a wonderful eye-watering nose rush. The person responsible? Tim Raue, a former Berlin street gang member turned two-Michelin-starred chef.

The beauty of having more than 80 world-class recipes at your disposal is that you can continually switch up the menu. In general, Lee keeps courses on for two to three months but Mauro Colagreco's The Forest is a notable exception. The dish was such a hit from the outset that it's never been taken off.

It's hard to reconcile its rather bland description – quinoa risotto with mushrooms and parsley "moss" – with the intriguing prospect in front of me. Covering the risotto is a tangle of leaves, mushrooms, flowers and twigs. It looks like someone has scooped up a handful of undergrowth and artfully arranged it in a bowl. And in a way it tastes like that too – earthy, rich, creamy and delicious.

For dessert our server steers us towards the Jasper Hill Farm Cheesecake by Albert Adria (brother of the legendary Ferran Adria who headed up El Bulli in Spain). It arrives on a wooden cheese board and at first glance looks like a small wheel of brie. In actual fact, it's a sinfully rich white chocolate cheesecake and the "crackers" surrounding it are heavenly butter cookies. It's hard to imagine a more decadent finale.

In most restaurants, food of this calibre would be served by whispering wait staff in a sumptuous setting. Not here. Much like the museum it's attached to, In Situ lets the art take centre stage.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/san-francisco
sftravel.com

FLY

United flies to San Francisco from Sydney and Melbourne. See united.com

EAT

In Situ is open Thursday to Tuesday for lunch and Thursday to Sunday for dinner. In addition to the main dining room, there's also a casual lounge area that serves drinks and snacks. 151 Third Street, San Francisco. See insitu.sfmoma.org

STAY

Located two blocks from Union Square, the chic 196-room Hotel Zeppelin opened last year and combines the city's psychedelic past with striking contemporary design. See viceroyhotelsandresorts.com

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of United, In Situ and Hotel Zeppelin.
 

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