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First Look: In Situ at SFMOMA

The restaurant is as eye-opening as the art at the newly renovated museum
June 24, 2016
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by Trevor Felch

Food and art — two great San Francisco passions — are coming together beautifully at the newly renovated SFMOMA with the opening of In Situ, the museum’s ground floor restaurant. Following the blueprint of a museum exhibition that's capturing a time and place, the restaurant is subbing in plates of food for works of visual art. 

For his unique collaborative exhibition concept, chef Corey Lee (Monsieur Benjamin, Benu) convinced about 90 chefs and culinary innovators from around the world (among them, his mentor Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Alice Waters) to share a personal recipe. In some cases, the chefs created a dish specifically for Lee, and in others they shared signatures dishes. Like a piece of art in the museum, each menu item is listed with the name of the dish, its chef designer, the restaurant's location, and the year it was served or initially created.

Lee sees the restaurant "as an extension of the museum’s larger mission — to present great works worldwide and make them accessible for greater public engagement. In Situ will build appreciation for culinary traditions and hopefully encourage dialogue about our relationships with food, not unlike the way SFMOMA curates and exhibits important works of art.”

The simple, open dining room seats 60, while a no-reservations lounge area with communal tables and standing room tables can hold up to 70 guests. Both the dining room and the lounge feature different à la carte selections. The former has about 15 options, including more substantial main courses, while the latter has about seven dishes, mainly as small plates. A short, classics-inspired cocktail list, wines from California, France and Central Europe, and a strong sake roster complement the food menu. Check out our slideshow below for a closer look at the food and dining room.

For now, In Situ is open daily for lunch, 11 AM–4 PM and museum tickets are not necessary. Dinner hours will begin soon.

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A playful starter of grilled onions and crêpes from Blaine Wetzel, the chef of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Wetzel trained at Noma in Copenhagen and brought the fabled Danish restaurant's foraging techniques to this tiny island inn and dining room in the San Juan Islands of Northern Washington state, accessible only by ferry.

Lobster takes center stage in a first course accompanied by a star-shaped wasabi marshmallow, mango jelly and Thai vinaigrette by Tim Raue, the chef-owner of his eponymous restaurant in Berlin. Raue is often considered the innovator who changed the Berlin dining scene into a major European capital restaurant destination after opening his flagship six years ago, thanks to the globe-trotting, relaxed but luxurious dishes like this one served at In Situ.

One of France's most legendary chefs, Michel Guérard, shared a summery warm tomato and basil tart with Lee. Diners will immediately be transported from the urban bustle of SoMa to the rustic mountain setting of Southwest France where Guérard's restaurant Les Prés d'Eugénie resides.

Matt Orlando of Amass in Copenhagen designed a Scandinavian-inspired composition of carrots, sour curd and pickled pine that's gorgeous enough to be a painting hanging on the museum walls. Orlando is originally from California and previously cooked at Noma, and, like Corey Lee, was a chef de cuisine for a Thomas Keller kitchen (Per Se in New York).

This is a fascinating Lowcountry cooking example from Sean Brock, the chef-owner of Husk in Charleston, S.C. His dish incorporates a Charleston "ice cream" and benne seeds (similar to sesame seeds) with a brown oyster stew. The ice cream isn't dairy or even ice cream. It's a scoop of Carolina gold rice that holds its shape when scooped.

Daniel Boulud, the New York-based chef and restaurateur, is behind this beautiful dressed-up Maine sea scallops dish, from when Boulud was chef at the fabled Le Cirque in Manhattan. The iconic dish is a layered casserole of scallops and black truffles within a puff pastry shell. In Situ is the restaurant for the country's foremost modern art museum, but this haute French cuisine dish certainly represents Louvre-style luxury.

RyuGin, a modern kaiseki-style restaurant in Tokyo, challenges the very traditional multicourse format of this centuries-old form of dining in Japan by blending ultra-seasonal ingredients with creative modern cooking techniques. For In Situ, RyuGin's chef Seiji Yamamoto designed a Japanese Wagyu beef sukiyaki don (rice bowl) with ginger rice and hard-boiled egg.

One dessert option currently in the lounge is a sage-smoked dark chocolate brownie from New York's Dominique Ansel (the creator of the Cronut).

San Francisco’s Aidlin Darling Design is responsible for the restaurant’s look, which features commissioned works by Rosana Castrillo Díaz and Tucker Nichols. Key atmosphere components include lots of natural light from the windows fronting Third Street and the partially exposed concrete shell of the building.

In Situ's dining room and lounge are spare on purpose, aspiring to reflect a design theme that's both refined and rough, like many of the works of art in the museum.

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