Date Visited: May 10, 2013
Price: $298 per person
** 2-Star Michelin Restaurant
Saison has been one of the most compelling meals I’ve ever had, earning itself two Michelin stars. As a prediction, I am certain that it is just a matter of time before they receive a third. Chef-owner Joshua Skenes made a huge move near the end of 2012 from a barnlike pop-up in the Mission District during the early days over to a historic brick building near AT&T Park in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco. This is typically dubbed Saison 3.0. Chef Skenes was destined to reach the highest levels of culinary excellence from the beginning. He started his career in the kitchen of Jean-Georges in New York while attending the French Culinary Institute. After a few more stints, he became the executive chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View. With partner and Sommelier Mark Bright, Saison was born several years later.
A meal at Saison is not cheap. The elaborate tasting menu costs $298 (before tip, tax, and beverages) per person, which puts it at one of the most expensive restaurants in America. There is no flamboyant show with excessive artistry or grand view overlooking the city. The concept is simple and the focus is on the food and cooking. There is no bullshit. Chef Skenes takes a holistic approach that allows diners to really get a feel for each ingredient with the use of fire. Fire is the centerpiece of the Saison experience. Every dish prepared incorporates elements from the fire. All the ingredients are sourced from the very best places around the world, bar none. The presentation is honest.
Upon entering Saison, I felt at home. There was an earthy and warm ambiance and 80’s music playing in the background. The open kitchen was at one end of the room such that I could see, smell, and hear everything going on. Our table was about 10 feet away. Every little detail had been put through serious thought from the silverware, stemware, linen, plates, etc. The evening’s menu was presented at the wooden table with one word to describe each course. We each enjoyed a glass of white wine before the meal.
Alongside wonderful company, I was prepared for an evening of surprise and anticipation. I was on the edge of my seat for most of the meal and played a fun guessing game with the upcoming courses based on the one-word titles. Every bite (all 18 courses) to come, as depicted by the photos, was interesting. Not to sound cliche, but Saison taught me that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Let’s begin.
We started off with a series of amuse bouches. The first was a rhubarb soda. If you paid attention to the details, you’ll notice that around the rim lies a bed of forget-me-nots (type of flower) and grapefruit zest. Light and fruity, it was a refreshing opener.
The next amuse bouche was a warm custard. Atop the pea purée was an edible gold leaf. Amazing.
The third and final amuse bouche was caviar that was smoked over fire. We used the spoon to crack the crisp croquant on top and thoroughly enjoyed this entire dish.
The next course was a series of small bites, otherwise known as ‘cru’.
Here we had a cherry blossom sea bream that was kissed by a coal. Draped over the top was a grilled bone gelee. It was enjoyed in one bite using the provided chopsticks.
This monkfish liver has been grilled over embers alongside live sea scallop, smoked creme fraiche, pickled daikon, and dried cherry blossoms on top. This was also enjoyed in one bite.
The bluefin tuna has been seared over fire with pickled vegetables and prickly ash (the leaves on top). If you look really closely, there is some dust, which was actually sea urchin salt.
The final cru was a tasting of trout. On the plate was smoked rainbow trout, sea salt, and creme fraiche. On the bowl was golden trout roe over potato and ramp vichyssoise. I thought the “floating in the air” presentation was very well done. We used our fingers and enjoyed both in one bite.
The next course was a Monterey Bay abalone that has been roasted over the fire very quickly. The stew was made of abalone liver. Anything green on the plate was succulent.
In this course, we were given a small plate of creme fraiche, which was used as the dip (pictured off to the side). The colorful plate in front of us was bitter vegetables – wild herbs – foraged by the chefs at Saison. Everything was edible and enjoyed by only using our fingers.
Bread fresh out of the oven with cultured aged butter. The bread was very fluffy and light. Perfectly baked and slightly sweetened. It was made in a loaf so it was meant to be broken.
The cod is poached in seawater with curry spices. Hands down the best cod I’ve ever had in my life. The flavors were well balanced and interesting enough to make me want more after each small bite.
Our entire party was clearly enjoying this course. One interesting fact we learned was that the unique handmade plate has a ~50% survival rate after the drilling holes into it.
Brassicas are the the genus plants of the mustard family. Saison takes the different leaves of the different brassicas and dehydrates them over the fire throughout the day. The dish is finished with a wild seaweed bullion.
Surrounded by shadows, this course gives off a mysterious vibe. Deep inside a black egg-shaped cup lies an explosion of strong flavors. A toffee made of white chocolate and duck liver accompanied by milk bread at Saison.
Mendocino lamb, cooked for 3 hours and roasted slowly over a flame. I’m not the biggest fan of lamb courses, but Saison’s was excellent. The distinct lamb taste was more subtle and not overbearing.
The cheese course. Harbison from Jasper Hills Farm in Vermont made as a tartlet. On top, there were black walnuts and young juniper. At the bottom, there was jus made from strawberries roasted in ash. I often opt out of cheese courses, but this was the best that I have ever had.
Grapefruit, oro blanco, oxalis, meringue
Sorbet made from oro blanco (a cross between an acidless pomelo and a white grapefruit). I think of this course as a palate cleanser. The iciness was refreshing.
Gorgeous presentation. The black sesame gelato melted right into the souffle. Creamy and not too sweet. I can eat this every week. In fact, writing about it makes me yearn for this exact dish. It may be one of the stars of the show in my book.
Tea, rhubarb terrine, bourbon caramel, earl grey truffle
Nearing the end of the incredible meal, we were served roasted buckwheat tea with a few little bites to go with it. One being a rhubarb terrine with whipped creme fraiche and a mallow blossom. Another was a macaron of brown butter and bourbon toffee. Lastly, there was a liquid center earl grey truffle. The truffle was very fragile and must be taken in one bite. As soon as I bit into it, the liquid delightfully exploded into my mouth. I saved the truffle, the best, for last.
This was my first time eating a canele, which is a cake with a custardy interior enclosed by a thin caramelized shell. I recommend the ones at Boulette’s Larder in the Ferry Building if you’re looking for quality caneles.
It was a great honor to have Chef Joshua Skenes cook for us. With focus on sourcing the best materials around the world, one can only experience the highest level of cooking at Saison. Fire is the soul of the restaurant and I can vouch for its powers as nearly every course was either roasted, smoked, or grilled by the hearth. Although simple, the flavors were intensified. The 3 hour meal passed by quickly and I left wanting more. That is the greatest sign for what I believe to be a world class dining experience.
Yelp Review: http://www.yelp.com/biz/saison-san-francisco-2
4.5 out of 5 stars. 40+ reviews.
178 Townsend St
San Francisco, CA 94107 (map)
Tel: (415) 828-7990
Tue-Sat 6 pm – 9 pm