To anyone who knows me they’ll realize that my vacation planning is extensive – there are things I enjoy (the visual arts, music, and sports in no particular order) and if I can fit in some great dining all the better. Having met a number of great people in my travels and additionally finding some reviewers, critics, and bloggers who seem to share my palate the process of deciding where to eat is largely derived from them plus chowhound – a site where my question of Bay Area gourmands led to an E-mail from Joshua Skenes suggesting I should check out his restaurant, Michelin Starred “Saison,” and particularly the chef’s table option offered within.
Having heard of Chef Skenes previously from a couple of trusted palates plus Chef Carlo Mirarchi of Roberta’s in Brooklyn I will note that Saison had been on my list from the start (I asked about it directly on Chowhound) and when the chef/owner reached out to me in such a manner there was no way I could pass up the opportunity considering his extensive training under chef’s such as Vongerichten and Mina, the much praised use of a Molteni stove and Wood-Fired hearth, and the focus on seasonal (and often hand-foraged) produce…plus rumors of ultra aged meats. For the sake of full disclosure here I will note that although I was “known” to Skenes before entering the restaurant it was only as a random poster on an internet forum and I paid the same as anyone else for the chef’s table experience – $198 + tax and 18% gratuity (pre-added – I’d have left more.)
Arriving early and securing easy free parking on the corner my walk to Saison was brief and arriving at the stable-turned-fine-dining restaurant I have to admit I really liked the feel from the moment I passed through the gates. A bit disconcerting with the bathroom on one side of the courtyard and the hearth on the other I was greeted at a distance by the hostess who motioned me towards the main dining room and then ushered me through the kitchen to take my seat at the table literally in the center of the action – no glass here like L’Espalier, no corner table tucked away from the action, just me an arm’s length from two chefs preparing the night’s amuse bouche and canapés with Skenes perhaps ten feet away while a fish tank with live prawns and a room full of ingredients sat directly to my rear.
Seated on a high-backed padded stool as any number of 80’s pop-staples played overhead (Phil Collins’ “That’s All” being the highlight of the night) the setting alone justified the $50 up charge from the standard dining room menu and within moments I was greeted by the maitre d followed by the sommelier and various other members of the staff including Chef Skenes to welcome me. Invited to ask questions (particularly of Travis Cook who worked before me all evening) about anything my lack of allergies was confirmed and with my low threshold for alcohol noted (and no cocktails available) the sommelier suggested that if agreeable he’d like to pour me a “splash” of the paired wines just to give me a glimpse of how they complimented the meal – a lovely gesture I’d not seen since Per Se that I gladly agreed to.
With the kitchen working meticulously and largely in an Alinea-esque Zen save for the music and occasional calling out of orders my first course of the evening to arrive would be a dish called “eggs” paired with Domaine D’Orfeuilles Vouvray and consisting of two separate dishes – the first a simple pile of House Smoked Osetra Caviar and the second a buttery baked Puff Pastry with Egg, Crab, Steelhead Roe, Bottarga, Crème Fraiche, Micro Greens, Gold, Chervil, Beet Buds, and Buckwheat. Beginning first with the Caviar, something I generally don’t thrive on unadorned I loved the manner in which the smoke cut the brine and would compare it favorably to some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Moving next to the pastry – complex to be sure – I was absolutely wowed by the balance, particularly how the unique vegetal components (hand foraged north of the Golden Gate Bridge) paired with the more familiar savory flavors. Things were off to a great start.
Following the eggs and with the same wine pairing I received a trio of canapés prepared by Cook and his colleague including a Royal Miyagi Oyster with olive oil and lemon verbena foam, a “Tuber Theme” with parsnip puree, carrot puree, soft poached egg and parsnip chip, and finally “Radish” with three types of radishes (daikon, cherry bell, and watermelon,) a nasturtium flower, fig butter. Running the gamut from briny and bold to earth and cream to bitter-sweet all three were excellent and a well composed troika opening the palate wide for what was to come.
Moving next to the first proper course of the menu I was poured an ounce of Macon Les Tilles 2009 to go with a course called “Blue Fin.” Presented by Chef Skenes and again featuring three separate plates this dish would feature by far the most challenging item I would eat on this trip to the Bay Area in the form of a shot of gelatinous Kindai Tuna Cerebral-Spinal Fluid plus a Scallop Shell torn tartare of bluefin belly, back, and fin with jelly from roasted bones and soy plus a rice cracker with dehydrated shrimp, perilla, and salt. Beginning first with the csf – all I can do is say brace yourself for what can only be described as a gob of sea water with the essence of tuna; it wasn’t “good,” it wasn’t “bad,” but it was certainly memorable. Moving next to the tartare the only way it can be described is somewhat like toro in texture, but with an ethereal finish harkening the very essence of blue fin. Finally, the cracker, think of a shrimp chip with a vegetal finish – a breath of fresh air coming up from under the sea.
For the next course I would receive Skenes most well known signature – “Brassicas” – a dish described as Multiple forms of roasted leafs, toasted grains, soft poached quail egg, bonito oil but invariably more complex than words can convey. Beginning first with the vegetables, all from the genus Brassica and all roasted on the hearth I distinctly tasted cabbage as the overlying theme but also hints of cauliflower and with the vegetables literally paper thin and slowly dissolving in the slightly saline bouillon the textures, smell, and flavor were the very essence of nature. With toasted grains adding a toothsome mouth feel and a tinge of sweet plus a single quail egg adding a slight creaminess that seemed to enhance both the brine and the bitter this was a well composed dish from the start and on par with any vegetable course I’ve had outside of L’Arpege.
With bread service arriving at the close of Brassicas the first bread I received was house made Kalamata Olive Bread with a sweet House Churned Butter imbued with Brittany Grey Salt while a later slice of bread was a chewy pain au levain direct from the hearth – thankfully these breads were served sparingly as the olive particularly could have posed a problem resisting more.
Continuing the progression of complex tastes and the exploration of how to pair myriad flavors, colors, tastes, and textures the next course would arrive entitled “Aspic” and served in a small crystal bowl this defiant amalgam of Corn Pudding, Okra, Fava Beans, Eggplant Chips, Zucchini, Squash, Sliced Avocado, Zucchini, Rehydrated Basil Seeds, Pea Flower, Basil and Tomato Consommé Aspic would proved to be a lovely exploration of vegetables in all forms and flavors with each bite displaying something new yet entirely tasty.
For the next course a duo of plates would arrive paired with Pinot Auxerrois Val St. Gregoire 2008 and listed as “Wild Spot Prawn” on the menu this course would consist on one hand of a simple Monterey Bay Spot poached gently in sea water with prawn roe salt and on the other of a complex soup consisting of Lobster Tail, Dungeness crab, Sea Urchin, Nasturtium Leaf, and Meyer Lemon Cream with lobster bouillon infused with basil and tarragon poured tableside. Beginning first with the prawn – harvested live from the tank behind me – it was as good as one would expect, snappy, sweet, and eaten with your hands and a touch of salt quite perfect. Moving next to the soup, to this point the richest course of the menu, each of the various proteins was well represented in both portion and flavor but what truly made the dish shine was the unique manner in which the aromatics of the basil and tarragon brought out the sweetness of the cream and the sea creatures in equal balance; one bite tasting like buttered lobster with a touch of lemon and the next the distinct umami of uni.
Without a single dish short of excellent thus far the trend would continue with a dish described as “Stew” with English Peas, Little Confit of Pasternak Rabbit, Rabbit Foie Gras Farce, Slow Smoked Foie Gras with spices, foraged herbs, leaves, and flowers in Rabbit roasting juice. Generally finding rabbit to be a hit-or-miss protein but usually in love with the richness of foie gras this “Stew” was really one only in name and roasting style as the broth itself rested at the base of the bowl providing a slight gamey nuance to the otherwise vegetal composition marrying the sweet peas and bitter kale with perhaps the most mild rabbit I’ve ever tasted. Generally not one to be overshadowed the foie gras in this preparation actually proved to be largely understated – a slight gossamer finish in the background of the bright vegetable tones.
With a splash of 2004 Corton Grand Cru poured the next pair of courses would be presented by Chef Skenes himself with a sort of smile – from the preparation to the description you could tell these were dishes he was keen to show off and as it turns out they would both prove to be remarkable. Beginning first with a dish titled “Four Story Beef 6.14” my second foray into beef aged for eighty days would prove again to be an experience to remind me that not all beef is boring. Sliced lovingly in thin sheets by the chef with some served raw and others kissed by embers brought from the hearth the intensely flavorful beef was complimented gently by lime leaf powder, cured plum sauce, red and green rhubarb and a dark soy vinaigrette – each acting both solo and in concert to highlight the protein’s melt-in-the-mouth texture and deep nutty undertones.
Impressed by the beef but never favoring cow as a main course the second aged meat course of the evening would land right in my wheelhouse – a game bird beyond compare in the form of “Pigeon Philip Paine” – a 40 day aged composition of breast, thigh, and dried neck paired in a minimalistic way with ‘parts of the cherry tree,’ cured grapes, and wild flowers. Again described at length with the second half of the bird set aside for his own personal consumption this hung bird was at the height of dehydration with none of the acids remaining in the flesh but instead dark notes of wood, cocoa, and even floral notes coming through on the palate particularly both on their own and more so with the accompanying fruits. As good as it all was with the breast and thigh equally flavorful and featuring plenty of melting fat between the crisp skin and the potent flesh it was the neck that actually stood out most to me – a veritable “crackling” of pigeon with an uncanny sweetness beneath the salty top notes.
Invariably impressed at this point with nearly every aspect of Saison the next three courses – cheese and two desserts – would be paired with a delightful Niersteiner Riesling Kabinett 2008 and for the first of these courses, a dish named Lou Bergier Pichin – Marshall Farms Honey Glaze, Gold Leaf, Honey Comb, Sliced Almonds, I would find myself presented with my favorite composed cheese course to date as the smooth raw cow’s milk cheese arrived nestled in a golden brioche puff topped with a blend of honey and smoky almonds serving to balance the bold cheese while still allowing its earthen mushroom aromatics room to shine.
Moving to the sweets and having already heard much about “Preserved Lemon 1:27” from a friend I can only say that this creamy admixture of salt-preserved lemons from January 27th 2011 (first preserved then rinsed then candied in a Gastrovac with simple syrup) in Meyer lemon custard with gelee, sorbet, and chrysanthemum froth and petals was every bit as good as the rumors – the best lemon dessert I’ve ever tasted with the multiple layers and textures of lemon in sweet/sour harmony all beneath a floral/almost mint-y top note of the chrysanthemum.
For the final proper course of the evening it seemed as though Saison had finally run out of novelty – a “Chocolate” closer seemed so blasé and yet again I was not let down as this play on cocoa percentages and textures would be surprisingly dainty and refined. Featuring both Milk Chocolate and Dark Chocolate plus a caramelized Sesame Tuille and a quenelle of rice Ice Cream this three bite closer was nicely weighted and texturally pleasing – a slightly earthy yet sweet ending to an outstanding meal.
Chatting with Skenes, the sommelier, and other kitchen staff about the highs (pretty much everything, but especially the pigeon) and the lows (um, maybe the spinal jelly if I wanted to nit-pick) another two bites would arrive before I thanked the team and paid my bill – the first a delightful “Popcorn Ice Cream” that really did taste like movie-theater style buttered popcorn a Sugared Raspberry stuffed with Raspberry pate de fruit that explored three different textures but only one super concentrated flavor in a single impressive bite.
With the restaurant largely emptying out at this point and myself going on 21 consecutive hours being awake (save for some plane napping) I would again find myself chatting with the team as my bill was readied and presented with a lovely herbal Roasted tea “to help with digestion” I sat taking in the room as Benny and the Jets played overhead. With the bill presented inclusive of tax and tip payment was a breeze and with my coat in hand I was again bid farewell by Skenes and presented with not only a copy of the menu but also a small thank-you card signed by Skenes and sealed with Saison’s rubber stamp – a classy touch to say the least.
Looking back on my meal at Saison, the first of many fine dining experiences in the Bay Area, a number of things instantly come to mind – the room, the mood, the warmth and hospitality to be sure – but most of all the food, a sort of simplistic take on progressive cuisine rarely seen in top restaurants these days. While San Francisco has been long affected (and often criticized) by the influence of Alice Waters and the “local/seasonal” approach I found this to only be the backbone of what Chef Skenes is doing at Saison while in the foreground his team is taking top notch ingredients and exploring both old and new techniques to meld them into something not only complex but beautiful and delicious. It is the sort of food that resonates with you for weeks and months afterwards and makes you wish you lived closer so you could go more often, and if I do end up relocating to the Bay Area it is the sort of place I will often be.