Of late, I've been able to resist temporary temptations. For over a year since it opened, I made scant little effort to get to Plum until I heard visiting Southern chef Sean Brock was coming to town and would be cooking special dinners at Coi and Daniel Patterson's outpost in the East Bay... I hastily made sure we had a spot then. The same applied for Saison. In all fairness, we had been trying to get here since Chef Josh Skenes was only doing 2 dinners a week in the Stable Cafe space - we'd make reservations and then have to cancel them. But this week, we stuck to our Wednesday 9pm timeslot for Smith@Saison - Chef Jeremy Fox's 4-day installment while Skenes is off accepting his shiny Best New Chef award at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
If we can help it, DD and I will always choose to sit at the Chef's Table or Kitchen counter - you're close to the action, and can observe the craft of the kitchen staff. But unlike most such counters, which are usually set outside the actual kitchen and thus affording some level of separation, Saison's was firmly stationed in the kitchen itself, so we were definitely in the figurative belly of the beast. We arrived around 15 minutes early for our 9pm reservation (yes, the place was full on a Wednesday night), but were immediately greeted and seated. And while the kitchen does feel like prime real estate to us, we were perched right next to the fancy ovens and a couple of burners, so I was a tad warm for a while in the beginning. Chef's Table at Saison has 4 seats total.
We had a front-row view of the the canape station, and watched the garde manger team skillfully and quickly prepare these tiny bits of deliciousness.
We received a complimentary glass of sparking wine to start (not included in the wine pairing) and subsequently, the canapes. There was a little lag between receiving our drinks and the the starters, and we chalked it up to being early. The trio of the little bites consisted of:
- A spoonful of peas, macadamia nuts, white chocolate and chocolate mint.
- Apricot puree with curry, almonds and chrystanthemum petals
- Chicken liver mousse with bing cherry and chicken skin crisp.
I enjoyed this opening salvo of peas and white chocolate, macadamia nuts and mint, perhaps the last ode to Spring, the chocolate enhancing the sweetness of the peas.
The second quenelle of apricot, almond and curry puree had a nice complexity, the curry a subtle hint, not too overwhelming.
My absolute favourite of all the canapes - the chicken liver was light and silky and smooth, the chicken skin crisp the best I'd ever had. We were encouraged to use the crisp to scoop up bits of liver and Bing cherry, the latter served as-is and unadorned. The pleasant chef at the garde manger station eventually told us that the chicken skin had been dried slowly in a 200-degree oven: an amazing technique I'd like to attempt someday. Later on, we saw him scooping more bits of the tasty stuff into another container, and I could barely restrain myself from holding out my bread plate and asking for a bit more.
Another gorgeous dish, served in a bowl that was reminiscent of sea urchin shells, and housed a beautiful little morsel of uni perfectly, nestled with batons of abalone and sea beans. Osetra caviar and creme fraiche added some richness to the uni, and a thin feather of nori leather crowned the entire bite.
Chef Fox's ode to the Jewish deli - we received quenelles of finely minced beef heart mixed with kusshi oysters, shallots and white balsamic, tasting familiarly of pickle. Pureed beets (mixed with some sort of cream?) accompanied the beef heart, and these were topped the beautiful crunchy leaves with what was presumably Chef Fox's Ficoide glaciale that he'd been raising in his gardens. A sprinkle of caraway finished the plate.
Gorgeous as well as delicious, I loved this dish, savouring the tender earthiness of the turnips, the piquant spicy bitterness of the radishes, and the rich umami of a tender turnip puree underneath the vegetables. The bright green bean-like pods were of daikon radish and were a revelation to DD and I... we vowed to try to eat more of our garden's seed pods in the future.
We sat next to a beautiful Japanese steamer that I coveted, but didn't learn that it held the morels until Chef Kim Alter lifted the lid towards the end of the evening. Huge and tender, the morel held a savoury farce of chicken, morel bits and offal sofrito. Underneath seemed to be some sort of vegetable hash that tasted a little sweet but not overly so. Charred spring onion and more ficoide completed the dish.
Our last savoury course, this also seemed the most straightforward. We had enjoyed watching the chefs place the squid on the plancha, covering it with a press so one side became beautifully caramelised. The fennell, too, was grilled; the morcilla finished in a pan on the induction burners. Accompanying this surf and turf was some tender, savoury barley. We ate the components separately rather than trying to pair them with each other; wanting to taste the individual flavours of squid and blood sausage, sea-briny and rich-sweet-spiced in turn.
Ultimately I think it was the desserts that stole the show, starting with this unassuming but amazing little pot of lemon custard, gelee and sorbet. Flavours and textures danced: froth and firm, tang and subtle-sweet. I think DD and agreed we could have each eaten 5 more servings.
The audacity of pairing chocolate mousse (that also had a somewhat icy consistency) with cucumber soup was not lost on us. Intended to bookend the first canape of mint and white chocolate, this was definitely a memorable finish to the meal. All in all we both enjoyed this finale it and were surprised that the mild richness of the mousse with the vegetal freshness of the cucumber worked so well.
A nice dinner, with dishes thoughtfully, carefully conceived and beautifully-plated. We enjoyed sitting at Chef's Table and watching the action in the kitchen led by 3 talented chefs. Next time we visit Saison, though, it will be for Chef Skenes's food and direction. But that will have to wait until August.
More photos are on Flickr here.
2124 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94110