Saison’s website proclaims that there is no dress code, and urges folks to “come as you are.” While the food is elevated, there’s a nice dichotomy between the white-tablecloth cuisine and the service and warmth of the staff. We had finally made it - after a couple of years and one pop-up when Chef Skenes was away.
How to describe Saison with words of praise that have already been said in a style far better than mine? DD and I had a wonderful meal here, full of beautiful and delicious moments. Sometimes, it might be better to just let the food speak for itself.
As usual we asked to sit at the chef’s counter, where we had a great view of the kitchen staff. Chef Joshua Skenes manned the fish station for most of the evening, slicing up the delicate slices of crudo with methodical and intense precision.
Our amuse arrived from the Canape station directly in front of us: first a small dish of American Smoked Sturgeon Reserve Caviar, accompanied by an intricate and somewhat large morsel of Sardinian Music Paper flatbread, smoked creme fraiche, shad roe, bottarga, white and yellow egg yolks, artichoke citronee and hand-foraged flowers. Our server instructed us to spoon some caviar atop the flatbread using the small mother-of-pearl spoon, and bite away. It was a little awkward to eat, I must admit, but: what a beautiful cacophony of flavours and textures! I had to take several bites rather than just one.
Then followed a trio of more canapes: the most beautiful of which was a luminous shotglass of egg yolk and parsnip - rich and sweet. Other bites included a Miyagi Oyster with the tiniest brunoise of cucumber and a bit of lemon verbena foam; and the following:
...a teeny, tiny mille-feiulle of several radishes: watermelon and cherry belle, and an audacious sliver of bitter-melon. The bite was the faintest bit bitter, but fresh and crisp and radish-earthy.
The flight of fish was perhaps one of my favourite dishes of the evening, with carefully cut and aged and lightly-seasoned fish were presented before us. In addition, we were provided with finger bowls of lemon water to rinse (as we were urged to use our hands in consuming the fish); bonito shoyu for dunking; and a truly savoury and addicting house-made shrimp cracker sprinkled with nori. (I could have consumed a bagful!) From left-to-right: Sea bream, Lobster wrapped in radish, Bincho clam, Horse Mackerel, Toro, Striped Jack, and Amber Jack. Though we were supposed to consume the fish from left-to-right, I had to save the Toro for my last bite.
Another highlight of the evening - a dish simply titled "Brassicas" - containing a number of the cruciferous vegetable: we identified kale, cauliflower, teeny bits of Romanesco broccoli, each prepared somewhat differently and served with a deliciously warm poached egg, mixed grains: barley, farro, and the most amazing puffed rice that stayed crisp despite the molten eggyolk and the dashi broth that accompanied everything.
This dish reminded me a little of a seafood dish we were served at Mugaritz. Chef Skenes served the plate himself and explained that the "risotto" was actually pieces of squid, cut to resemble the rice in a risotto - firm, chewy, the most perfect al dente finish. The broth that coated the grains of rice was squid jus, but jus distilled to the nth power, it was so umami and flavourful and delicious. I also loved the more sizeable squid bits cooked and seared on the induction-burner-plancha; in some cases the sear was so hot that it made some of the suckers on one of the tentacles puff up like crisp rice crackers. I thought this dish far and away surpassed what we had at Mugaritz.
Summer in a bowl arrived next, cool and refreshing: a flavourful corn pudding in an acidulated aspic surrounding crisp-tender bits of eggplant, squash, summer beans, avocado and okra; basil seeds and nasturtium petals dotted the dish.
For the 6th course we were brought a series of small dishes: the first, in the lower right, was a small dish of prawn roe salt. In the upper left, a beautiful bowl that seemed starkly white at first with a crisped Nasturtium leaf dramatically floating in some kind of creamy broth. It turned out to be a totally rich lobster nage that had hints of cardamom, filled with bits of dungennes crab and topped with a luminous and sublime morsel of uni.
Off in the upper right, the Santa Barbara spotted prawn, cooked gently in sea water so that its flesh was just barely firm, did not need much of the roe salt thoughtfully provided by the kitchen. We did, however, need the lemon-scented towels as the prawns proved to be so juicy that DD managed to splatter his shirt with the shrimp "water" as he peeled the head from the body. Luckily, he had chosen a dark shirt that night. I somehow managed to escape unscathed; most of my prawn’s excess juices went on the side of my bowl instead. A few courses later, one of our neighbors, who were about 2-3 paces behind us, managed to splatter DD one more time. He was thoroughly apologetic, and even offered to pay for DD’s cleaning, which DD of course laughingly demurred, saying that it was definitely not necessary since he himself had already done a good job of soiling the shirt earlier.
Pasternack is a reference to the proprietors of Devil's Gulch Ranch, Mark and Myriam, who run a farm offering sustainable produce and humanely-raised animal products. I loved this savoury dish, composed of an utterly tender farce of rabbit loin and foie gras wrapped in a silky collard leaf; a stew of rabbit leg confit; peas and onions; crisp dandelion green, bulls' blood sprouts; and savoury rabbit jus with flavoured with thyme and rosemary.
I asked about the name for these - apparently these are called "heartbreads" rather than sweetbreads since they sit lower along the glandular line within the animal, and are probably pancreatic rather than from the thymus. These beautiful little morsels of goodness were crusted with Berber spices and had that wonderful crisp-crunchy-soft textural contrast to delight the palate. These accompanied the beef dish below - DD found these too rich, and could not finish, and I was happy to consume 3 of 4 all by myself.
DD revived somewhat with this dish, which, despite its being a meat dish, was light and even delicate. The 52-day aged beef was more of a carpaccio, silky and rich. Accompanying the sushi-like meat were crisp and thinly-mandolined rhubarb slices, tiny rounds of scallion, while macadamia nuts and thin slices of lardo provided counterpoints of richness. The ultimate luxury, however, was that the vinaigrette oil used came from the marrow bones and random assorted bits of fat from the beef!
We were definitely getting full, but certainly could not pass up this beautiful Nuvola di Pecora Sheep's Milk cheese turned into a mouselline, served with Brioche, honeycomb and a sticky, nutty bit of Almond panad - almost candylike - nestled on the bottom of the honeycomb brioche.
We finished off with a trio of desserts: first, my favourite, which I had tasted at the Smith@Saison dinner some months ago - the Preserved Lemon 1.27 (from lemon preserved on January 27th); Milk and Chocolate, with soy salt and sesame crisp; and finally, a Popcorn ice cream. Mignardises in the form of simply-sugared raspberries completed the meal. Ultimately I was not wowed by any of the sweet stuffs except for the Preserved Lemon cocotte - the rest of the meal had truly overshadowed the sweet ending.
Since Saison opened on a twice-a-week basis in mid-2009, I had only managed to make it to Chef Skenes' casual food-cart experiment: Carte415. For some reason, whenever I had tried making reservations for the then-pop-up/ now much lauded restaurant proper, I always had to cancel. Something always didn't quite work out. Over the time that Saison's been open, Chef Skenes has won a ton of awards and accolades and has plans to move Saison from this somewhat sleepy outpost in the Mission/ SoMA to the more respectable FiDi in San Francisco. It's intended to become a one-seating per evening sort of restaurant, and I wonder if they'll continue with Chef's Kitchen Table. Whatever Saison becomes in the future, I'm glad to have been able to visit at Stable Cafe, where Chef Skenes and team first started out, and began soaring almost immediately.
We had our 6-year anniversary dinner here was on August 6th, 2011.
2124 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94110