Location: 178 Townsend Street, San Francisco, CA 94107. (415) 828-7990
Date: January 17, 2015
Cuisine: Modern American
Saison is helmed by Joshua Skenes and began just a few short years ago (2009) as a popup. Wow, from popup to three michelin stars in just 5 years! And I wanted to go even when it had only two, so heading up to San Francisco this month, visiting became an imperative.
Thankfully I have friends in the right places, because Saison is one hell of a reservation to get.
The sleek space has a kind of rustic elegance that pairs with the food like champagne pairs with caviar.
Tonight’s menu. Saison has only a single tasting menu that varies slightly from table to table and from night to night. The emphasis is, you guessed it, on seasonal ingredients.
The Saison master sommelier, my friend, and our host tonight, Max Coane — in his lair.
Tea. Infusion of some herbs from our garden.
Peppers preserved in the wood burning oven, buttermilk. This had an intense smoked pepper quality, really quite good.
All wines from my cellar:
2003 Weingut Graben-Gritsch Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Schön. 89 points. Nose of lychee pineapple lemon, creamy lemon and peach on the palate. Bright acidity medium finish. Happy to have two more.
agavin: this is really a very good food wine, particularly with this kind of subtle cuisine.
Caviar with lardo. Absolutely delicious. Quite the pork fat zing too.
Black cod, pine bouillon, young pine cones. A very nice succulent fish and mushrooms, with a soft aromatic broth.
1991 Etienne Sauzet Bâtard-Montrachet. 91 points. Dry and subdued, but very clean and nice. A bit rounded, but delicious.
Battle creek trout, its skin & roe. Crispy and unctuous. The broth was a bit sweet and absolutely stunning, particularly with the Gruner.
Abalone with bacon. Some of the most tender abalone I’ve had. The sauce was made from monkfish liver!
A vegetarian version, radishes, butter from our cows.
2000 Domaine Ramonet Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet. Burghound 93. Surprisingly open and expressive with wonderfully complex and nuanced aromas that reveal a dazzling array of floral and fruit elements followed by rich, ripe and somewhat more full-bodied flavors than usual but the additional weight is more than buffered by the racy finishing acidity and almost painfully intense back end. This is presently a good deal more forward than the ’00 Bâtard though there is clearly enough material to suggest that this will benefit from another 3 to perhaps 5 years in the cellar.
Uni on sour bread. Wow. Soft infused bread and a pure uni umph.
Salad. This was a bunch of greens.
Brussels & cabbages blistered in the fire. Some very nice brussels sprouts with a charred flavor.
Fire in the sky beet. Like a beet foie gras or something.
Toffee, milk, foie, and beer. And speaking of foie gras, this dessert-like confection was totally to die for.
1985 Domaine Jean Grivot Echezeaux. 94 points. Great wine in great shape.
Duck and cheese stuffed cabbage.
With the jus. Some delicious duck, very tender, with a fabulous jus. The cheesy cabbage was believe it or not, actually even better.
Naple long pumpkin, hung over the fire for 3 days, a bouillon of aged kelp.
1996 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Bonnes Mares. Burghound 91. Dense and intense black fruit with plenty of character is followed by rich, big, tannic flavors that are robust, indeed almost rustic. This displays lots of backbone if not much finesse with a nice note of finishing complexity. In short, the ’96 Bonnes Mares delivers solid if not truly exceptional quality in a package that will age for many years to come.
agavin: our bottle was elegant and amazing.
Red hawk mousseline, yali pears. Scrumptious smeared over the fried pastry.
and caramel cooked in the fire. Great stuff, but tiny.
Buckwheat Tea. What’s with the whole tea thing? I’m more of a coffee person (and not with dinner).
Over-ripe persimmon. I’m not a persimmon fan, but this one was great.
And some tea to take home. They sure like tea.
The larder. This place smelled incredible. A mixture of aging meat and fabulous fruits and vegetables. The Saison team believes in curing and aging things to their proper ripeness, and in ensuring the absolute best ingredients. These ducks, for example, are from their own special farm.
The open kitchen is where the magic happens.
Overall, Saison was stellar, with really focused dishes that hit with a precise little wallop. Service was an 11 too, thanks Max and Mathew team up! My only beef would be that somehow we felt we needed about two more dishes, maybe a meat savory and definitely another dessert. Oh and mignardises. We really wanted a nice plate of those!
As a note, there was a fire and smoke vibe going on. Skenes calls the flame the “heart” of the restaurant, and its predominant use, in contrast to modern cooking’s sous vide, nitro, and other flameless techniques that yield’s Saison’s peculiar “modern rustic” style. But Skenes also has a very crafty and subtle knack for flavors. They are potent and focused, but not over the top or whacky. This isn’t cerebral food either like Atelier Crenn. Nor is it the unexpected symphony of CR8. This is a sort of primal thing. The sauces are also stunning. Mostly broths, very Japanese inspired, they are generally less fat and diary driven then the classic French canon. They tended to mix sweet and tangy in a way influenced by Asia. Subtle and elegant.
It should also be noted that while Saison’s atmosphere is amazing, its food stellar, and its service flawless, there are some caveats: it’s expensive (no duh, this is a 3 star michelin). They don’t accommodate dietary restrictions as flexibly as many top restaurants (no vegetarian). Although they did handle us, and we had four distinct rule sets with six diners. Mark Bright’s wine list, while filled with great juice, will set back your plans to upgrade the private jet, but I brought my own. Max’s wine service, too, is perfect. There is only a giant ever-changing tasting menu (the way I like it — no small menu means no one can wus out), so picky eaters are out of luck.
Was it worth all this? As a priest of Dionysus and a devotee of the art of food… hell yes!