Saison, San Francisco
April 29, 2014
Saison was originally a catering space and then a pop-up restaurant on Mission Street. Chef Joshua Skenes turned it into permanent, five-day restaurant in 2010 and received rave reviews. A year ago, he reopened Saison in a new, very well equipped facility on Townsend Street. It is a difficult reservation to get despite having the highest prices in the Bay area. Fortunately, my niece, Wendy, was able to get a reservation there for the evening of February 15, 2014, for Linda and me to join her and her husband, Sam.
Linda and I had to start out early on foot from our hotel in the Union Square area because the Chinese New Year’s Parade had completely tied up traffic in a large area around it. About a third of the way to Saison, we were able to call an Uber car and arrived early at the restaurant. We were warmly welcomed, seated in the bar area in front and offered a glass of Champagne. When Sam and Wendy arrived a few minutes later, we were seated at our table.
Saison‘s dinner starts at $248 per person. There is no written menu or choices, but they adjust for food allergies. One can choose to add extra “luxury” courses. Wine pairings are offered, but we decided to order two bottles..
Here is a view of the spacious, modern kitchen which I took through a kitchen street window before we entered the restaurant.
There is no barrier between the dining area and the kitchen. We were fortunate in being given the table closest to the plating area, almost in it. In this photo, which I took from my place at the table, you can see Josh Skenes at his plating station framed by Linda and Sam. This view of the activity kept me busy the whole evening and is one reason I missed out on noting down or remembering many ingredients and impressions during the meal.
There were four other reasons. We were promised that we would be given a list of our dishes on our departure. To my dismay it only included one or two words for each course. They are shown in their entirety in boldface below. While the restaurant was not very noisy, there was a constant hubbub of conversations and kitchen noise; this made it hard for me to hear the descriptions given by the servers. The menu changes daily and I could not find the dishes we were served in the enthusiastic reports of other restaurant bloggers. And, of course, we were enjoying our conversation with Sam and Wendy. So I am sorry that this blogpost is sketchier than most of mine, even though this is a restaurant of great interest.
We ordered a bottle of Sandhi Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, which went well with the first half of the menu. It was followed by a bottle of 2011 Rhys Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley in the northern end of California’s wine growing region. We also enjoyed this.
Even before we had finished our Champagne, we were presented with the house aperitif: sake with a dab of shochu, which made it more substantial.
Well, the terse list of courses we were given to take home at the end says “sardines,” but I heard herring when it was served and it seemed more like mackerel to me. Anyway, it appropriately had a lot stronger flavor than the first two.
Every now and then I could see a big flareup in the wood fire towards the back right of the kitchen. This was abalone being seared, which gave it a nice char on top and left it just firm in the middle. There was a good purée underneath.
Wendy, who is allergic to shellfish, was served a grilled sea cucumber, with dipping sauce.
We had been watching the Parker House rolls for other tables go into and out of the oven to our right. Finally, our turn came and they were presented as a loaf of six, hot with a sprinkle of coarse salt on top. They were luscious.
This quarter of a pigeon torte was elegant and rich, quite a contrast with what had come before. Saison is known for aging its pigeons, but if this was aged pigeon, the refinement of taste was somewhat lost in the elaborate preparation. The whole course, with its appropriate garnishes, was very good.
Linda was quite intrigued when this course was proposed as a supplement. Since it was quite expensive, she ordered two for the four of us to share. Two whole, fresh, trimmed truffles were presented on a bed of wild rice. I took a photo of one while ours was being shaved over a sort of risotto custard preparation, which you can see as the first shavings fall on it and again when the shavings were done. In my humble opinion, black winter truffles like this should be cooked into receptive ingredients which capture their flavor as it is released. This seemed like a waste of good truffle to me as its flavor is not really brought out raw. This would have been an excellent way to serve fall white truffles, which these were not.
Fresh canelés, hot, caramelized and crisp on the outside, soft and custardy inside. An excellent finish.
All of the dishes were good, well conceived and well executed with top quality ingredients which were allowed to shine, but I didn’t think that most of them were at the very high level of Saison‘s reputation, ambition and high prices. I felt that they lack the joie de vivre and creative inspiration that I look for at the top. (Incidentally, I also have this disappointment in Per Se.) I do not think that any will be on my “Best dishes of 2014” list. An informed observer recently suggested to me that Skenes has sought safety now that he has achieved so much success. My feelings may have resulted from the enjoyable distractions that I mentioned above. Perhaps one needs to concentrate harder to be able to appreciate the fine distinctions in the ingredients, but I do have an experienced palate. At the bottom of this blogpost I have attached an interesting observation on this subject, which may be an insight, or maybe not.
This observation from San Francisco chef Michael Hung is on the Saison website notes:
If a diner doesn’t perceive the quality and taste difference of a fish that costs $80 a pound from a fish that costs $20 a pound, does it matter which fish is served?
Often, this question is the chef’s proverbial tree falling in the woods. Though the diner might not experience any difference, a chef who has many years of training, has consciously developed his palate, and retains a trove of flavor memory, will be able to differentiate between the two fish.
The recognition of quality makes our initial question more difficult to answer. On the one hand, a restaurant is a business and it makes good business sense to choose the most economical product with the best quality. But what if the restaurant is more than a business?
When talking to Chef Josh about the relocation of Saison, it is apparent that his restaurant is more than just a business for him. He started at the Folsom Street location, in the humble beginnings of a catering kitchen, to cook what he wanted, how he wanted. With each incarnation of Saison, the how and what became progressively refined, but the core nature has remained. “Consider the ingredient. Cook it in a way that brings out the best of that ingredient.” And so, when the chef buys his fish, he chooses the one of higher quality, quality he can taste, even if it is more expensive, even if he can’t be sure a diner will notice.
Such a decision illustrates an often disregarded nature of the craft. The creative cooking process is governed by countless decisions, some as simple as what dimension to cut a vegetable, others as complex and nuanced as how long to simmer a sauce. These decisions are not random, but are informed by the cook’s system of values. We cook according to our beliefs. We maintain consistency and quality by holding to our beliefs, by refusing to compromise even if we are the only ones to know. Especially if we are the only ones.
Saison is not only a restaurant. It is a workshop dedicated to craft, a collection of people upholding a system of values that they believe makes for the best food, the best dining experience. The cooks clean their herbs according to these values. The butcher cuts squab with the same philosophy.
In each individual plate, a diner at Saison might not be acutely aware of the choices made by the chef and his cooks. They might not know the difference between an $80 fish and a $20 fish. But everything at Saison is imbued with the philosophy of quality. When a diner experiences quality in the food, in the plates the food is served on, in the hand-knitted shawls brought to guests on chilly nights, the philosophy is felt, and it through feeling that we become compelled.