Saison (San Francisco, CA)
2124 Folsom St
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dining date: 12/27/11
Saison may have been my most anticipated meal in San Francisco in 2011. Chef Josh Skenes (Chez TJ, Stonehill Tavern) is cooking very modern French-Californian cuisine using locally sourced (including foraged) ingredients centered around a dining room hearth. A lot of restaurants are doing the local and farm-to-table thing nowadays, but Skenes is bringing a deceptively simple, restrained yet very thoughtful, approach to his food.
Opened in 2009, it was a SF Chronicle best new restaurant in 2010 and exploded onto the national (international?) scene in 2011. This past year, Skenes and Saison achieved a seemingly endless list of accolades, perhaps none more noteworthy than 2 Michelin stars in the latest guide.
While I happily would have paid full price to dine here, I stumbled upon a LivingSocial deal at the end of October for the full tasting menu & wine pairing for $189 (valued at $246 then, $306 now). I’m typically averse to these Groupon-like deals given annoying restrictions or abbreviated menus, but this deal was for exactly the same menu with the only stated stipulation being that it had to be Tuesday-Thursday. So, I went for it and purchased two.
Unbeknownst to me until the day of (it was my fault for not mentioning the deal when making the reservation), only two tables are able to redeem the voucher per night (Tue-Thu). Given there is a 72-hour cancellation policy of $198pp, I was stuck. I understand it’s the restaurant’s prerogative on how the vouchers are redeemed, but I would’ve appreciated more disclosure on this (there was nothing on the LivingSocial website, the restaurant’s website, or even any mention when the restaurant called to confirm). I don’t know how many vouchers were sold, but allowing two tables per night for three days a week doesn’t sound like easy redemption. Given I don’t live in San Francisco, redemption of the voucher was not reasonably possible and I likely would not have purchased it in the first place. In the end, I was able to plead my case and have the paid value of my vouchers ($189 each) applied to the cost of the dinner, essentially making it a net-zero deal. Still, the damage was done.
Currently the menu lists 8 “courses,” but that’s more of a guideline – the actual number of courses tends to be in the low-teens. That menu is $198 (making this the most expensive restaurant in the city), but there’s also an option to dine on an extended menu at the chef’s counter for $498pp (all-inclusive). However, each seat in the main dining room includes a view of the open kitchen – a nice touch.
We started with a trio of egg dishes.
Domaine Carneros Brut 2007
A hearth-roasted chicken gelee was topped with sea urchin, a delicious combination. A subtle but present woody, smoky flavor clearly came through too. Cool, refreshing and a perfect dish to get the appetite going. Quite nice.
Next was this shooter of trout roe in tandem with a fried quail egg, mermaid’s hair seaweed, dehydrated shrimp and cornichons. Again, a smoky sea flavor came through in the roe shooter, while the bite provided additional depth of egg/sea flavor, with some texture from the dehydrated shrimp and dried seaweed.
Lastly, we had a (large) bite of egg, both well-cooked and soft-cooked, accompanied by smoked creme fraiche, flowers, and greens. Subtle flavors, but a nice play on textures.
Next was the first “off-menu” course.
grilled oyster, cucumber, lemon verbena
Light and refreshing, it was a good oyster. The lemon verbena added a slight lemon flavor without the tartness or acid.
Donnhoff Riesling, Nahe, Germany 2010
The first in a duo of dishes featuring bluefin tuna. The meat was pulled apart by an oyster shell, giving it an almost stringy feel to it. Japanese flavor profiles of soy and a rice vinegar added a lot of savory depth to the dish, while some of the tuna fat was roasted in the embers of the hearth, lending more richness. The rice cracker added some fun texture to the bites. A delicious dish.
The next dish had a lot of components: artichoke, tomato, capers, seaweed vinegar and fried bluefin head. I thought the bluefin got lost in the mix, and also found the dish to be heavy-handed with the salt.
At the conclusion of the course, we received the first bread – kalamata olive bread baked fresh in the hearth (and served piping hot!). Loved that there was fresh bread…it was pretty tasty. Served with a creamy house-churned butter with gray salt.
brassicas brassicas, grains, quail egg
Sandhi Chardonnay, Santa Barbara 2010
I thought this was another outstanding dish – a play on different textures, greens and grains. I liked the balance of various hearth-tinged vegetables and grains, while a warm dashi broth and quail egg brought everything together.
crustacean lobster tail, meyer lemon creme, compressed aromatics, prawn roe salt
Marisa Cuomo Ravello, Campania, Italy 2009
A small piece of lobster floated in a delicious, herbal broth. Some meyer lemon creme added citrus flavor, as well as a little more body to the soup. Deep, savory flavors. The prawn roe salt was fun too.
liver foie gras toffee, milk foam, pomelo
Reutberger Dunkel, Germany
This was an interesting dish, a mad scientist’s experiment creating a creamy foie gras with a clear toffee flavor. Was it sweet? Savory? How about both – and it really worked well.
The second bread out of the oven was this milk bread, also served hot. Definitely less flavorful than the olive bread, it was really light and kind of airy.
wood pigeon thirty-eight day aged squab, persimmon, tangerine, pomegranate, huckleberry, chili, olives
Selvapiana Chianti Classico, Italy 2009
I was highly anticipating this piece of dry-aged squab; for sure something unique for me. Very chewy, sort of stringy but definitely full of the characteristic squab flavor. Pretty interesting. I’m not sure I preferred it to fresh squab, but I’m glad I tried it. Some fresh winter fruits added sweetness to counter the rich meat, while some chili and olives added extra heat and salty tones, respectively.
Next up was the cheese course.
sheep’s milk cheese, almond croquant, brioche, honeycomb
The cheese was warm, mild and creamy, filling the brioche…basically like a cheese puff. I liked the use of honey with both the honeycomb and honey-glazed brioche.
preserved lemon 1:27 preserved lemon, chrysanthemum
Domaine d’Orfeuilles Vouvray, Loire, France 2009
The lemon in this dish was preserved for 11 months; clean flavors and quite refreshingly sweet, I especially appreciated the balance of the chrysanthemum foam.
nawlins chicory ice cream, dehydrated milk foam, new orleans style coffee, beignet
Badia di Morrona Vin Santo 2006
I liked the coffee and chicory flavors at play in this dessert, as well as the texture particularly from the crispy dehydrated milk foam. The deep, bitter coffee flavor was countered by the sweetness in the dessert, while a beignet was a nice touch to complete the dish.
roasted green tea & popcorn ice cream
Reminiscent of Urasawa, here a cup of roasted green tea. Apparently, Skenes likes to end his meals on this tea too. Also, we were served a simple scoop of ice cream. As advertised, it truly tasted like popcorn. Fun!
Lastly, a couple of sweets to end the meal.
blood orange petit four
Saison was an excellent meal and one of my strongest of 2011. The food was both creative and interesting and, most importantly, was quite delicious. Skenes is working with, for the most part, familiar flavors and ingredients but creating unique and sometimes unexpected combinations. It’s pretty easy for me to say I preferred the food here to other SF 2-stars Benu and Coi and it impressed me enough that I’d be interested in returning for the chef’s counter.
It’s just unfortunate that the LivingSocial deal detracted so much from the overall experience (just the opposite of its intention); I regret buying it. It kind of spoiled an otherwise great dining experience.
Wow, $498 for the Chef’s Counter now eh? That’s pretty much the most expensive regularly available meal I’ve heard of, though it’s actually not that bad. I think we were close to $400pp by the time everything was accounted for.
Yup! When you consider wine, tax & tip it doesn’t sound quite as high…but definitely very expensive. Saison is clearly trying to up the ante.
For what it’s worth, the counter looked completely full when I dined – on a Tuesday.
i still remember that brassicas dish, lemon dessert, cheese course, and aged squab with stunning clarity. amongst the best things i’ve ever put in my mouth. it wasn’t just “damn this is good” but “damn this took a TON of thought with superb results. great vision, great execution. very little extraneous elements.”
Well said, Daniel!