Update: In the 2019 guide, Saison was downgraded from three stars to two. During the previous season, founder Joshua Skenes had moved on to another restaurant in San Francisco and was replaced by Laurent Gras, a chef who famously achieved three Michelin stars in Chicago only to leave that restaurant (L2O) within a few months.
On February 20th, I sat down to a meal at Joshua Skenes' Saison restaurant, a place that is singular in its execution of a transparent kitchen, novel preparation and aging approaches, and strong on style the whole way through. A huge upside is the unbelievable, personal service from true culinary dorks like myself (and I mean that in the nicest way possible,) most specifically Max the Sommelier and Megan and Christine the waiters. Request them if you can- they're super intelligent, know the content, were super sharp the whole evening.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA
PRICE PAID: $423 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
The entrance makes a huge impression- stacks of almond tree wood that ends up in the ember smoker a few feet away in the kitchen. A nice dramatic effect that communicates something about your experience before you even sit. Saison is big about giving closure- ingredients, themes, and flavors from the beginning of your experience come back to wish you farewell at the end, and the symmetry to the evening wasn't lost on me.
Saison has their own farm that supplies many of the herbs and vegetables Saison uses. They serve a small bundle of those herbs with a simple but likable Meyer lemon tea in a thin-walled apparently handmade ceramic cup. This first course presentation is very cool, but one practical downside to the thin cup body with no handle is that the container is piping hot to the touch. Thus, it's quite time-consuming to drink- took me about 15 minutes. 8/10
The second course rode in an equally impressive hand-cut glass plate- complete with cover that stood in as a rest for the wooden spoon- and played up the light hitting the bright green vegetables. The peppers had a nice little spicy kick, and the buttermilk cream smoothes out the rough edges and adds a fantastic texture. Clever presentation, great dish. 9/10.
The third course of Osetra-grade caviar is served on a gelee of vegetables (once again, from their vertically-integrated garden) with a clear liquid pork fat poured over top. While the smooth gelee serves as a nice foundation and contrasts the mouthfeel of the caviar texture nicely, the pork fat flavor runs a little roughshod over the delicate sea flavors of the caviar. 7/10.
The fourth course was some Black Cod from Half Moon Bay cooked in a fire with chanterelle and yellowfoot mushrooms. The broth was made of the cod bones. This dish struck me as clever because the mushrooms and cooked cod had similarly squeaky-crunchy texture that went together well. The broth had a lovely campfire smoke taste that finishes the dish with elegance. 8/10.
The fifth course featured lobster meat from the mitts and tail warmed over those almond-wood embers I mentioned a second ago. In the white bowl in the background is a Meyer lemon (catching the theme yet?) and citronet, which was poured over the lobster. The butter is made from the lobster's brains, and a small condensed morsel of dehyydrated and rehydrated seaweed was tucked in the corner of the intricate glass bowl. The lobster's temperature was perfect; pour the cxitronet immediately for maximum effect. 8/10
The sixth dish was Battle Creek Trout cured in uzu and soy, then put in its own eggs with skin to create a potato-chip like shell. The crunchy shell paired beautifully with the uber-soft trout. 9/10.
Course seven featured abalone, a type of edible sea snail, with rich fatty pork jowls on top. The abalone had a positive, rubbery texture that played off well against very soft jowls. A sauce of liver and capers rested underneath. 8/10
The eighth course can only be described as an out-of-the-park home run. Three different textures battle it out with the focus centered on the unbelievably rich, luxurious sea urchin. I'm tempted into hyperbole and giving this dish an 11/10, but I'll try to restrain myself at a perfect 10/10.
Nine challenged me to get over whatever pre-conceived notions I may have had about crab brains- this creamy, pasta-like ragout is made out of "Dungeness Crab- the Whole Thing," or so the menu gamely states. Smooth and creamy like an amazing Mac & Cheese from childhood, with a signature "Saison" smokiness in the custard underneath. 8/10- a fun and creative dish.
The tenth course starts to lighten things up in advance of the main dishes coming soon- Mendocino county seaweed with herbs from the garden washed in Meyer lemon juice (eh? eh? Meyer lemon juice). There's a surprise oyster buried underneath with wonderful dill and leaves of spearmint. A zesty, clever, beautiful dish. 8/10.
This wholesome, filling vegetable dish is crisped over the almond wood embers, bringing out new and fascinating flavors in the brussel sprouts especially. Sauerkraut on the bottom rounds on the salinity. Delightful, different, impressive. 9/10.
The 12th dish really shows where Skenes' novel techniques shine. Pumpkin is cooked in two methods- one is hung over the fire for three days using a method called Fire in the Sky (a nice Washington Post article describes the technique and inspiration in more detail), the other is prepared and served more traditionally. I can only say that this was the second dish that totally blew me away- the Fire in the Sky method brings out all kinds of flavors one would never predict in pumpkin- tropical notes like papaya and pineapple, along with a smoky tartness that was a joy to explore. 10/10.
The thirteenth course featured a beet cooked in the same method as the pumpkin that- I kid you not- tastes exactly like a finely-prepared steak. The beet is a type known as Bull's Blood, which is rich, thick, and chewy. 9/10.
14 included toffee from duck livers, foam, and beer. This dish blurred the line between savory and sweet- it almost had an ice cream-like texture. The toffee flavors in the beer that came paired alongside enhances further. A well thought-out, joyful dish. 9/10.
Fifteen was a Muscovy duck with a ragout made of duck innards and a sauce from the cooking juices. The duck was aged in-restaurant for three weeks. I can only describe this dish as unbelievably rich- in this case a touch too rich for me. 7/10.
A bullion made of the roasted bones of the duck from the previous course served as our sixteenth dish. Simple, delicious, and made for a good wind-down from the richness of the previous dish. Might have also been effective to have served this dish and course 15 side-by-side. 8/10
The seventeenth course included a mousseline made from Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk, one of the best cheeses available in this country (in my humble opinion). Two beignets were just as good as anything you can get in New Orleans. 8/10.
Course 18 was probably my favorite dessert dish of all time- ice cream made from a cow named Vibrance who lives in Lagunitas with salted caramel, cocoa nibs, and roasted over the fire. Perfect texture, sweetness, balance. A lifetime-memorable dish. 10/10.
This palate-cleanser tasted just like Honey Nut Cheerios, and has a nice calming aura. Perfect post-ice cream idea. 8/10.
The Sommelier Max introduced me to this digestif- green chartreuse with a powerful anise flavor- that calmed my stomach before departure. 8/10.
The absolute final word was a small broth of persimmons. Simple and cleansing. 8/10.
One last cool note- Max kindly invited me on a kitchen tour where I got to see the almond wood embers firsthand. Each and every evening, a person is tasked with keeping these embers roasting at just the right temperature and evenness to ensure proper preparation. The job requires tons of focus on consistency, and I was impressed that this glowing heart of the kitchen worked so well.