Saison - San Francisco, CA

Dinner - Friday, July 15, 2011

This was a meal shared with Gary of Veal Cheeks, our last before he ended his stay in the Bay Area. Saison has been on our to-visit list for a long time (since before it was a regular restaurant, if I recall correctly), and Gary has written favorably about his previous visit. As is our routine, we caught a late flight into town and rushed to make our 7.30 pm reservation, speeding through the light traffic on the road.

We (surprisingly) ended up being 10 minutes early, and were seated immediately. The environment at Saison is warm and inviting, bare and rustic but for a few flourishes - a large plant arrangement dominates the indoor seating area, whereas the oven and open hearth commands the attention of those seated in the outdoor section. Complimentary champagne was poured for the table, and after opting to order a single bottle of wine for the evening (a beautiful 2008 Meursault from Domaine Joseph Voillot), dinner commenced.

Amuse 1A - Hearth-smoked reserve caviar
Amuse 1B - Flatbread
Creme fraiche, sieved egg yolk, shad roe, gold leaf, foraged herbs
Caviar was served with some traditional and not-so-traditional accoutrements, integrated as toppings on a small wafer. Very enjoyable and remarkably complex, thanks to the assortment of herbs atop the flatbread - each bite highlighted a slightly different flavour that interacted uniquely with the caviar (itself a delight to eat, the smoky/briny combination bringing me back to memories of Etxebarri's grilled oyster).

Amuse 2 - Miyagi oyster
Cucumber, lemon verbena espuma, olive oil
Amuse 3 - Radishes
Nasturtium honey and flowers
Amuse 4 - Parsnip, carrot, egg, oxalis
Next came a trio of dishes. The oyster was bright and fresh, its sweetness balanced and complemented by the foam. The cucumber mignonette was also a nice touch. Two words best describe the combination: simple, well-executed.

Radish was my second bite, more acidic than the last. Sweetness balanced by pepperiness in the two nasturtium elements. Again, elegantly prepared, though not quite reaching the heights of the oyster.

Finally, a layered shot. Parsnip puree underneath carrot puree, underneath a slow-poached egg and a cloud of oxalis. All this topped by a delicious parsnip crisp. Nicely balanced flavours, with the slightly tangy notes from the oxalis enhancing the natural sweetness of the root vegetables. I took issue with the texture of the purees, likening the considerable thickness of the liquids to baby food, but my opinion was not universally shared.

Rice cracker, river vegetable, shrimp floss
"Flight of fish"
Amberjack, lobster, horse mackerel, tuna belly, barrelfish, yelloweye snapper, sea bream 
The flight of fish was presented with a light rice cracker sprinkled with powdered river vegetable and shrimp floss - a luxe version of shrimp crackers, if you will. It was delicious, salty and umami and completely devoid of any grease.

A dipping sauce (soy sauce mixed with bonito vinegar) was provided for the fish, but I found it unnecessary. The fish themselves had evidently been brushed or quick-cured in a mixture of olive oil and soy sauce, which was more than sufficient for flavouring - an interesting spin on the traditional Edo-mae sushi "tsuke" technique, although I'm not sure whether the kitchen intended to pay homage. The fish were good but not special, except for the three on the right. I found these to be outstanding in taste and texture - naturally magnificent, but made truly superlative by the glazing.

Toasted grains, bonito, egg, sea lettuce
Words fail me - I can only muster a clinical description of the ingredients I recall. There were perfectly cooked pieces of cauliflower, broccoli rabe and cabbage - gifts from the hearth. A poached quail egg, pregnant with liquid gold. A rich bonito bouillon gave off the most tremendous aroma, playing off the toasted grains at the bottom of the bowl. Finally, a shard of fried sea lettuce concealed the composition from greedy eyes. A true world-class dish for all our senses.

Summer vegetable aspic, crispy eggplant, avocado
Yellow tomato granite, sweet corn pudding, fava beans, basil seeds
Brassicas were followed by a course that turned everything on its head, and not in a bad way. A cool, refreshing summer vegetable aspic stood in stark contrast to the previous dish. Again, a complex interplay of layers, textures and flavours. Slightly less successful, but we are splitting very fine hairs here - personal choice between a Stradivarius and a Guarneri.

Prawn salt
Dungeness crab fondue, Santa Barbara uni, nasturtium leaf
Meyer lemon cream, basil tarragon broth
Poached spot prawn
Despite my waxing over the previous two courses, this proved to be my favourite dish of the evening - a simply poached spot prawn, cooked in seawater. It was served with a salt of crushed prawn shells. On the side, some Dungeness crab and Santa Barbara uni in a rich broth tinged with basil and tarragon - hearty and so appropriate for the chilly weather that night. My prawn was perfect in every way - impossibly sweet and creamy. Again, it leaves me at a loss for words.

"Pasternack's rabbit"
English peas, foraged greens
The dish's name is a reference to the farmer that raised the creature presented in a multitude of ways on our plate. I will note the excellent forcemeat of rabbit hind quarter and foie gras, wrapped in cabbage (left side of plate). Also particularly enjoyable were the piece of rabbit confit, the decadent rabbit jus, and a tiny sliver of the rabbit's kidney (this last item was especially good, served rare as it was - I wish I had thrice as much on my plate).

Beef, onions, vinegar
Meat, unadorned - prime rib cap (center) and inner loin (left), apparently from a cow raised by a neurosurgeon-turned-farmer. Delicious, but rather too much this late in the meal. The beef was served with Walla Walla onions in a few forms (I recall softened segments and a puree). A piece of brioche perched incongruously at one end of the plate. There was some vinegar drizzled over the onions, which I found very overpowering - after a few tastes, I found myself pushing the other components away from the pool of acidity.

Honey lemon, berbere, yogurt
When Chef Skenes introduced the dish, he described these particular sweetbreads as "being from closer to the chest than normal sweetbreads". This led to a discussion at our table as to the nature of this piece of offal - I pointed out that sweetbreads could be from the thymus ("throat") or pancreas ("heart"), but I was unsure as to whether these were actually from the pancreas, or a special part of the thymus. In retrospect, I'm fairly certain that these are indeed the prized pancreatic sweetbreads, based on shape and the unique texture (I have not enjoyed heart sweetbreads in some years).

Digressions aside, these heartbreads were delectable with the complex sweetness of the honey, the slight gingery heat from the Berber spice, and the cooling tang of the yogurt. Again, a simple dish that did not need to rely on smoke and mirrors - it hid no flaws, and I savoured every bite.

Lou Bergier Pichin, honeycomb, almonds
Lou Bergier Pichin is an Italian aged raw cow's milk cheese - it's French-sounding name reveals its origins in the Piedmont region of the country, bordering France. It has an interesting story, and was the subject of a recent column by Janet Fletcher. Tonight, it was baked in brioche and served with honeycomb and almonds. I loved it - the light brioche encasing the semi-firm cheese, rendered slightly runny because of the heat. Its salt was countered by the sweetness of the honey, and the elements of almond (presented whole, and also as a sheet underneath the brioche) balanced the two strong flavours nicely. Size-wise, this was not an inconsiderable course, and in fact proved too much for one of my dining companions, but I managed to finish it with gusto - perhaps a testament to how much I enjoyed the combination.

"Preserved lemon 1:19"
Meyer lemon custard, lemon gelee, lemon sorbet, chrysanthemum flowers
Really, really excellent. The numbers "1:19" refer to January 19th, the date the lemons were preserved - six months is apparently enough to transform the humble lemon into a thing of wonder. Every component was perfectly in harmony - as a whole, it was never too sweet or too sour, drawing in some faint salty and bitter notes as well. The sorbet, gelee, custard, and lemon segments showcased a spectrum of tastes, textures and temperatures. Topped with the chrysanthemum flowers (which I love because they take me back to my childhood), this made for a true standout dessert.

Milk chocolate in various forms
Rice sorbet, soy salt, shiso foam, sesame
Popcorn ice cream
Dinner ended with a taste of popcorn ice cream and some hōjicha. It was an unexpected and delightful combination - the roasted tea brought out nice caramel tones in the ice cream, and the hot/cold contrast as I went back and forth between the two was quite stimulating. A very good finish.

Mignardises - Candied raspberries
The hearth at Saison
How do I sum up this great meal? Two of the dishes tonight were the best bites I've eaten this year, and others were strong contenders. I simply cannot wait to return. Joshua Skenes is that rare talent - imaginative, blessed with a bold vision, but tempered by a (mostly) delicate and restrained hand. What he has accomplished here at Saison is something special. The food moved me in a way that few other places can manage. Next time, the kitchen table is a must.

2124 Folsom St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Phone: (415) 828-7990