The Chef's Counter at Saison - San Francisco, CA

Dinner - Saturday, November 17, 2012

Our last meal at Saison was over a year ago, when we shared the meal with Gary Fine in the dining room. I don't know why it took us so long, but we finally made it back.

With just the two of us this time, we made reservations for the chef's counter - somewhat fortuitous, since Saison announced their closure about a week after we secured our seats (if I recall correctly, the new space will not have a kitchen counter). We ended up sharing the counter with two solo reservations, both being gentlemen who work in the industry -  a young bar manager from Seattle, and the seasoned director of operations at Delfina.

The view from the chef's counter
Citrus soda
The meal opened with a refreshing seltzer of mandarin, Meyer lemon and yuzu. Only mildly tart, the mixture was balanced by a rim of sugar and zest. Delicious.

Maitake mushroom custard
Pickled okra, black truffle, daikon, gold leaf
The custard was intensely perfumed with the aromas of grilled maitakes - a rich, creamy chawan mushi.  Topped with a few layers of textures, this dish was one of my favourites of the night, really showcasing the quality of each ingredient.

Cold-smoked caviar, uni
Turnip gelée, uni-lobster cream
Another star course. The clean brininess of the caviar played off the uni and its sauce, while the turnip gelée was the perfect way to offset the richness of the other components. Again, impeccable ingredients.

Maine Diver scallop
Finger lime, Meyer lemon crème fraîche
Golden trout roe
Potato cracker, potato vichyssoise
Very interesting - the roe was cured in anise hyssop, suffusing it with nuances of mint and liquorice. The potato was a suitable backdrop for the strongly-flavoured roe, although my cracker was not as crispy as I would've liked (even then, the rice cracker we had at the Royal Mail sets the ultimate standard).

Lightly smoked salt-cured aji, bone gelée
Tokyo turnip, yamaimo, daikon, mitsuba
Dungeness crab, chrysanthemum
One of the night's highlights and a very timely dish, marking the opening of Dungeness crab season. The sweet crab flesh was served atop a puree of its innards. Some chrysanthemum greens and a flower crowned the crabmeat - a brilliant combination. A gelée made from the crushed shells (exposed to the hearth, I suspect) finished the bowl.

Monterey Bay abalone
Artichoke, garlic, congee
Terrific texture on the mollusc. It was paired with a congee flavoured with abalone liver, and tender artichoke petals. A puree of chrysanthemum tied this course to the previous one - an enjoyable echo.

Bluefin tuna ham
Tartine toast, dried uni, tuna gelée
Tuna cured in salt, then dried in rice - can it get any better? The flavour was so concentrated, yet the flesh remained astonishingly supple. Stunning by itself, even better with the accompaniments (side note - can you believe the surface of the bowl is Saran Wrap? I've never seen it stretched so taut before!)

Tuna spinal jelly
Meyer lemon, bone vinaigrette
Very refreshing - a great chaser after the intense previous bite. It was exceedingly fresh, tasting like clean sea water, but perked up with acidic notes from the citrus and vinaigrette.

Egg yolk
Oyster cream, leeks, chives, breadcrumbs
Greens, anchovy, fatback raviolo
A dish eaten with our hands - very fun, and just a beautiful bowl. I suspect we missed a few items, but between the two of us, we were able to identify dandelion greens, chickweed, radicchio, beet, shaved fennel, bitter melon (soaked in some sort of honey), ficoide glaciale, turnip and radish - these were dressed in an anchovy vinaigrette. Hidden underneath the greens, at the base of the wooden bowl, there lay some red onion escabeche, an anchovy purée, and the creamy raviolo of fatback. Wonderful contrasts of textures and flavours.

Toasted grains, quail egg, seaweed bouillon
A signature course that was as good as the first time we had it. However, it faced some much stiffer competition from the preceding courses this time - just another indication that Joshua Skenes is getting better and better.

Duck liver toffee, chestnuts
Beer cream, pomegranate gelée, olives, breadcrumbs
The (ahem) duck liver was so well-balanced with the sweet, caramelized toffee flavour - phenomenal course. Playing off the toffee, the beer cream (and the paired beer) rounded out the dish with hints of chocolate and coffee. Some thinly-shaved chestnuts and dehydrated kalamata olives added a textural component, as well as complementing the quenelle. I found the pomegranate gelée quite remarkable - a surprising element that really brightened everything else.

Wood pigeon
Quince, duck liver, feuille de brick, crème fraîche
Continuing a flavour theme from the previous course, this plate featured more duck liver, as well as a sauce made from the roasted pigeon bones, caramelized onions and coffee. The bird itself was deboned and deep-fried in its skin. Rich and deep, but nicely lifted by the quince and crème fraîche.

Bone marrow, bluefin tuna, beet
The final savory course was deceivingly simple - three components, all touched by fire. A garnish of mint geranium was unexpected, yet somehow completely natural. Flawless preparation.

Gabietou, honey, almond
The washed-rind Gabietou was incorporated into a (large) gougere, and enrobed in a thickly whipped mixture of honey and almond milk. The cheese itself was nutty and mushroomy, with a slightly tangy aftertaste - it paired sublimely well with the complex sweetness of its casing. So good that I wolfed it down in two bites.

Concord grape sorbet, verjus, Moscato pearls
Salted caramel panna cotta
Huckleberries, quinoa, roasted vanilla bean ice cream
My favourite of the desserts. The depth of flavour imparted by the fire-kissed vanilla beans was indescribable - perfectly balanced against the salty panna cotta and sweet huckleberries. As I am a big fan of quinoa, I also particularly enjoyed its crunchy form here. Shawn Gayle is fitting in extremely well in his new environment, and I found his courses to be a seamless transition from the savory plates.

Heirloom popcorn ice cream
A perennial finisher at the restaurant, the hōjicha and popcorn ice cream were as good as I remembered (perhaps even better, given how smitten I was with the caramel notes in the ice cream).

Mignardises 1 - Earl Grey liquid chocolate truffles, oatmeal raisin macarons, citrus pâte de fruit
Mignardises 2 - Canelés
The evening's last bite arrived in a box that opened up to reveal two gorgeous canelés. It took a few moments to realize that the persistent nose of cinnamon accompanying the course was coming from the box itself, which was crafted from cinnamon bark! Simply delicious - on par with the textbook examples served up by my Bay Area standard, Boulettes Larder (albeit different - I prefer the latter's crust but Saison's has creamier insides).

Yes, there is the obvious focus on the hearth and the unique qualities imbued by its fire, but above all else, Saison sets itself apart from its counterparts by its painstaking sourcing (and subsequent care) of first-class ingredients - not to discount the care taken by other restaurants, but Saison is like an American Hedone (or is it the other way around?)

Tonight, the kitchen was easily cooking at a 3-star level. I expect them to only get better after the move (assuming, I think logically, that the new space will increase efficiency). This time, we will not wait so long to return.

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