Saison - San Francisco, CA

Dinner - Saturday, March 1, 2014

Saison's new digs are quite a sight to behold. The space is lush and inviting, with dark wood tables spaced generously like at an old tippling room. Polished copper pans and walls of stainless steel are juxtaposed against furs and stacked cords of wood - at once refined and rustic.

This was our first visit to Saison in over a year, and also our first time at the new location (we had planned a visit in February 2013, but teething problems closed the restaurant at the last moment - we went to Coi instead). The complimentary pours of Krug remain, as does the two-tier tasting menu - tonight, we opted for the lengthier "Discovery" menu.

White sturgeon caviar, belly, bones
We opened with caviar, heaped over a slice of sturgeon belly that had been cured and smoked over kelp. This was ringed by a gelée of grilled bones (a common theme at Saison) - smoky, sweet, umami, intense.

Coal-kissed kinmedai, ankimo, umeboshi
A beautiful piece of seasonal pottery served as a vessel for the binchotan-grilled snapper. The broth, made with cherry blossom flowers and leaves, paired perfectly with the plum to complement the richness of the monkfish liver.

Amberjack warmed under coals, bone vinegar
Pickled sardines on toast, its roe, preserved wild onion
Crispy bones of the sardine, river vegetable
The fried bones of the sardine from the previous course - I always enjoy these. We were a little surprised to see more than one of these plates sent back to the kitchen uneaten or barely touched - a waste of fish.

Monterey Bay abalone roasted over embers, seaweed, sauce of the liver and capers
Absolutely sensational. The abalone's texture was out of this world - the perfect hint of chew, accented by charred edges from its time in the fire. The sauce made from its insides had an alluring minerality. This dish exemplifies everything that makes Saison such an amazing restaurant.

Hotaru ika, gently grilled, with its own livers
Firefly squid from Japan, near the peak of their season, served with Saison's version of a shiokara. The fire, again, is transformative - it produces such beautiful contrasts between exteriors and interiors, and the faint aroma of smoke is a wispy thread that connects every course.

Golden trout roe, mountain vegetables, broth of grilled bones
The roe was a monolayer that hid a base of cooked vegetables mixed with tororo. While we enjoy its characteristic gummy texture, I can see it being challenging (particularly for non-Asians) - the table next to us did not like this course.

Fort Bragg uni and green asparagus, poached in seawater then grilled
Red rock crab
Gelée made from the shells, seaweed vinegar
Halfway through, and I am already beginning to exhaust the superlatives. This crab was fantastic, with sweetness and flavour easily superior to Dungeness. My understanding is that their smaller size (and probably other factors) makes them significantly more labor-intensive to deal with. Here, it was complemented by the vegetal coastal greens (particularly noticeable was the heady aroma of wild jasmine).

Artichoke, stuffed with scallop and grilled
Artichoke barigoule, Swarnadipa spices
Celeriac, poached in smoked water
Wild mushrooms, herbs from the garden, pork broth
The smoked water was infused with the essense of barbeque - slightly disconcerting, but so delicious, conferring a pronounced meatiness to the root vegetable. Together with the earthy mushrooms, this was a dish that practically ate like an amazing piece of brisket.

Cardoon royale, black truffle, truffle custard
Parker House rolls, cultured butter
Toffee, duck liver
White chocolate, milk, bread, beer
Truffle cookie, giblets from the bird, grilled pecan honey
A thin wafer served as a platform for tender giblets (from the duck whose liver was used in the preceding course), brushed with warm pecan honey and topped with slices of black truffle. Frankly, this was mind-blowing.

First of the season peas, their shoots, leaves and flowers
Peas from Saison's new garden (which, incidentally, is tended by an alumnus of Love Apple Farms). The broth was a kelp bouillon with bay laurel, in which the pea shells had been steeped - we watched Josh crushing the pods all night, evidently preparing each round of broth à la minute. I'm not sure if I can properly describe this dish - it was a concentrated expression of peas in all their glory.

Wood pigeon tourte
Sunchoke, sunflower seed butter, pruneaux
Wood pigeon, aged in-house for a month, encased in flaky pastry and dressed with its jus. Just look at that pink flesh - perfect. On the side, a roasted sunchoke sitting in a thick sauce of coffee and sunflower seed butter. Adding to the richness, an armagnac-soaked prune with a truffle hat. A very nice classical preparation.

Beef, grilled in a bed of hay
Pumpkin hung over the fire for a few days
This beef was beefy - I assume it must have been aged for quite some time. It was paired with "cultured" pumpkin, just one of many vegetables the kitchen dries over the hearth. Two assertive components, matched by a liberal dose of harissa and some fermented pumpkin seed. An impressive dish that balanced a number of contrasting flavours.

Winter citrus granita, buttermilk, bird's nest
A very nice palate cleanser, blending the iciness of the tart granita with the creamy buttermilk beneath. The delicate texture of the bird's nest was rather overwhelmed by the other components, which is a pity for such a luxurious ingredient.

Black walnut soufflé and ice cream
A textbook soufflé baked right in front of our eyes (literally - we were sitting directly opposite the ovens). Faultless texture. More impressive was the ice cream, which looked so plain but hit us with intense black walnut flavour.

Grilled sourdough ice cream
Black sesame cake, chocolate ganache
Toasted buckwheat tea
The pristine flavours of this nutty, roasty tea were exactly what we needed to cap off this long meal. Note the faint robin's egg blue of the teacup - beautiful.

Coffee-milk truffles, Meyer lemon and poppyseed tarts, chocolate and spearmint tarts
Canelés, cinnamon bark
I believe Shawn Gayle has tweaked his recipe in the past year - these had a nicer crust, while still maintaining a preternaturally creamy interior. Again, the cinnamon bark box conveyed a soothing aroma - combined, they may have displaced the canelés from Boulette's Larder in my heart of hearts.

This dinner blew us away - not one dish disappointed. The pea course could be the new brassicas (incidentally, I am looking forward to the kitchen bringing back brassicas in a new form - stay tuned). Within this reconditioned brick building, they are doing something that is so different from everyone else, I find it difficult to make comparisons. Josh Skenes and his team are really driving the culinary conversation forward, and Saison is easily one of, if not the best restaurant in the country. As places like Manresa changed the tenor of Northern California dining, so too will Saison. I am beyond excited for not only their continued evolution, but the eventual stream of alumni that will begin trickling out of the kitchen here.

178 Townsend Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
Phone: (415) 828-7990