San Francisco, California
Date Visited: 5/19/16
Meal Length: 2 hours 15 minutes
Saison marked the first meal of a four-day trip to San Francisco and the larger Bay Area. Though formally a vacation, the trip was very deliberately centered on food, and I packed as many fine dining titans into the trip as I could. I hope you enjoy, as I did, seeing how food–even at this rarified level–changes with the personalities and produce of the opposite coast.
Why should you be interested?
Beyond the 3 Michelin stars, #56 spot on the San Pellegrino list, and the title of the “most expensive tasting menu in the country” (base menu price, apart from Masa, supplements excluded), Saison boasts hyper-seasonal, subtly seductive cooking in a youthful, dressed down space.
How easy is it to locate?
The restaurant stands proud on a quiet stretch in SoMa just a street over from AT&T Park, with the simple script “saison” shining against the red brick facade. Tall, dark doors glide open and welcome you into the space.
How do you feel when you enter?
For just a second, awed by the restaurant’s expanse and towering ceilings. But a wall of well-stacked lumber and other accents of dark, polished wood soon subdue the eyes, stoking the pangs of hunger. The hostess warmly greets you off to the right, and your party is led across the casual seating of the longue/bar to… very similar, casual seating surrounding the glowing kitchen. Earthen tones rule, but the space effortlessly blends sleek, shining, metal with wooden tables and scratchy shawls (which the staff is smart to offer, as my dining companion found the restaurant a little cold). It’s quasi-industrial but undeniably charming, and I think it avoids seeming overly engineered or birthed by a consulting firm (watch me eat my words). The tables are arranged in an “L” around the kitchen, with three tables set into banquettes and the other handful standing—which allows them to be arranged and rearranged to suit different parties. As the sun sets, the kitchen becomes almost “stage lit,” and diners watch as dishes flow from white, copper, and metal-adorned space to the dimmed warmth of the dining area. To me, this is fine dining “for millennials, by millennials.” The space exudes comfort through shunning the flourishes of linen but rewards the curious or learned eye with quality, like the custom-branded Zalto glassware. Saison, by dressing down other parts of the ambiance, allows the remaining “luxurious” elements to shine brighter. Equally (and appropriately), Saison encourages diners to “come as they are” rather than bandy about the tired “smart casual” suggestion. It all seems to work, and, though it ditches most of the bells and whistles, the restaurant maintains a singular, subtle elegance. So subtle that short walk back to the curb seemed a little jarring, a little like leaving any normal restaurant. I think that’s part of the point.
How does the service make you feel?
Very nice. Surprisingly comfortable, sincere, and earnest. They proudly tout the fact that they offer fine dining without any of the “stuffiness,” and they do a good job. Not with the insincerity of Eleven Madison Park either (who try at a similar sense of service), where the majority of interactions, however pleasant, strike me like I’m speaking to a very advanced AI who knows to chat for 15 seconds before scurrying back to a dozen more tasks. The servers at Saison have the space, luxury, and support to engage (or choose not to engage) customers with ease rather than expectation. Mechanically, the service experience was as excellent and unobtrusive as one could hope for. More personally, Saison lacks that last bit of joviality and spark that distinguishes, to me, the most special restaurants (Next, Elizabeth, Atera, Brooklyn Fare).
How should you order?
Saison offers one tasting menu made from that day’s best seasonal ingredients each evening. The menu can be tailored to individual dietary and time constraints (with proper notice) or enjoyed in the walk-in only lounge area (alongside cheaper, a la carte offerings). There is no set-price wine pairing for the tasting, but the sommelier is willing to build one to suit guests’ tastes. I found the wine list itself to be spectacular in breadth, rarity, and affordability. Despite the lofty price of the food, the staff—refreshingly—does not use it as an entryway to hawk equally expensive wine or “recommend pairing.”
What are the notable dishes?
Lobster: Saison’s expression of America’s favorite luxury crustacean comes in two parts: a simple tartare of the lobster’s tail and cooked preparation of its claws with XO sauce. A third plate of two crisp flowers also arrived. The raw dish, a glistening orb of small lobster slices with accompanying wasabi on ice, will make you wonder why we even bother boiling the thing. The tartare displayed the texture of a softer, more delicate scallop sashimi with a pleasing, subtle sweetness. The claw captivated us even more: warm, plump, and intensely savory by way of the spicy seafood sauce. The addition of the flower makes little sense visually/thematically but capped off the course with a crisp, cleansing crunch.
Dungeness Crab, Wild Boar Juices: Crab is often served within or simply beneath a lightly citric, perhaps even pleasantly crisp salad. Many chefs riff on this contrast but the components are seldom drastically altered. Likewise, at Saison, a limp, languid salad blankets crab like scattered dirt on a burial plot. Yet the lettuce, this time, comes invigorated with the juices of a roasted wild boar. Rather than crunch and acid, the lettuce—bolstered by these smoky, porcine notes as well as the warmth of the juices—ate more like braised greens. The crab itself showed nice restraint, adding an undercurrent of nutty sweetness that—all together with the lettuce—had the richness and delicacy of an expertly cooked fish dish.
Rice in a Grilled Rice Broth & Pickles: In what was one of the evening’s more active presentations, servers dropped off a variety of small plates and bowls filled with seafood and pickled vegetables from Saison’s garden. Then, last, a slightly larger bowl filled with warm California Delta rice. We were told to take the pieces of trout (three ways plus a piece of crispy skin) and the various pickles and eat them along with the rice in a build-your-own-chirashi deal. Though none of the individual elements distinguished themselves to me–the pickles particularly covered a wide range of textures and intensities of brine—I enjoyed the presentation and hands-on, bite by bite way the course was served.
Grilled Purple Asparagus: Plucked, invariably, from the restaurant’s own property, the asparagus came kissed with char and topped with garden of microgreens. A simple preparation with an equally focused, and actually quite deep, sweet, and earthy flavor. Some of the best asparagus I have ever tasted!
Prime Rib of Beef & Heartbreads: With many restaurants at the highest level coyly ditching the beef for a thoughtful preparation of game, it was refreshing to see Saison double down on bovine beauty. Rather than using the cow’s passport, hoofprint, and intonation of its mooing to convince me of some mythical Miyazaki bloodline, the server merely puts the plate down. A plate with a proud slice of meat. And a tiny one next to it (about the size of a standard “wagyu” supplement). And a piece of something called “heartbreads”—related to sweetbreads but taken from somewhere between the throat and the actual organ. And we were supposed to season it all ourselves by trimming a bouquet garni with tiny scissors on top of it. I felt less like I was eating the crown jewel of Japan and more like I was getting my elbows on the table and enjoying a piece of meat. I’ll let the look of prime rib speak for itself but must single out the heartbreads for special praise. Texturally, they struck chew/crunch balance of my very favorite sweetbreads dishes while remaining accessible (and thus educational) for a wider audience. A very thoughtful but enjoyable dish!
Strawberries + Cream: Another flourish from Saison’s gardens, the strawberries—though I’d never think mere fruit would merit a mention—struck with the concentration and intensity of a dozen of their full-sized variety. The accompanying cream was cool and sweet around the tangy, syrupy red jewels.
THE BREAD BASKET
Biscuits: I won’t say too much about where these beauties appear during the meal, but they screamed “Popeye’s” from sight to bite to the fiendish way I combed the basket for errant crumbs. Try them and search your soul, like I did, for a reason Saison doesn’t bring these biscuits by more often throughout the meal.
Sea Urchin, Grilled Bread: I knew this combination of plump Hokkaido sea urchin on toasted bread from the wood fire would be right up my alley. I left thinking it was nice, but not life-changing. Excess is the goal, and your mouth is hit hard and suddenly with oozing, custardy urchin against crisp, crunching bread. The texture is hard to put into words without smiling. Everyone needs to be assaulted by quality uni at least once in this way, and I like that this dish existed even though I would have enjoyed one more element in the bite (however slight).
Was the meal satisfying?
Saison does a great job of making sure you never get more than a few bites of a dish. And I mean that sincerely, because, while those bites are limited, they continually come in pairs and trios throughout the meal that satisfy in a more complete way through diversity of flavor. However, Saison’s tasting menu truly is “one size fits all” and doesn’t offer a bread selection or any other way for hungrier guests to consume more than the most svelte in their party. Needless to say, in offering a menu that’s well-suited to the “average” diner, Saison sent me to the curb with some remaining rumbles in my stomach. I won’t discredit the $400 value of the meal, given how many items are produced or grown by the restaurant. Yet it’s easy to leave a little sour when the meal ends so unceremoniously and one leaves feeling the kitchen’s goal was to put on a performance rather than leave guests satiated.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
Focusing solely on food, Saison reaches greater intellectual heights than its brethren and ironically brings even more flash (I won’t spoil the caviar service for those unfamiliar with it). Hyper-seasonal, adventurous cooking runs the risk of leaving diners less satisfied, and it’s a risk I’m familiar with by now and don’t begrudge—even if I admit we went straight to get more food after our meal. But I can say that Saison serves noticeably less while charging noticeably more, and, while a select few highs are quite high, you leave feeling less satiated. Not in terms of pure stomach “real estate,” but emotionally. Of the fine dining restaurants I visited in SF, I would place Saison firmly behind TFL and Manresa, slightly behind Baume, and clearly ahead of The Restaurant at Meadowood.
Would I go back?
As a place for thoughtful, boundary-pushing food? Certainly. The food itself lacked some of the intensity of flavor and consistency that distinguishes my own personal favorites; however, the meal was wonderfully paced, whimsical, and managed to deliver authentic “wow” moments. The food is intellectually satisfying throughout, and many dishes please hedonistically as well. However, while the setting certainly is comfortable—diners, true to form, come in jeans, tees, and tennis shoes—the experience struck me as ultimately hollow. The truly great restaurants, to me, don’t try to be formal or casual in relation to any other. They develop and cultivate an identity that’s authentically their own, however formally or casually. Stripping down the dressings of fine dining works. The space is beautiful. The service is friendly, precise, and almost unerring. But I think it’s the hospitality that’s lacking: the larger sense of the space and the staff and the kitchen working together to make you feel at ease. It’s an intangible that’s hard to define and might come across as nitpicking, so I’ll put it this way: I would eat at Saison as many times as I could afford—assuming the steady introduction and replacement of dishes on the menu—and treat it as a didactic gastronomic experience. But I’d never celebrate a birthday there or, better yet, drag along a fine dining skeptic, who might find the need to feed yourself after a four-figure dinner a not-so-fine conceit.
How hard are reservations to get?
Fridays and Saturdays require a week or two of planning if you want a prime time; however, Saison–I imagine due to the price–is generally and widely easy to dine at.
Reservations, menus, and other information can be found at http://saisonsf.com/