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Michelin awarded only five restaurants world-wide a third star last year, three of which are located in the United States: Grace in Chicago and Benu and Saison in San Francisco. The other two were La Bouitte in France and Makimura in Japan. Saison and Benu are San Francisco's first ever three-star restaurants. The story of Saison in San Francisco is short but fascinating. Basically the restaurant skyrocketed from pop-up to three-star restaurant in 5 years' time.
After graduating in 2001 from the French Culinary Institute in New York City, chef Joshua Skenes (b. 1979) started his career on the East coast in the kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York City and Anthony Ambrose in Boston. In 2005 Skenes moved to California and started working for celebrated chef Michael Mina and became executive chef at Mina's restaurant Chez TJ in Mountain View, a restaurant that was awarded a Michelin star in October 2008 (2009 guide).
In the summer of 2009 Joshua Skenes and sommelier Mark Bright started Saison as a Sunday-night-only pop-up in San Francisco's Mission district. The pop-up turned out to be a great success and soon they expanded their opening hours to three (initially) and then five nights a week. On those nights a brightly lit "S" sign would indicate that the restaurant was open for business. The restaurant moved to its current premises in the historic Electric Light Company Building on Townsend Street in January 2013.
Saison certainly didn't go unnoticed by Michelin. The first Michelin star was awarded in 2010 (2011 guide), the second immediately followed in the next year and in October 2014 Saison was awarded a third star.
Saison is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. In the 18-seat dining room they offer a set multi-course tasting menu, which is currently priced at $398 (excluding tax and service charge). The other option is a seat at the 8-seat chef's counter for $888 ($398 for the food, a $298 beverage pairing and $192 service charge, see Eater article of 5 February 2015). I had dinner with my husband at Saison on Tuesday 31 March 2015 in the dining room overlooking the kitchen.
To start there was a cup with hot Meyer lemon water infused with a small bouquet of flowering thyme, chamomile, douglas fir and chocolate mint. A sophisticated way to prep the palate for what was to come.
Next was white sturgeon belly, cured and smoked and put through a drum sieve using an abalone shell, served with a delicate jelly made from the sturgeon's bones, and topped with a lavish spoonful of white sturgeon caviar. A terrific combination of contrasting flavours: elegant smokiness from the sturgeon belly, followed by the salty freshness of the caviar that also had mild sweet notes and a lovely creamy finish. A wonderfully rich and soft parker house roll (made with lard) was served on the side.
A crunchy and juicy radish with sea cucumber followed, the latter being blanched, dehydrated (3x) and then grilled, and the former blanched with its greens. On top of the radish was a small radish greens roll and there was a delicate aged kelp and pine needle broth spiked with a touch of horseradish. An elegant dish with precise flavours; wonderful pungent citrussy/woody flavours coming from the pine needles, creating a mild tingling sensation in the mouth, and the sea cucumber added just the right touch of richness.
The next course was chunks of lobster meat, flash-grilled on one side over embers, simply served with tempura style accompaniments, such as fresh Meyer lemon, some mildly sharp daikon, wakame salt and a lobster shell vinegar for dipping. The flash grilling had resulted in tender, barely cooked sweet lobster meat, creating a great sense of purity.
A couple of minutes later we were served local Battle Creek trout, smoked in the wood oven, covered with salty-sweet trout roe and a trout skin crisp, and served in Japanese rice vinegar infused with the trout's fish bones and lightly flavoured with aniseed. A superbly balanced combination of sweet, salty, sour and fatty flavours/textures. The trout was exquisite, firm, buttery, with a delicate smokiness to it, and beautifully balanced by the fishbone-infused vinegar.
Then a masterpiece called Sea urchin on "liquid toast" arrived. The sourdough (from San Francisco's iconic Tartine Bakery) was toasted on one side, and the other side was soaked in a mixture of brown butter, egg yolks and some soy sauce. This was topped with sea urchin roe. A sensational, almost haunting, flavour and texture combination, that you just don't want to end. First you get the crunchiness from the bread combined with the creaminess of the roe, followed by the fabulous, caramel nuttiness from the soft bread, and then the fresh sea flavours from the sea urchin hit you again, and linger on the palate. The warm toast and the cold sea urchin roe delivered a brilliant temperature contrast. You would wish you had a whole loaf of this instead of a two-bite piece, so obviously I requested seconds, which the restaurant (generously) served later on in the meal.
The meal continued with abalone and pickled vegetables. Tender abalone (grilled over embers) was served with artichoke, "crispy rice" that was crunchy on one side and soft and sticky on the other, and an emulsion/sauce made with the abalone's liver and capers. A wonderful combination of distinctive earthy and salty flavours, the sauce having a lovely touch of mustard-like sharpness. The pickled vegetables offered freshness and a lovely textural contrast and were of exceptional quality. There was an incredibly juicy cucumber, some elegantly sweet pickled sea vegetables and a piece of crunchy red cabbage that also had a nice touch of warmth from the pickling spices.
Next up was an elegant dish of two pieces of black cod, served with a crispy milk skin roll filled with burdock (a popular Asian root vegetable), and a sweet grilled olive sauce (made with the cod bones), seasoned with a drop of soy and fish sauce. Sweetened whipped buttermilk was served on the side for dipping. The cod was superbly cooked, with a delicate silky texture and lovely mildly buttery flavours, that were complemented by the sweet bitters in the olive sauce, and the whipped buttermilk added a nice fresh note. Lovely texture and flavour from the burduck, the caramelisation on the roll adding a nice touch of nuttiness. On top of the burdock roll were some kinome leaves, which (apart from the nice visual effect) added an extra piquant flavour dimension to the dish.
Then there was a very nuanced and refined dish of grilled green asparagus, complemented by edible flowers, sea vegetables (pickled and smoked) and sea grapes. A delightful dish with subtle grilled flavours and with nice floral notes coming through. Lovely textures too, particularly from the 'popping' sea grapes.
This was followed by a brilliant dish of "blistered" Brussels sprouts and brassica leaves served with their cooking juices . At the bottom of the glass bowl there was some crunchy sauerkraut, classically seasoned with caraway seeds. The "blistering" had transformed the sprouts and leaves into rich and refined tasting vegetables and the cooking juices mixed beautifully with the sauerkraut juices. All this resulted in a stunning and powerful flavour combination with perfectly balanced salty, sour, and bitter flavours.
Shortly after we were served an intriguing dish called "Fire in the sky beet". Beetroot is first blanched and then hung above the fire for three days. This locks in all the natural flavours, producing an extraordinary beetroot with a soft texture and unbelievably pure and concentrated flavours. The beetroot is served with melting bone marrow and beetroot juices mixed with vinegar, making for an outstanding and unique flavour experience.
The meat course of this evening was 3-week aged duck, grilled whole near the fire, which came in three servings. First up was a duck liver "toffee" with caramelised white chocolate, bread "lace" (made from Tartine sourdough), topped with an airy beer foam. A sublime dish with wonderful savoury-sweet flavours and beautiful bitters from the beer foam, which provided an excellent contrast to the duck liver.
This was succeeded by duck fillet served with a deep-fried sakura (cherry) leaf, red sea grapes, bitter (grape?) leaves, a light sakura (cherry blossom) sauce and a delicious duck "steak sauce" (served the on the side). The duck was beautifully cooked and had a great depth of flavour. Loved the combination of the duck with the steak sauce. However, the bitter leaves didn't work for me and were more interesting than delicious.
Last, but by no means least, we were served a beautifully seasoned clear duck bone broth, served in an almost weightless bowl, the latter underlining the delicateness of the broth.
After these 12 courses (15 if you count each individual dish), it was time for the sweet ending of the meal. To start there was smoked milk ice cream with a smoked caramel sauce and candied and fried cocao nibs. The smoke milk ice cream is made by leaving burning logs to infuse in fresh milk. A wonderful dessert with fantastic smoky flavours, from the smooth and milky ice cream to the more intense, almost woody flavours in the caramel. Clever smoking techniques used to great effect.
Then there was a refreshing buttermilk-citrus ice cream, served in a mandarin with some fresh blood orange at the bottom, and accompanied by a fragrant cup of roasted buckwheat tea (known as Soba Cha in Japan) that had lovely nutty and malty flavours and aromas.
The menu that I was served tonight, was bursting with creativity and originality. Nearly all the food at Saison is cooked with direct or indirect smoke and fire and this is done gently and with masterful skill, pushing this technique to the highest level. Being located in California gives Joshua Skenes access to some of the finest produce in the US, produce that he then prepares in ingenious ways. The dishes served tonight were truly capivating, both in their presentation and in their subtlety of flavours, focusing on the unadulterated natural flavour (and aroma) of the main ingredient. He almost makes the ingredient taste more of itself than it does naturally; it is like eating through a magnifying glass. The Japanese influences in Skenes' cooking are apparent, from Japanese ingredients and techniques to Japanese fish butchery (ikejime). I guess this comes naturally when you're located in a city that has its own Japantown and where Japan is literally across the pond .... the Pacific pond.
Adding to this is the impressive dining room with its clean but warm decor, catchy eighties music coming from the speakers, and bare walnut tables that offer a great view of the quite spectacular kitchen with its Moltini stove, wood burning oven, open fire pit, prepping station and lots more. Throughout the night I could watch from my table how the chefs quietly prepared and plated the dishes for us and for the other guests. I think open plan kitchens always add an extra dimension to the restaurant experience. Service was done with real three Michelin star flair, striking just the right balance between professionalism and friendliness.
An evening at Saison is an evening full of excitement and surprises, even though it leaves your wallet bleeding. I have had more than my fair share of dining at three-star restaurants in Europe, but this was a completely new and unique experience. More than anything else, Saison is a restaurant that breathes happiness and free-spiritedness and I believe it has the potential to be a redefining restaurant, setting a new reference point for a new generation of (three-star) chefs.