Sommelier Mark Bright poured a splash of Krug Champagne Grande Cuvée as I settled in for an 18-course dinner at Saison in San Francisco. "We welcome all our guests with Krug," he said, a clear message that this is meant to be a luxury experience, if the credit card deposit of $248 per person didn't already do that.
That's pretty ambitious for a restaurant that started life only three years ago as a pop-up. Its first brick-and-mortar incarnation in a tiny Mission District space got two Michelin stars in the most recent San Francisco guide, and chef-owner Joshua Skenes could fill a trophy case with rising star chef awards. The new location, in a historic building a block from the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park, ups the ante with a unique, spacious design, a longer menu and a price tag that puts it among the most costly in the U.S., even more than the long-venerated French Laundry in Napa Valley.
In short, Saison is no longer flying under the radar. Over the next several months it will be parsed and analyzed, swooned over and lambasted. There is, for example, that lengthy menu, the only option. A lightning-rod topic, evening-long chef's menus have raised the ire of several prominent national food writers. Would my interest flag before dessert? (A shorter $88 menu, negotiated on the spot, is also offered in the bar area.)
The design integrates the kitchen with the 18 seats it serves, basically extending the idea of a chef's table (a spot in the kitchen where diners can watch the chefs cook a special menu for them) to the whole scene. But with most of the food going from saucepans into bowls, we really couldn't see the dish coming together as intended. The smoking, grilling, sautéing, drying and wood-roasting happened way in the background. Chefs often walk their own dishes to the six tables and describe them, a nice personal touch.
Have you noticed that the higher the price these days, the shorter the menu description? The printed menu barely suggests what's to come, identifying courses with one-word titles such as "brassicas," "toffee," "bird" and "beef." Apparently only less expensive restaurants seem compelled to convey more complete information.
Skenes likes to cook on an open fire, but don't imagine that this means slabs of roasted beast. His plates are almost dainty, a slice of this, a carefully placed leaf of that, sauce applied with a teaspoon or a small squeeze bottle, what a chef friend dismisses as "tweezer food." In Skenes' hands, these juxtapositions invite us to appreciate the texture and flavor combinations in bright relief.
It works splendidly in a dish called "toffee," which mixes pieces of foie gras with slivers of smoked olives, beer foam and burnt sugar that gives the dish its name. I loved a series of raw fish and seafood bites simply titled "cru." Highlights included a freshly opened scallop perched on asian pear and celeriac puree, and a swoon-inducing bite of blue sea robin (a delicate-fleshed bottom-dwelling fish Skenes imports from Japan), combined with a vinaigrette made with a fumet reduction and topped with a semicircle of crisply fried herring roe. But I found too many clashing elements in a coupe of pumpkin puree and sea urchin poached in sea water topped with a drizzle of squab jus and sturgeon caviar with an acrid undertone of smoke.
"Beef," a wonderful slice of grilled artisanal beef from Pennsylvania, came to the table at room temperature. And, truth to tell, the sequence lost a good deal of its momentum around that time and the cheese course that followed. Sensory overload.
Bright, sommelier at the original Michael Mina restaurant that won a Wine Spectator Grand Award, has assembled a 3,000-wine list bursting with Burgundy and Bordeaux. Clearly it relies on a collector connection, as did Mina and its current Grand Award-winning spinoff RN74. The $148 wine pairings deploy young, lighter-style wines that match well with Skenes' understated flavors. I particularly liked the polished, complex Philippe Colin Chassagne-Montrachet 2009 with a plate of kale and other brassicas, a lithe, peppery Napa Valley Syrah 2010 (made exclusively for Saison) with the beef, and a honeyed, opulent Château de Malle Sauternes 2005 that set off an impeccably risen pine nut soufflé for dessert.
In conversation and on the website, Skenes speaks of serving food simply and without pretense. This sets up a certain cognitive dissonance between the luxury ambitions and the location. On view from every table in the renovated warehouse, its ceilings, walls and concrete floors still visible, Skenes is easy to identify amid his kitchen staff in their white jackets, casual in his blue-checked, untucked shirt. But, although he doesn't aim for the kind of precision of, say, Grant Achatz in Chicago, Thomas Keller in Yountville or Paul Liebrandt in New York, he's still arranging food with surgeon's tools and you're still paying more than $500 for the experience if you're drinking wine.
On this occasion, Saison was not quite hitting on all cylinders. Skenes seemed distracted, and the kitchen staff settled for quiet competence rather than the intensity that great cooking usually needs. As the cold beef suggests, timing is still not tight. From a service standpoint, it took 40 minutes from the time we arrived until our first bite.
The team's pedigree suggests better. Skenes' background includes executive chef stints at Chez TJ in Mountain View and Michael Mina's Stonehill Tavern in Southern California (where he and Bright met). Chef de cuisine Rodney Wages followed Corey Lee from the French Laundry for the opening of his Benu in San Francisco, and opened Morimoto in Napa as chef de cuisine. Pastry chef Shawn Gayle's resumé has Tru in Chicago, Lacroix in Philadelphia, l'Atelier du Joël Robuchon and Veritas in New York.
It may be spring training right now for the World Series Champion baseball team around the corner, but these nights count for this restaurant. Over the next few months a long list of heavyweight critics will focus on this place. Can Saisan step it up to championship level?
178 Townsend Street, San Francisco, 94107
Telephone: (415) 828-7990