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Saison – San Francisco, CA

Six weeks ago, I experienced a meal that left me gob-smacked.

It upended expectations and altered perspectives. I can’t remember the last time a meal made me think this hard about food.

Chef Joshua Skenes is doing something truly refreshing at Saison. He speaks a different language and cooks with a different vocabulary. One I haven’t seen in many Western restaurants in America. Whereas others add flavor through an additive process (more ingredients, more complexity, more embellishments), Skenes takes away. His food uses deceptively simple cooking techniques to fully extract an ingredient’s maximum natural flavor.

Fully extracting an ingredient’s maximum natural flavor. Upon first glance, this may sound trivial; but imagine eating the most intense-tasting squab you can conjure: rich, dark, oily, irony, and chocolatey, caressed by that great gamey flavor. That is exactly what Skenes served me.

He unlocks an ingredient’s pure flavor with shocking proficiency. Fish and meats are carefully aged from weeks to months to deepen flavors. Live spot prawns are lightly poached in the very seawater it was caught– simplicity giving way to complexity. Hand-foraged flowers and herbs shock and delight. And of course there is the open wood-burning fire hearth. Used in nearly every dish, the crackly flames imbue everything they touch with a rustic charred goodness that launches flavors into the stratosphere.

I can say without creeping into hyperbole that Saison is the best meal I’ve had all year.

***

I arrived at Saison over Labor Day Weekend, not sure what to make of the restaurant. I wasn’t even sure if I was at the right spot. Was that warehouse-looking structure at the end this random courtyard Saison? Why yes it was. To my surprise, upon my arrival I was led past the dining room… and into the kitchen. I hadn’t made any special requests to the restaurant, so eating at the kitchen counter arms-length from the chefs was an absolute treat. Thank you, Jordan Wong (pictured above), for taking such good care of me.

The first course of eggs came on two separate plates. On one was a big dollop of house-smoked caviar that smacked with brine but was tempered by smoke. Simple, delicious, and invigorating.

Flanking the caviar was possibly the most gorgeous flatbread I’d ever seen. I dined in September, but this was like spring bloomed early. A variety of eggs (egg yolks, whites, bottarga, and shad roe) and flatbread provided flavor and foundational heft, but the star was surely the rainbow mound of herbs and flowers. Bright, zippy, and vegetal, it was a refreshing romp through nature.*

The trio of bites that appeared next pulled my palate in directions: salty, sweet, and bitter. First, was a raw oyster topped with lemon verbena foam: a creamy, briny, and citrusy rush. A layered shot of salted egg yolk, parsnip and carrot puree, and parsnip chip was earthy and sweet. The last was a thimble of sliced radishes, sheathing a dribble of brown butter and nasturtium honey. It was a faultless balance of bitter and sweet.

Bluefin tuna scraped using a scallop shell arrived brushed with a jelly made from fish bones roasted over embers, which imparted a wonderful umami-tinged beefy flavor to it. Accompanying the tuna was a rice cracker covered in shrimp and perilla. Eaten together with the tuna, this was a beautiful marriage of coast and sea. There was also a jelly shot made from the tuna’s cerebral spinal fluids, which felt a bit superfluous and tasted much cleaner than I would’ve imagined.

Perhaps Skenes cooking style can be best embodied in his signature dish of Brassicas. And when a chef’s signature dish stars vegetables, you know you’ve got something interesting. He slowly roasts the paper-thin greens over embers as carefully as one would the most delicate fish, constantly moving them around to coax out a variety of flavors and textures. A vial of bonito broth laced with puffed toasted grains is poured in and a single quail egg finishes. There was crisp and char, sweetness and bite; this is Skenes at his finest, taking already great produce and layering on flavors and textures. It was perspective-altering.

Then we started to veer off menu. Skenes sent out the first of three courses not listed on the menu. Vegetable aspic appeared first—a composition of corn pudding, fava beans, zucchini, and avocado sat in a basil-tomato consommé that was a celebration of greens. As with so many great vegetable dishes, each bite revealed something new, a complex interaction between flavors and textures.

Next, one of my favorite dishes of the night (hard to choose just one!) arrived on two plates. First, a live spot prawn was picked from the tank and gently poached in its own seawater. Such a simple preparation yet I wonder why no one does this more. The prawn wasn’t just sweet; a lingering oceanic brine made me lick my lips with pleasure and transported me back to my childhood where I spent summers playing on the beaches in the Philippines.

The accompanying soup was even better: a mound of lobster tail, crab meat, uni, and a crisp nasturtium leaf was sided by a smear of cool meyer lemon cream and finished with an orange-basil-tarragon broth. The broth was surprisingly bright -tarragon and orange are always a winning combination in my book- but especially impressive was how the broth mixed with the cream and together complemented the buttery shellfish. Like the Brassicas, this dish again had Skenes’ mark on it: the flavors were focused and straightforward but wonderfully complex at the same time. This is thinking man’s food.

An unconventional “stew” followed— rabbit mousse wrapped in kale and accompanied by foie gras and rabbit confit. There were, of course, hand-foraged flowers and herbs, as well as rabbit roasting juice. But this was an exercise in restraint: the rabbit was perhaps the mildest preparation I’ve ever had– slightly buttery, gamey, and sweet. Even the foie was applied with a delicate hand, simply hiding in the background, adding body and fat.

But perhaps, of all the dishes at Saison, one shined brighter than the rest. Skenes came over and inquired if I was interested in a 32-day aged squab, another off-menu diversion. I nodded my head furiously.

Moments later, a bronzed bird appeared in the kitchen, fresh out of the smokey embers of the hearth. Skenes himself presented it, with a proud smile— a minimalist arrangement of thigh, breast, and neck, surrounded by grapes, wild flowers, and cherry blossoms.

As earlier mentioned, this was most intense-tasting, “squabbiest” squab you could conjure. It practically reverberated with dark flavor: chocolate, iron, and char, with a flowery trail. Intensity was countered by the fruit and cherry blossom. The meat was denser and tighter than others I’ve consumed, and the fat was practically melting. And the skin was so crackly and crisp you could’ve heard it across the room. Perspectives altered yet again. Why aren’t more chefs experiment with aging meats (beef excluded)?

The cheese course caught me by surprise: a soft creamy sheep’s milk cheese, Nuvola di Pecora, was encased in a brioche with honeycomb.** Why surprised? First off, this was another off-menu item. I was expecting dessert already. Secondly, I normally prefer my cheese naked. Just straight up cheese. Bread, jam, and fruit just get in the way. But this was something really special.

The warmth of the brioche rendered the already soft cheese slightly oozy and runny, a perfect contrast to brioche, which was coated in a thin crisp layer of honey. The mild flavored cheese was complemented by the honeycomb’s sweetness. Savory and sweet, this was the perfect segue into dessert.

The first dessert, Preserved Lemon 1:27, was a study in form and flavor. The layered dessert presented lemons in four ways: preserved/candied in a meyer lemon custard, gelee, and sorbet.*** Like so much of Skenes’ cooking, it served up lip-smacking deliciousness and intellectual stimulation in spades. This was the best lemon dessert I’ve ever had, bar none.

Imagine digging into multiple layers of lemon, with different temperatures, textures (creamy to firm) and flavors (slightly bitter preserved lemon; sweet custard; sour gelee). It was topped with chrysanthemum foam and petals, which kept your palate awake and prevented everything from getting too sweet; likewise, preserving lemons prevented the dessert from getting too tart.

The last few desserts were good, but not quite reaching the stratospheric heights of the Preserved Lemon 1:27. One plate brought a composed creation of caramel, white chocolate, rice sorbet, and a sesame chip. A single scoop of popcorn ice cream along with roasted tea followed. Rounding out the meal were, of course, mignardises: candied raspberries that were fun and tasty, with a crisp exterior shielding a soft center.

***

It’s been over a month since my meal, and I’m still thinking about it. Over the course of three hours, sparks flew, neurons fired, and taste buds erupted. This meal satisfied the head, the stomach, and the soul, and I relished every second of it.

It’s clear that Skenes is doing unique, delicious -and most importantly- wholly his. There’s too much to love here, from his respect for ingredients, to his extensive use of fire, to his ventures with aging fish and meat. All in the name of fully extracting an ingredient’s maximum natural flavor. He dreams big but works with a restrained hand. A wild talent that genuinely impressed this jaded diner.

Thank you, Chef Skenes, for feeding me and showing me the world of food through your eyes. I’ll be back soon.

Saison
2124 Folsom St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
http://www.saisonsf.com

*The ficoide glaciale (herb frost) was particularly eye-opening: a zippy acidic bite with a crisp crunch– almost like crunchy sorrel. I loved it.
** One of the few times I’ve ever eaten creamy soft sheep’s milk cheese— aren’t they usually firmer? (ie. manchego, etc)
*** 1:27 refers to January 27, the day the lemons were preserved.

Special thanks to Chuck of Chuckeats.com, where I first read about Saison.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. hello kitty #

    :D

    October 31, 2011
  2. Holy eff that squab looks bomb diggity. Also, I want that prawn/soup combo in my mouth right now.

    October 31, 2011
  3. it is indeed a special place – getting better by the day. not sure if you saw my last post on the sampling of many of the dry-aged product – various fish, beef, different squabs, & even lamb: http://www.chuckeats.com/2011/10/24/saison-sf-the-dry-aged-summer/

    October 31, 2011
  4. sounds amazing. first place on my checklist when I’m back up in SF.

    November 1, 2011
  5. uhm road trip?

    November 1, 2011
  6. WOW MOM WOW! Your post has me craving aged squab! This place sounds sensational, Daniel. I will definitely check it out on my next jaunt to The Bay. And thanks for introducing me to Chuck Eats and a Life Worth Eating.

    November 1, 2011
  7. Tang & Bolster: Yes, that soup prawn combo was fascinating! So clean, bright, and not heavy in the least.

    Chuck: I will have to make it up sometime for an aged-meat-palooza!

    Gastronomer: Yes- it’s a must go. The most exciting restaurant in SF. See you tonight for dinner! :)

    November 2, 2011

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