Our dining experience at Saison is the most unforgettable ever, to date. Up until then, Paris 1906 at Next topped our list of gastronomy experience and Next in Chicago always has a special place in our hearts as we will always continue to clamor for dining tickets at this genius restaurant. In many of its own ways, though, dinner at Saison in San Francisco has now become the most unforgettable for us.
Headed and owned by Chef Joshua Skenes, Saison clearly is going in the right direction of his restaurant. Awarded a 1 Michelin Star for 2011, Saison has recently been upgraded to 2 Michelin Stars for the 2012 guide. The restaurant features a degustation menu that changes everyday depending on seasonal fresh produce and ingredients that the restaurant purchases for a particular day. Therefore that day's menu is driven by the ingredients purchased for the day. Given this daily changing menu, restaurant patrons have no inkling as to what will be the menu for any particular day until they arrive at Saison (advanced reservations are highly recommended), get seated at the table, and presented with that day's menu. To encourage the creative thinking of the diners' minds of the courses they are about to enjoy, the mysterious menu only lists the main ingredient of each course about to be presented with no description of how the main ingredient of each course would be prepared. Personally handwritten on the menu is the recommended wine pairing for each course if diners would like that option. With the daily changing degustation menu, the pricing changes everyday as well depending on the ingredients purchased to prepare that day's courses. Later during dinner we were presented several item surprises from the kitchen that were not listed on the menu. The "surprises" also depended on the chef's inspiration for that day.
In today's dining scene, people's expectations of fine dining have evolved and in many ways people no longer seek the classic crisp white table cloth for dinner but instead are opting for a more contemporary scene. This evolution in dining expectations are seen also throughout Chicago as classic fine dining restaurants are gradually revamping themselves from offering a predictable experienece to diners to offering a contemporary vibe and atmosphere with still equally excellent food. Saison in San Francisco clearly gets this evolving trend and offers the dining experience that fits in perfectly with expectations that people are generally looking for today. We had an excellent fine dining meal with equally excellent professional service throughout the entire night in a setting that wasn't in anyway overly prim or rigid and diners will not feel under or over dressed in jeans or a cocktail dress.
The dining room at Saison is cosy and intimate, only accommodating 8 tables. Just outside the dining room is an outdoor wood-fired oven where bread rolls are baked fresh throughout the night. The wood-fired oven area offers 4 counter top seatings and one table, all beautifully shaded by an orange tree.
There is an open kitchen and while seated in the dining room we saw the sous chefs busy at work at their respective work stations with Chef Joshua Skeenes supervising and running the kitchen the entire night. For the lucky diners who managed to snag the kitchen counter seating, there are about 4-6 seats in there.
Given that Saison only offers a degustation menu everyday, we did not have to go through the typical process of ordering our food but instead just sat back excitedly with our glasses of complimentary sparkling white wine while anticipating what we knew was to be an excellent night of food.
1st ingredient featured on menu
The first line mysteriously labeled on the menu only as "Eggs" was a great start of the meal as we eventually realized that it included three different mini courses of the Chef's interpretation of "Eggs".
The first interpretation was black caviar from smoked white sturgeon delicately presented on a small clear glass plate. The caviar was unlike anything I've had before, with an excellent umami taste to it.
The second interpretation of "Eggs" was the golden white trout roe served in a glass cup and meant to be consumed all at once as a shot. The skin of the roe was thicker than any other roe we have had before that usually comes with thinner skin. The roe provided a great "crunch" as we chewed into them before the liquid of the eggs oozed out.
The third interpretation of "Eggs" was poached egg white and yolk served on a delicate crispy shell cracker with smoked creme fraiche. Meant to be taken in one bite, the egg texture was incredibly moist and almost like soft boiled.
Next we had the first off-the-menu surprise of the night. We were blown away with the shigoku oysters served on the shell with cucumber juice and lemon verbena foam. The oyster was petite, so fresh, and unbelievably good. Each dish kept impressing us even more as they were presented.
2nd ingredient featured on menu
The second line of the menu only lists "Cru", which means raw in French. As vague as it sounded, raw can mean any ingredient and here it was centered on blue fin tuna presented three ways.
The blue fin tuna tartare was mixed with tiny bits of cooked tuna and though we frequently have tuna tartare, this was the first time our tartare was mixed in with the cooked bits which definitely made it interesting and unpredictable. Soy jus was poured over the tuna tartare.
There were two complements to the blue fin tuna: fish crackling and marrow. The marrow proved to be the best item and highlight of our entire meal that night, and also the most memorable item we have ever eaten anywhere anytime. It was clearly a very unique and extremely impressive approach of the chef. The marrow was taken from the fish spine and meant to be taken as a shot, the marrow had a gelatinous texture. There wasn't exactly much flavor to the marrow itself as the gelatinous texture was the focus here but as we took in and savored the shot of marrow, there was just one speck of sea salt in the marrow meant as a surprise to the taste bud. The fish crackling was like a fun snack that was fried until crispy like a cracker.
With the cold food items presented, we were transitioned into the hot food items with freshly baked rolls from the outdoor wood-fired oven. To accompany our rolls was the delicately carved butter seasoned with sea salt.
3rd ingredient featured on menu
The 3rd line on the menu was listed as "Brassicas" which are vegetables from the mustard family.
Crisp dehydrated vegetables were served with poached quail egg and toasted nuts. At the table, bonito broth was poured over the dehydrated vegetables resulting in slightly softening the crisp vegetables. The bonito broth was extremely flavorful with just the right intensity I did not want it to end.
4th ingredient featured on menu
Here the inspiration was drawn from two types of root vegetables, turnip and daikon. Very rarely do we see food items focusing on these root vegetables as they are more often used as complements in food. The idea of turning the main focus of attention to these versatile roots was a great idea.
Oven roasted stumps of turnip and daikon were presented with foam broth concocted from seaweed, anchovies, and soybean. The combination of these flavors resulted in a very flavorful way and to say that it was very good would not do it justice.
5th ingredient featured on menu
On the fifth line of the menu was labeled with the intriguing word "Seafruits" and what it meant to represent were creatures of the sea: sea urchin and octopus fresh from Monterrey Bay.
We are absolutely huge fans of sea urchin especially at sushi restaurants and undoubtedly we were excited when this course was presented. The dish was finished with a ginger vinaigrette light enough not to distract the natural sweetness of the sea urchin and octopus. The octopus was incredibly tender, almost like medium rare, and it was definitely the most tender octopus we have ever had.
Wild Spotted Deer
6th ingredient featured on menu
Graduating towards a more intense and heavy ingredient as the menu progressed, this was the first and only red meat item of the night.
The delicate pieces of deer meat, prepared medium rare and very tender, were creatively served with coffee and deer jus. Throughout the night we were continuously impressed with unique combination of flavors that were perfectly executed and clearly showed the Chef thinking out of the box. With the meat were also red quinoa, huckleberry, fresh artichokes, walnuts, chestnuts, and roasted herbs. With this relatively heavier course, we appreciated that there were only two delicate pieces of meat enough to create an impression while leaving us more stomach space for the rest of the menu.
Not part of the menu was a second off-the-menu "surprise" from the kitchen which was a salad made from foraged herbs, daikon, tarragon, watermelon vegetable, pig ear terrine, honey, and finished with smoke buttermilk vinaigrette. This turned out to be our least favorite item of the night as we did not really get the coming together of the resulting taste of some of the bitter and non-bitter herbs and vegetables in the salad.
After the salad was the third off-the-menu surprise from the kitchen as we progressed to desserts. While all the earlier non-dessert courses were presented and explained to us by our server as they were brought to the table, the desserts were treated a little differently. Each dessert was brought to the table and explained by the pastry chef team. I absolutely fell in love with the sheep's milk cheese baked in brioche and topped with honey comb and almond. The brioche was incredibly light and airy, I could be tricked into thinking it was a doughnut. The sheep's milk cheese filling was nowhere near dense nor heavy and it was perfectly light to start off dessert time.
Preserved Lemon 1:27
7th ingredient featured on menu
Here lemon was presented three ways within one dessert served in a petite ramekin glass.
Showcasing the three different interpretations of lemon, the bottom most layer was lemon sorbet and the top layer was lemon custard. Sandwiched in between the top and bottom layers was a thin layer of lemon gelee. Both the lemon sorbet and custard were very light in flavor with just a hint of lemon while the gelee provided a strong lemony burst in taste. The combination of light and intense lemon flavors between the three layers worked out very well in creating a contrast of textured flavors. Fresh chrysanthemum leaves elegantly garnished the dessert.
8th ingredient featured on menu
The final ingredient featured on the menu was chocolate, anyone's favorite. Going the unpredictable route again, the dessert focused on white chocolate instead of the predictable milk chocolate.
White chocolate and sesame wafer were accompanied with caramel rice ice-cream, a very unique flavor in itself. The ice-cream was very creamy and thick and came with a scoop small enough to allow us to enjoy and savor without being over the top rich.
We ended our meal with yet a fourth off-the-menu surprise from the kitchen which was popcorn ice-cream. I was incredibly impressed with this particular flavor as it tasted exactly like what it was supposed to taste like, which was caramel popcorn. The flavor was so natural and if it wasn't for the smooth texture of the ice-cream, I could believe that I was eating popcorn.
With an already innovative and inventive daily changing menu, Saison went further by providing even more surprise items that mentioned in the menu and this showed the constant and continuously creative minds of the kitchen team. We left the restaurant blown away and I found myself still thinking about the meal when I went to bed.
As a nice gesture, we were each given a copy of the menu to bring home with us. As an even more personal gesture, we received a handwritten and signed thank you card from the Saison team for joining them for dinner that night. Clearly Saison had left an impression on us that is going to stay for a long time.
2124 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
2012 2-Michelin Stars
2011 1-Michelin Star
2011 Best New Chef by Food & Wine Magazine
2011 Best San Francisco Chef by San Francisco Magazine