Saison, San Francisco 2013
We've never before gotten the sense of "this will be a night to remember" simply by walking into a restaurant— but this time we do.
As soon as you enter the brick building at Townsend in San Francisco that houses Saison, you're struck with the feeling that everything in this place has been thought about and care has been given to every detail. The interior is both urban and cool, while still timeless, luxurious and comforting. The concrete floors meshes perfectly with the warmth from the large wooden tables (a cutout from a large walnut tree) and the green luxurious cashmere blankets, while the exposed bricks shows the buildings true nature and age. Recognisable 90s music is blasting from the speakers (at just the perfectly thought out volume of course).
Our initial reaction is a striking feeling of "are we cool enough to be here?". Those feelings are quickly diminished by the extremely welcoming and friendly staff, we truly get the feeling that we're as important as anyone else in the restaurant; we're at ease.
We start off at the bar located near the entrance, the cocktails tastes amazing and is a mix of ingredients we've never tried before (we're already heightening our senses), and we sip on them as we're shown to our table. Patrick Ellis, Saisons general manager takes some time to talk to us, asking us about our experiences in San Francisco as he prepares a first drink of Rhubarb soda with a grapefruit rim. This isn't a "sit down, the food will be here soon"-type of welcome, instead they want to get to know you better and we're very happy by this setup, we love it. Many restaurants fail to recognise that the guest wants more than simply food on a plate, and Saison, together with Patrick Ellis is obviously doing the right thing here!
Throughout the entire evening, the staff is extremely interested in chatting about the food and our tastes (heightening the entire experience). As we mention that it's my birthday, throughout the evening, everyone in the staff, (including the chefs that's presenting the dishes) wishes me a happy birthday. Obviously the information around each guest is spread throughout the staff— attention to detail!
The set menu at Saison consists of an array of dishes, structured into different sections (Toffe - Tea etc...). A menu with the sections is presented at the table, with the selected wines accompanying them. As we have a look at the menu, a complimentary glass of Krug champagne is poured, further defining the dining experience as "luxurious".
As soon as we bite into the first course on the tasting menu of custard of grilled black truffles, the tastes and textures hits you immediately "this is sensational". The next course of caviar and sea urchin has just the perfect balance of saltiness and sweet (with added texture of crackling juices). I've never tasted as good quality of caviar before. Straight up it's evident that Joshua Skenes (head chef) settles for nothing but the best ingredients when it comes to the dishes. The quality of ingredients presented to us are truly amazing-- and the best way they've been utilised to be digested.
Saison utilises fire to enhance flavours in the ingredients— and it is very noticeable that it all tastes to the best of its abilities (while still thinking about textures and forming a "complete dish", even if it's smaller sized).
One of the standout dishes is a wooden bowl of differently prepared vegetables— which you eat with your hands. This is almost like a "Alice in Wonderland" moment when you realise how much flavour is in each piece you pick up and digest. A true "wow-moment".
The progression of the meal is perfect. Each course following in at precisely the right note— giving another sensation in each bite. The plates for each dish is truly custom and takes advantage of the abilities of each course. The wines are poured in all ranges of Zalto glasses (that we love here :)
The only thing that isn't as spectacular however is the wine service that's rather "stiff" compared to all other things happening. The wines are amazing, and Mark Bright (Sommelier and co-owner) surely has amazing knowledge (and a huge wine cellar!), but when the wines are presented, they're simply poured and the name and year is stated. We love sommeliers that gives us a bit more insight into their thought process for choosing wines to go with each course (or some help finding the taste-notes and hints), but here we're getting nothing— which is a shame. We're watching a brigade of cooks prepare all meals in the open kitchen (which is a great experience in itself), we have servers that are genuinely interested in engaging with us, we have food that's simply stunning, and in the midst of this, we're almost forgetting about the accompanying wines, which is a shame.
Another of the standout dishes of the night are also the one least pretty to look at (and take a picture of). It's a pork-belly with a generous amount of truffles added on top. The juiciness of the pork-belly and the intensity of the truffles are amazing. We've never tasted truffles that taste this much. Another "wow-moment".
The style of the courses are very much inspired by Japanese cousine. A few of the courses are even presented together with chopsticks (custom made, perfectly balanced of course) and an ending of the meal with a "tea" service. This is almost expected as the term "perfection" is rather closely related to Japanese gastronomy and minimalism (as the meal clearly aspires to be).
As we're getting to the last courses of the menu, we're feeling that the ending of the meal is more of an "afterthought" than the rest of the courses. We figure it would be hard to have the same kind of "perfection" when trying to come up with true desert-courses as the rest of the meal. Instead we're given a soufflé, a few condiments to the tea service and Canelés. We feel a little "robbed" of something as extraordinary in the desert-world as we've been given up to this point. However, it might also be that it would feel "strange" to go off a tangent at the end with something sweet. Instead the ending feels like an ending a chef would come up with, instead of a pastry chef. The overall integrity of the meal is however kept intact by this decision.
All in all, we can only summarise the entire experience in "as close to perfection as possible". The bill is high, but as we're presented with it, we're both saying to each other: "this was worth every dollar, and let's make a generous tip— the experience was extraordinary, and the servers (actually one in particular) made such an effort and cared so much". This experience has really put other restaurant experiences we've had to shame. The meal is somewhat life changing for us, if that's possible when it comes to food. Joshua Skenes has a clear vision, that is evident in everything from beginning to end— and most definitively on each plate and taste.
As we leave, we receive a brioche-bread packaged in cellophane. "For tomorrow", the servers explain. They thought of every detail! (However, the bread is devoured the same night— we couldn't keep our hands of another bite from Saison).