This is the tenth and final post in the West Coast! A Week in San Francisco and Sonoma Series. Other posts in this series include Sonoma Starlight at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Sonoma Wine Country Weekend – Taste of Sonoma 2015, Glen Ellen Star Sonoma, and Sante Restaurant at the Fairmont Mission Inn & Spa, Russian River Brewing Company, Kin Khao Thai Eatery, Exploring San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, Burma Superstar, and Quince.
A near perfect dining experience requires a lot of things.
First and foremost, the food obviously has to be very, very good – enough to surprise you multiple times throughout the meal with thoughts of “wow, this is phenomenal.” There really shouldn’t be any complete “misses”. You should enjoy the flavors, the textures, and the overall sequences of the dishes. Execution should be near flawless.
But there is so much more to a very good dining experience than just the food. Ideally, the diner feels like a special guest. Service runs smoothly, and never at any point in the night does the diner feel bored, hungry, or restless.
Ambiance is important. I personally like to feel comfortable and relaxed. Environments that are “stuffy” and overly formal make me feel on edge, afraid that I might do something improper. For me, noise level also makes a huge difference. I like to be able to talk to my dining companions without having to whisper or shout.
It is very, very difficult for a restaurant to execute that perfect dining experience. Even if the food reaches that “wow” level, usually there are some courses that are mediocre or even an occasional miss. Service can vary a lot, and I often find myself waiting too long between courses.
But occasionally, there will be that near-perfect meal.
Bryan and I were in San Francisco on our 14th (!) wedding anniversary. I decided to take the plunge and book Saison for dinner on the actual night of our anniversary.
I was blown away, and it has since quickly become one of my favorite high-end restaurants in the United States.
I immediately felt comfortable when I sat down at Saison. Even though it was a three Michelin-starred restaurant with servers dressed in suits and a massive, impressive tasting menu, it felt surprisingly relaxed. The exposed brick, the massive open kitchen, and the light pop music playing in the background made me feel like I was in my favorite farm-to-table, new American restaurant, but at much bigger proportions. There’s no dress code. They invite their guests to “come as they are.”
The restaurant is designed so that there is a HUGE open kitchen right in the middle of the restaurant. You really can’t miss it. Instead of a bar that encloses the kitchen, this kitchen is completely open. Diners sit at tables all around and enjoy watching the action all night long.
Pictured above was the view from my seat!
Chef Joshua Skenes is a huge fan of Japanese cuisine and his food is very clearly influenced by his many trips there. He embraces the Japanese philosophy of having an obsession about quality of ingredients and coaxing the flavors out of them. Our meal felt very much like a creative omakase in many ways, which I love.
Coincidentially (or maybe not-so-coincidentally), one of our servers was also obsessed about Japanese cuisine. We ended up talking endlessly about it throughout the meal. I immediately felt at ease, like I was talking to an old friend.
The first course, called Infusion, was a light tea made from garden herbs, flowers from their garden, and Meyer lemon, steeped for a mere thirty seconds. It was clean and light, with a pronounced tartness from the lemon.
Next came Saison Reserve Caviar. Decadent Osetra caviar, cured with sea salt, came served over a corn pudding with gelee on top. On the side was a beautifully grilled Parker house roll.
Wine pairing: Demiere-Ansiot Blanc De Blancs, Grand Cru, Oger, France 2008
Fire is central at Saison. Most, if not all, of the courses touch fire in some way, whether in the form of fire roasted vegetables, seafood warmed over coals, or even a smoked milk ice cream. The grilling area is massive. At any given time, you might see strings of beets hanging in the grill (fire-smoked for three days!) or a plate of carrots roasting in the embers.
Case in point: our next course, called Broth of Grilled Roots, was full of flavor from the fire. The key element was a flavorful broth made from fire-grilled root vegetables poured tableside over a scallop and sea cucumber stuffed daikon slice.
The combination was beautiful. The daikon added bitter notes while the seafood added a sweet, buttery element. The broth was light, yet fragrant and full of flavor from the root vegetables.
Wine pairing: Tardieu-Laurent Chateuaneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Rhone Valley, France 2009
The next course, Lobster, involved a tasting of virtually rare lobster and lettuce, merely “warmed over coals.”
Wine pairing: Domaine Julie Beneau Picpoul de Pinet, ‘Libero’, Lnaguedoc, France 2013
They gave us three different sauces to try with the lobster: a seaweed salt, a tart, clear dipping sauce made from lobster shells, and a wasabi-like side. I loved the nearly-raw lobster, which was sweet and tender.
The tart dipping sauce made from lobster shells was extremely flavorful and cut the richness of the lobster nicely. Bryan, typically a man of few words, exclaimed “the sauce is really good!” upon trying the dish.
This next dish was perhaps one of my favorite courses. Battle Creek Trout was smoked in a wood burning oven and topped with a layer of trout roe and paper-thin crispy skin. A one bite dish (“or maybe two”), this single bite really showcased the smoky flavors from the fire. The fish texture was soft, almost like sashimi, yet full of smoky goodness. All in all, it was a phenomenal course.
The Sea Urchin (uni) on “liquid toast” came next, and it was simply phenomenal. The toast was made from tamari – soaked bread, which was then topped with a perfect, gorgeous dollop of creamy uni. It was delicious. The uni was fresh and decadently creamy, a perfect contrast to the crunchy toast below.
Sake pairing: Eiko Fuji Brewery Honjozo ‘Honkara’ from Yamagata, Japan
Even Bryan happily ate this with his hands.
Abalone was next, grilled over embers, topped with wakame (seaweed), and served with an abalone liver sauce, caper berries, and brown butter. When we saw the dish, we immediately thought of Sushi Yoshitake in Japan, the only other place in the world where we had ever tasted abalone served with abalone liver sauce.
In fact, Bryan thinks the abalone dish at Sushi Yoshitake is the single best dish he has ever had in his life.
We were tickled and impressed when our server not only acknowledged Yoshitake’s version of the dish, but was even able to tell us that this version was different, for example, because of the incorporation of lemon.
Bryan’s reaction after his initial bite was “it’s good but different.” This dish was rich and creamy, dominated more by the tart notes from the capers than liver flavors. Bryan decided that the Yoshitake version still reigns supreme, although this interesting version was still very good.
Wine pairing: Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner, ‘Steinsetz’, Kamptal, Austria 2013
The next course was another transcendent winner. Black Cod grilled over embers came topped with cilantro flowers and came served in a fragrant broth made from coconut milk and house-made yogurt. On the side, a small amount of Chinese broccoli completed the dish.
This dish was simply amazing. I absolutely loved the soft, delicate texture of fish, and the flavorful broth was magnificent. It was a bit tart, savory, and creamy all at the same time.
Even though Bryan usually hates coconut milk, he enjoyed it immensely in this dish, and (to my utter surprise), he finished every last drop of that coconut-milk based broth.
Our next course, Ratatouille, consisted of carefully placed layers of various grilled vegetables (eggplant, peppers, zucchini) from the restaurant’s farm tossed in a grilled olive sauce and topped with flowers. It was simple, yet a lovely vegetarian interlude to the next half of the meal.
Then came the palate cleanser, a three-year aged seaweed gelee served with pickled cucumbers and a horseradish ice. Bryan thought he tasted elements of cilantro, his favorite herb in the world. Unfortunately, I found this dish to be borderline too salty for my tastes.
Our next course was a Cheese Custard made with pickled scallions and cheese from Petaluma Creamery, a cheesemaker located about an hour north in Sonoma Valley. The custard was creamy and savory, full of that rich, cheesy umami. It was quite enjoyable.
Next, we had a beautiful dish called Brassica, the genus for a number of vegables including kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. This particular version included kale and cabbage “blistered in the fire” and served with a flavorful broth made from fermenting or “culturing” the same vegetables. I loved the smoky notes in the dish which came from the fire.
Wine pairing: Francois Carillon Puligny-Montrachet, ‘Les Eseigneres’, Burgundy, France 2013
The next dish, called Fire in the Sky Beet, was very unusual and interesting. It began when the server brought over a HUGE fire-charred bone. He then scooped inside the bone with a spoon and poured out the marrow into a tiny little pot.
He then brought by a piece of beet that had been smoked for three days in the fire.
He poured some melted bone marrow sauce on top.
Then he poured some bright, red beet juice on top.
The resultant dish not only looked like beef, it tasted surprisingly like beef brisket. The three-day fire roasting process made the beet more dense and “meaty” in texture. The red beet sauce almost looked like blood from a rare cut of beef, and the melted bone marrow gave the beet the beefy, fatty, unctuous depth that really made it taste like steak.
It was a brilliant dish that was also very good.
Wine tasting: Gunther Steinmetz Riesling, ‘Piesporter Falkenberg’, Mosel, Germany 2011
Our next two courses were served separately but together formed the course simply called Whole Duck. The first was a sweet + salty course that included toffee with duck liver served with layers of bread, milk, and beer. There was creamy caramel as well as rich ice cream interspersed with bits of cereal-like “crunchies.”
Bryan said it reminded him of a blend of two of David Chang’s famous dishes melded together: the famous shaved frozen foie gras dessert from Momofuku Ko and cereal milk from Momofuku Milk Bar.
The sweet and savory worked well together, and duck liver tasted surprisingly good in the form of a dessert. I guess that’s why foie gras is always paired with a sweet wine.
The next part of the duck course involved two different pieces from different parts of the “whole duck.” On one side was a three-week dry aged duck breast grilled “near the fire.” The other was duck offal and dark meat with plum sauce, wrapped in chicory leaves and fire roasted. Both were excellent, and the dry aging really intensified the duck flavor. The meat had great texture, soft but still maintaining structure. We could taste the fire in both the meat and the chicory leaves, which had a lovely hints of smokiness througout.
I rarely have goat, so it was interesting for me to try it in this context. Here, we enjoyed a course simply called River Goat in two separate preparations. The first one consisted of goat meat cooked in fire served with sweet gooseberries, gooseberry raisins, and a house fermented hot sauce. It was a fantastic dish. The meat really picked up the smokiness from the fire, and it was really tender. The fermented hot added a gorgeous pop of flavor that went really well with the sweet gooseberries.
Chateau de Pibarnon Bandol, Provence, France 2010 en Magnum
The second part of the prepration was a simple goat consommé or “bouillon” made from the grilled bones of the goat. It was clear and flavorful, with tons of rich umami. I’m sure it was full of collagen and all sorts of nutrients extracted from the bones.
It felt restorative to sip on the warm broth after eating the goat.
After finishing our last savory course, they brought over a pot of buckwheat tea. I had never had (or even heard of) buckwheat tea, but I immediately fell in love with it. I have always loved barley tea and roasted rice green tea (genmaicha). This was fantastic, and I asked the server about it.
He similarly raved, saying that he’s been brewing this for himself ever since he discovered it after joining the restaurant.
“Just go to Whole Foods and pick up the bulk buckwheat that they sell. Toast it in the oven for about 10 min at 350°F, and then steep for 5 minutes. It’s so easy!”
I’ve become a buckwheat tea addict since, and I regularly keep a container full of toasted buckwheat both at home and in the office. I am so thankful to this server for such a wonderful tip!
The next dessert, called “Ice Cream and Caramel, cooked in a fire” simply blew me away.
Imagine smoked milk ice cream with cocoa nibs topped with a smoked caramel sauce poured tableside. They told me that the milk came from a cow named Vibrance from the restaurant’s farm.
This was simply phenomenal, and paired superbly with the sweet wine, which had sherry-like notes.
Wine pairing: Dumangin Ratafia de Champagne, Chigny-Les-Roses, France NV.
Next came a beautiful chocolate covered bar called Hazelnut, decadently topped with 24-carat gold. It was crunchy, with elements of toffee, nuts, and caramel.
Our server told us that Chef Skenes has never been huge on desserts, and prefers to end a meal with fruit. Growing up in an Asian household, I totally share his values. We never ate dessert after a meal. Instead, my mom would always give us a bowl of cut-up fruit, which we would enjoy a little later in the evening.
This final fruit course was the most creative and stunning interpretation of “just fruit” (merely called Citrus and Tea on the menu) that I had ever seen.
We actually first started out with a pile of tiny wild strawberries (the size of half your pinky) served simply with cream. These were intensely flavorful, and very, very good.
Next came a series of “fruits” (pictured above), like a “passion fruit”
And an “orange”.
Alas, these were not your typical fruits at all. They split open to reveal fruit-flavored sorbet inside! The citrus fruits came from a very special fruit grower from San Jose, whose fruits are very sought-after and hard-to-get.
We ended with something I’d never seen before, a Ceylon gooseberry (originally from India) served with Douglas honey.
It looks like a tomato, but it’s sweet like a gooseberry (or husk cherry). It was really fun to try a fruit I’d never tasted before.
And then finally, over twenty courses later, our epic dining adventure had come to and end. The food had been simply incredible, made at a level far above most other high-end restaurants. I loved so many aspects of it. I especially loved the strong Japanese influence I could sense in the food. I’m also a huge fan of anything cooked near a fire, so I especially appreciated how Chef made use of the fire in so many different creative ways.
The staff treated us really well, and we couldn’t have felt more relaxed or treated with the utmost care.
We seriously had a blast on our anniversary.
After our meal was over, they gave us a tour of the kitchen. It was fascinating to see all different sorts of things curing, aging, or smoking in the back. The kitchen is immaculate and insanely well-organized.
In some ways, you don’t fully appreciate how much work goes into each component of each individual course until you visit the kitchen and you see everything in action, whether it be the stuff they are dry aging, smoking, or curing. It’s an insanely complicated operation.
All in all, this was one of the best meals I’ve had all year, and I’ve eaten at quite a few places this year. Everything, from the transcendent food to the exceptional service made it the near-perfect meal.
Thanks Saison, for really making our anniversary extra special.
Saison is open Tuesday through Saturdays for dinner. You can make reservations up to 60 days in advance. You can make reservations online through their website (links to Opentable) or by calling +1-415-828-7990 between 10am and 6pm. Reservations at the Chef’s Counter must be made via telephone only. Also, please note that reservations at 7:30PM are only for the cocktail bar, not the main dining room.
Cancellation policy requires that you notify them one week before the dining date. Otherwise, you will be charged the full menu price since they have already begun purchasing ingredients for the meal.
There’s street parking and valet parking.