At Saison, Joshua Skenes' celebration of 21st-century haute cuisine, the whole notion of fine dining is upended. Sure, the kitchen assembles Osetra caviar, lobster sashimi, juicy filets of organically raised lamb, and mushrooms foraged from the roots of Japanese pine trees into platters of jewel-like opulence. Courses unfold, one after another, gracefully and unhurriedly, with a different table setting for each tidbit. Foams, gelées, butters, and emulsions are employed to underscore and showcase the Bay Area's freshest protein and produce. But while the food is as meticulously crafted as at any haute-cuisine sanctorium, the mood is looser, the appointments more rustic, the stipend slightly slimmer. Call it dot-com plush for the recession generation.
Contributing to the restaurant's special-occasion mystique are its limited opening hours (one seating on Friday, two seatings Saturday and Sunday). Then there's the setting: Mayor James D. Phelan's 1870s stable house, newly renovated with rustic charm intact. And did we mention the totally open kitchen, the intimate dining room, the preliminary glass of Champagne out on the flagstone patio, the one-menu-per-night seven-course prix-fixe that lasts three hours?
Breakout chef Skenes (Mountain View's Chez TJ, Carte 415) and sommelier Mark Bright of Restaurant Michael Mina opened the place in July, sharing a kitchen with the Stable Cafe, a popular neighborhood hangout facing Folsom Street. Saison, located in the old carriage house, is tucked out back, down a sapling-lined gravel walkway. The tree-shaded patio at the end of the walkway is where you wait, bubbly at hand, for the meal to commence; you can then stroll through the adjacent kitchen and check out all the slicing, grating, prepping, and plating.
The dining room retains much of the building's Day in the Country charm, complete with beamed, slanted ceiling and rustic local landscapes by the Mission's own Matthew Frederick. A communal table for eight is circled by five smaller planked-wood tables sans vases or tablecloths; the overall effect is of a little French farmhouse with trout and mushrooms from the surrounding countryside and a Michelin star in the window.
The meal ($70 plus $12.66 service charge, wine pairings an additional $40) began with two amuse-bouche that set the tone for the rest of meal. A spoonful of Negroni sorbet, crisp and bracing as a shot of iced Campari, was presented on a larger spoonful of amber-colored gelée faintly touched with the heat of Javanese long pepper, a combination that awakened the taste buds splendidly. A wedge of strawberry-red beet followed, its sweet, earthy flavor nicely complemented by a perimeter of delicate Bellwether Farms ricotta and bits of walnut.
With the next course, Saison's farm egg, the "layered flavors" cliché took on new meaning. The bowl's top tier was a billowing foam barely scented with dashi, the kelp-based Japanese broth. The foam melted into a stratum of crunchy, sparkly Osetra caviar, a perfect sea-sprayed echo of the kelp. Serving as a cushion for the bright flavors above was the slowly simmered Marin Sun Farms egg itself, served in a bouillon bath of smoked butter to enhance its silky texture.
The morning visit to the local fishmonger paid off with the flight of fish, a selection of Japanese seafood in eight flavors as impressive for its mosaiclike plating as for the subtly distinct tastes and textures. Arranged in overlapping fans, rings, and filets were rich, plump horse mackerel; a delicate little spot prawn; buttery lobster sashimi; long, meaty necks of geoduck clam; the blissfully fatty tuna known as otoro; crisp New Zealand sprat; a bit of upscale Red Sea bream; and, dominating the plate, a live Bay scallop on the half shell, softer and sweeter than any in our experience. A few strands of fennel and cucumber and a drizzle of citrus were the only accents the flight required.
Matsutake, the highly prized Japanese mushroom, starred in the next course. The sweet, spicy long-stemmed beauties were served with dollops of foam infused with the flavor of the plump Hog Island Sweetwater oyster nestled in its shell at the bottom of the bowl. Bright, crunchy strands of borage and a bed of smoky seaweed brought the earthy 'shrooms and the briny oyster together nicely.
The simplest dish on the menu, roasted lamb, was also the most memorable. After the minimalist precision of the preceding courses, this thick slab of perfectly roasted meat was a pleasant diversion. Tender and buttery, with a slender ribbon of succulent fat, its luscious flavor was brightly accented with vadouvan, an earthy mixture of garlic, shallot, and a bazaar's worth of Indian spices. A bouquet of tender shoots and blossoms from White Crane Farms gave the lamb a hint of verdant snark.
This was followed by citrus soup, an ideal palate-cleanser. A broth of orange, pineapple, and grapefruit essence buoyed a thick scoop of brisk tangerine ice cream with the silky texture of a light mousse and a gratuitous drizzle of rich, creamy olive oil. The meal's finale was a plate of four buttery shortbread cookies studded with lavender seed and a taste-popping sprinkle of sea salt.
Art Buchwald once wrote that in Paris, people don't go out to dinner and a movie or dinner and a concert; they go out to dinner. Saison is trying to bring that Continental attitude to San Francisco, leisurely service and all, despite those new-millennium types who prefer planes to trains, blogs to books, and burgers to boeuf bourguignon, and who will probably get itchy before the fish course. Then there are the tiny portions, which, despite their number, aren't quite substantial enough to satisfy your typical hearty eater at the basic belly-filling level. The service, while affable and attentive, wasn't well-informed, and the Champagne was flat as a brick.
But despite the quibbles, the concept was appealing, the setting a delight, and the intricately crafted food among the city's finest. Evening dress not required.