There's no getting around it: Saison is expensive. At $248 ($396 with wine pairings), the mandatory tasting menu in the 18-seat dining room is the priciest in the city. Even at the bar, pretentiously called “the salon,” items on the new a la carte menu run from $28 to $88 for little more than bites. Saison's high prices have been the subject of much criticism in the six months the restaurant has been open in its new SoMa digs, and Executive Chef Joshua Skenes has taken to both Twitter and the San Francisco Chronicle to defend them, citing the high cost of premium ingredients and labor necessary to make his exquisitely plated dishes (the restaurant employs a farmer, forager, and a fisherman to source just the right ingredients). I don't doubt his veracity, but the fact remains that a meal at Saison will set you back a significant amount of money.
Whether it is worth the money is another question entirely, and the answer will likely depend on your income bracket. Skenes is a talented chef who has assembled a deep bench to support him, including sommelier Mark Bright and pastry chef Shawn Gawle. I was excited when they announced the salon menu, giving those of us who don't have much expendable income a chance to sample what's going on in the kitchen. What I found was a parade of gorgeously executed dishes that inspired the same feeling I have for a Baroque landscape or a John Williams score: I respect and admire the skill and technique behind them, but they often leave me utterly unaffected.
Though it has been billed as Saison's more laid-back counterpart, the salon at Saison feels about as casual as a cravat. It has 14 seats spread along the bar and tables, most facing away from the open kitchen, the dining room's most interesting element, and is not the kind of place where you can drop in for a quick bite. They say reservations are encouraged, but they seem mandatory — I showed up unannounced one night and was told the a la carte menu was full, despite a nearly empty bar (because the ingredients are sourced so painstakingly, Skenes later explained, nightly production is necessarily limited). The bar menu is coursed like a mini-tasting menu — on the occasion that I did make a reservation, I was there for two and a half hours working my way from appetizer to dessert.
(As such, the salon menu is both pricey and formal, occupying a weird gray area between bar bites and the kind of high-end experience that Skenes is aiming for in the main dining room. Which raises the question of just who the salon's intended audience might be. People with a lot of disposable income but an affinity for eating at a bar? To me it seems made for wealthy SoMa residents or self-identified foodies looking for a taste of fine dining and the bragging rights that come with visiting a well-reviewed, exclusive restaurant like this without committing to 18 courses.)
Skenes has a delicate touch with food and his dishes are subtle interplays of flavor and texture. One evening brought quivering raw scallops, halved and stuffed with a slice of perfectly ripe smoked avocado, scallop roe, and a sheet of distilled lily about the size of a fresh-breath strip. The bite was lovely, with the buttery fish and avocado and bitter, flowery lily, but at $26, I wanted more than lovely. I felt the same way about a beautifully poached strip of sablefish in a yogurt-curry sauce ($38). Its muted spices flirted with the palate, but failed to ignite it. A shallow bowl of toasted grains in a light seaweed broth ($28), with chips of wild mustard greens sticking up like sails, was so understated it barely registered.
It's hard to get comfortable on either the low-slung leather bar seats or in the dim, high-ceilinged room decorated with curios and flower arrangements, like a living room spread in Dwell magazine. Service is obsequious, conducting the business at hand in hushed, reverential tones. Many menu items require servers to pour sauce over the dish at the table, a dramatic flourish that began to feel less so after the first few incidents. The overall atmosphere feels staid and solemn, save for the low, incongruous murmur of the '80s soundtrack (it proved difficult to concentrate on an elusive flavor to the beat of “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard”).
The wood pigeon ($40) was one of the few dishes that elicited the kind of electric reaction that made me excited to be eating there. The first time, the bird was served with cherries, the rareness of the meat echoing the redness of the fruit, and the liver wrapped in a cherry leaf had a rich, elegant balance. Another preparation came with macerated summer blackberries, dates, and crispy sunchokes stewed in coffee, maple, cognac, and barbare spices — nuttiness gave way to a complex, spicy flavor that sent my taste buds jangling. Soft, textbook-perfect Parker House rolls served with salted butter were the ideal foil for the sauce.
In dessert I found the liveliness that I'd been looking for in the rest of the meal. A popcorn ice cream sundae ($13) came topped with a round of gold-dusted chocolate hiding bits of caramel corn and strawberries underneath — it was a fun, childlike treat that still felt refined. Same with a swirly, magenta blanc mange ($13), which looked like something you might get from an ice cream truck and tasted like the essence of raspberries, and contrasted nicely with its base of tart crème fraiche custard and Meyer lemon wafer.
I wished the same skill had been applied to the cocktails ($18), which use innovative ingredients like popcorn syrup, barbecue bitters, and smoked pineapple, but never quite cohered into masterful, multilayered drinks. Luckily, wine pairings come from Mark Bright, whose deft touch finds the perfect complement to your dish — the Sonoma pinot noir he recommended teased out the fruit in the wood pigeon and made a good dish even better, as pairings should but so rarely do.
It's admirable that Skenes and his team are trying to make their food more egalitarian, but it may be that the concept of a bar menu at a restaurant like Saison is flawed from the start — a tasting menu is like a marathon, and you can't dip in for a few miles and expect to have the same experience. On both visits the bill was in the triple digits and I left not quite full, two facts that I had a hard time justifying for food that didn't make me swoon or change my perception. Then again, there's no shortage of money in this town. I'll leave the conspicuous consumption to the foodies who can afford it.