A meal at Saison is a slow burn through the night. Flavors are clean and light. A soft salinity brushes some plates like an ocean mist. Smoke wafts throughout. Imparts of faint bitterness. Tight concentrations of umami. Sometimes a funk. And always the striking dash of herbs. The fire is the heart, the essence and purpose. Singularity.
Follow the embers to the wild and the pure.
The wild creeps in, maybe mistaken for decoration, with an Emersonian edge. Bitter flowers jabbed at the silkiness of a warm chawanmushi custard with tender sweet peas. A bowl of crudites, both farmed and foraged, sparkled in their clarity. Where are the anchovy dew drops in the Laguiole morning mist? And where was the soil? Old Beef, Old Tuna,1 but just as importantly, Pungent Herbs, stand against the age. Wild fennel lent a fleeting sweetness to nettles and Montana golden trout. Small vibrant hues as foils for the naturally sweet and rich.
And the pure sea in all its forms. Rich white sturgeon caviar. Pristine Fort Bragg uni. From fresh scallops to live abalone. “Just kissed by the embers”, the faintest touch of smoke stuck to the saline notes of a kelp-cured sea bream. The purity of the tuna spinal fluid, like a shot of the purest ocean. Hearthed uni sat atop tuna ham, caked a bit like dried salt. One dehydrated by flame, the other by time,2 a distilled interplay of complex brine, each bite a wave. Old beef, old tuna, a humble name for the minerality- and salinity-driven proteins, grass and seawater in an infinite tug between surf and turf. Macerated in Burgundy, a “very old” piece of bluefin tuna gushed with Earthy spoils.
Skenes’s food lies bare on the plate. There is not much to hide behind, just nature, age, and fire.3 His technique is a caress. The aging is transformation. The minimalism close to absolute. But it’s a soft, balanced sparseness; not angular or cold. Butter muddles few of the dishes. Fat is spare too.4 There is a Japanese spirit to the food.
This meal was special.5 Having correctly predicted two stars for Saison last year, I expected three this past October. This meal, and others, was of that level. And this was my favorite meal of 2012.6 But, for now, the pictures will tell the rest of the story.
rhubarb soda, coriander flower, candied grapefruit
grilled peas & parmesan
white sturgeon caviar, ember-roasted chicken glee, fort bragg uni
kelp-cured sea bream, cherry blossom, mountain yam
tuna spinal fluid – light taste of sea
kindai tuna tartar
tuna ham, dried sea urchin, tuna gelee
golden Montana trout & its roe, wild nettles
poached egg, leek, oyster leaf, oyster foam
crudites, fermented anchovy, iberico ham lardo ravioli
roasted turnip, sea urchin
old tuna, old beef
dungeness crab, daikon, okra, consomme of crab brains & shells
abalone, abalone liver
liver, toffee, milk, bread, beer
rabbit ‘a la royale’
aged bluefin, macerated in Burgundy, marrow, beets, chocolate mint
38-day Mendocino lamb
wild strawberries, olive oil cake, nasturtium ice cream
caneles cooked in the hearth7
This was my last meal at the old location. It felt right for the cooking. I watched the new location razed down, and built back up, as I walked through (my old) neighborhood. Now, old brick fronts a new, modern building. Supposedly, the new dining room has no separation from the kitchen. I eagerly await Saison 3.0 in 2013. Follow the embers to the wild and pure.
1 – My next post, next Monday, will be my Best Dishes of 2012. There were some quiet dining room moments – stunning, silent pauses around the country – but Old Beef Old Tuna was my favorite bite of the year.
2 – In the last Saison review, I asked how the aged proteins might be incorporated into the menu. After four meals, it’s clear Skenes is aware of their power, even more so in small portions. The small pieces of aged meat carry more flavor than the traditional protein punches at the ends of menus, without their heft.
3 – Perhaps the food equivalent of Blood Meridian-era Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian is my favorite book. It manages to convey the totality of life and death with every sentence. His sparse sentences, without much ornamentation, give them a brooding weight. Every word matters.
4 – The Crudites has ravioli made of iberico ham sitting at the bottom of the bowl. It’s soft, melting, sweet, and decadent; but I think the dish stands just as strong, if not stronger, without it.
5 – This meal took place in September at the Chef’s counter. Skenes knew I was coming in but the counter was the counter – the other party received the same dishes. There won’t be a counter in the new place.
6 – Willows Inn and McCrady’s were also contenders, but the Saison aesthetic hits the bullseye for me right now. That said, I’ll be the first person to sign up for a Skenes/Brock or Skenes/Wetzel collaboration dinner – the smoking and wild foods possibilities!
7 – These were good but the canales at Boulette’s Larder are better. The hearth’s smoke was a great touch. I haven’t tried new pastry chef Shawn Gawle’s version yet. Boulette’s makes 24 canales per day. Until recently, when they only made twelve, a visit to The Ferry Building was often met with heartbreak.