This fire started in 2010. A few different leaves were elaborately grilled for striking contrasts in texture. Small smoky bursts stuck to the last pops of caviar. Embers kissed fish with a sudden puff of smoke. Smoky fragrances in light seafood bone broths. Vegetables painted with gradations of carbon across their surfaces. Aged proteins grilled on the primal flame. A slow burn for four years and twenty meals – from pop-up to three stars.
The hearth is inspiration and draw.1 But it does not solely define Saison’s identity.
Honoring ingredients has been a Saison dictum since its earliest days. Serve the best ingredients available with the minimum intervention to exact their ideals. This approach is increasingly tied to the idea of place. Each season sees the restaurant getting more local. Farming plots are de rigueur and Saison now has one. Despite the cliche, there is a huge advantage for plucking produce at its prime, hours before serving. Dairy now comes from their own cow – what comparison can be made between fresh raw milk and even the best commercial product? Seafood comes from local waters, using their own boat.
Battle Creek trout roe
Less is more when the product is pristine. Where technique coaxes instead of manipulates. Revering product forces the food more minimalist. An ingredient or technique might span a few dishes to fully express an idea, instead of piling onto one plate. There is a sense of ma throughout the tasting menu. When compared to older concepts, new iterations are clearly more taut and focused. Seasoning trends towards essences. Ornamentation is less. Three macro elements or less is the norm.
But this is clearly not simple food. It is precise cooking. And it is very confident.
This post looks at a recent meal in late September, with an eye towards the entire history of the restaurant.2 It was just my second visit this year. I missed a Spring menu. Missed Summer too. A too-busy schedule left my fine dining confined mostly to Chicago. Grace was fantastic, and apparently Michelin agreed! Sixteen was impressive. L2O was excessively refined and technical. Elizabeth… needs work. A short getaway to Willows Inn, with its smoke and fire, reminded me much of Saison. It was time to make time – other reviews were making me jealous.3
After the first dishes, the restaurant had clearly reached a higher level. Is that possible? I thought. These were familiar dishes that were further tweaked and executed at astonishing levels. With the Chicago technicians still fresh in memory, this far more naturalistic cuisine, powered by fire and smoke, was as technically sound. And then the uni and Tartine bread was served – creamy, decadent, and explosive! Followed by the briny crunch and spectacular re-working of sea into acidity. And with the tenth course, Saison’s end-game – a humble ingredient, coaxed and transformed into a dish of the highest order, by the simple application of various techniques of fire, over a long time.
It was not always perfect but it was stunning. Michelin, in agreement, awarded three stars a few weeks later.4
Infusion of some herbs from our garden & their flora
Tomatoes in a few forms, black mint
Textures are important at Saison. The tomatoes, some raw, others roasted with a hint of char, popped vibrantly against the acidity of tomatillo gelee. The black mint was cool and piercing, without the floral qualities of regular mint. But there was a small piece of okra tucked underneath the gelee. This okra always finds its way on Saison’s menu in season. This muculent touch, slight but effective, changed the dish from a perfunctory vegetable/gelee amuse (everyone has them) to something with texture and character.
Caviar has played lead on the Saison menu since the start. Often it is lightly smoked. Here, a non-sweetened whipped cream, made from their own cow, was infused with cheese. A subtle smoked potato sauce lightly coated the bottom of the bowl. Each pearl popped with brine; with the slightest funk of cheese and smoke. Three very different umami-type tastes lingered after each bite. The fried potato was probably unnecessary.
White sturgeon caviar, grilled potato
Saison has quietly embraced the use of the whole animal, particularly with seafood and shellfish. Bone sauces are a staple, skin chips, (tuna) marrow bones, guts, and brains – when will eyeballs appear?5 These dishes usually begin appearing after the stately caviar – such great contrast. Often the parts are presented as separate dishes, their different qualities shown individually.
Presented as sashimi, the diamond turbot had an unexpected crunchy texture. The fish was killed that morning and it was served just before rigor set in. Each bite required more chewing, which released more flavor than a more tender piece might yield. Here were a few drops of bone sauce, well-placed crystals of salt, a light squeeze of sudachi, and sides of its (own) head paste sauce mixed with nori and shiso. Mix and match with pungecy and brightness to your own tastes – I ran out of head paste. A great example of why Saison chooses to do its own fishing.6
Golden trout too is a perennial dish from the earliest pop-up days. Here it was presented in a Gagnaire fashion as three separate dishes: a lone crunchy skin chip dusted with nori, hot-smoked tranche, and a custard topped with roe.
The hot-smoked trout tranche in a very light vinegar sauce of its bones and anisse hysop. Still moist with just the hint of waxiness, its texture was perfect. The slightly herbaceous sauce sang atop the smoky notes. It is emblamatic of Saison at its best, and arguably a good gauge for one’s ability to truly appreciate the restaurant. It is restrained, subtle, and seemingly very simple – it’s a piece of fish with minimal saucing. I could see many people eating this and simply thinking it tastes good but what’s the big deal? The cooking (texture!), the subtleties of the smoke, and that herbal tinge!
And a smoked bone custard topped with roe, pictured at the beginning of this article. Cold roe pops in the sensual custard that is somehow salty and vibrant, but restrained and still sensual. Skenes has mastered the art of the custard. To think this particular dish had its origins as a riff on the l’Arpege egg with, smoked butter9, perhaps one of the first signs of what the restaurant would become? From well-executed resemblance to a true three-star dish.
Battle Creek trout, skin & roe
Abalone over the embers, sauce of the liver & capers
That abalone. It retains a satisfying chew but no one could call it tough. It is crisped quickly on the grill to give it more textural contrast. The sauce has richness, brininess, and viscosity, with the lemon and capers just balancing it so crisply. It is hard to find a better preparation, anywhere. One day I hope to compare it to the acclaimed Sushi Yoshitake take found here.
The sea cucumber, served with a sauce of its innards, was grilled to a most satisfying texture – a charred structure with a slight slipperiness inside. The frothed innards sauce was pungent and salty and acidic with a pinpoint accuracy. This was special.
With their own cow on the farm, Saison now uses more dairy. At times over the past two years, there was no dairy outside of dessert – house-made fish and bone sauces were the preferred foundations. But butter is creeping back into the meal, albeit in the restrained Saison signature. Below, a take on radish and butter. Later, milk curd. A dab in the uni dish and the popular duck liver and toffee dish. Its restrained appearances help provide comforting contrasts to more austere dishes through the menu arc.
Radish & butter
Sea cucumber, grilled ribs, sauce of the innards & chicaron made of the skin
Sea urchin, liquid toast
The sea urchin was unexpected – a quick two bites of wow!
Mendocino uni sat atop grilled Tartine bread which was more custardy towards the bottom. The bread was dipped in soy, raw milk, egg yolk, and maybe butter? Smoke, brine, sour, crunch, custard, velvety uni – taste and texture – just absolutely sensational.
Where does a meal go after a lifetime highlight?
Seaweed macerated in seaweed vinegar, different textures, a few pops, a crunch of purslane, herbaceousness, acidic but controlled. But it was the opposite of the uni – bare and stripped when compared to the uni’s decadence. And it succeeded wildly as a reset.
And a magical three pieces of pumpkin, discussed below with the beet.
When was the last time a trio of dishes made such an impact? Possibly only matched in those enchanting moments from my first, and favorite, Pierre Gagnaire meal. There, textural similarities in different livers and fish built on each other. Here, difference was used – the hedonism of the uni followed by the strictness of the seaweed by the warmth of the pumpkin. Textures, tastes, all of it was a memorable highlight. To somehow push a rewind button.
Seaweeds in seaweed vinegar
Naples long pumpkin
Black cod, pine mushroom, & bone bouillon
Brussels & cabbages blistered on the fire
When I tasted the original brassicas dish, I could see the future of Saison. It was that powerful: the leaves were cooked slowly, individually, as they were shifted around the hearth to get a variety of textures. Bonito broth enhanced toasted grains. There was such a great interplay of textures and tastes – bitter, toasty, a creamy quail egg, and some sweetness.
Here, the grains were removed, the broth lightened considerably, and an acidic sauerkraut-like element added. It is simpler, more austere, and, in my opinion, a mis-step. The core of the original is missing – the interplay of textures between the larger leaves and the toasted grains, and the overall warmth. The small brussels leaves don’t quite work in this version. An even more minimal version with less seasoning was served last year. The acidity is an interesting addition but the dish is now searching.
Fire in the sky beet
The smoke drifts upward from the hearth all day long and whisks the moisture out of any surface. Its carbon dioxide has curing properties. Why not place produce in the smoke-stream and use it? Saison has dubbed this technique fire in the sky. It is essentially the very slow-cooked vegetable – the skin is dehydrated but it locks in the moisture for an intensified juiciness inside.7 There is texture and depth that sous-vide can never match.
Bone marrow and beet has been a reoccurring combination since the earliest pop-ups.9 Then, the marrow was fried and the two elements seemed disjointed at best. Here, the beet had been placed in the fire in the sky for three days, and possibly finished on the grill to give it some charred bits. It is intensely beet – earthy and sweet. The marrow is whisked into an acidic sauce that contrasts and brightens the intensity of the beet. Again, from pop-up to three stars.
And that pumpkin!
It too was dehydrated by the fire in the sky and then grilled over the fire. Each piece had bits of char and variations of surface texture which resembled slow-cooked rib meat. The skin was slightly resilient and the flesh inside just slid out like tender meat. It sat in a sauce of its seeds and flesh, with a slight touch of heat.
And what more could be done to the dish? Pumpkin over smoke, over time, over fire, resting in a sauce of its own elements. Remarkable.8
Warm curd of our milk
6-month Lamb Ham with chicory
Toffee, milk, bread & beer
Whole duck slowly roasted over the embers
The aged meats still close the savory end. The 6-month lamb was an extra course, paired with chicory and anchovy sauce. The portioned chicory was entirely too bitter. But the room-temperature ham, its fat greasing the fingers, was rich with flavors – grass, minerality, sweetness, etc. The anchovy sauce was a nice complement, and foil – just brilliant enough to elevate the umami on umami.
In a previous meal, black truffle sauce obscured a sensational 90-day aged beef cooked in hay. I scraped the sauce off. This is an ornamental side that sometimes peers through later in the menu. Saison is one of the rare restaurants where I look forward to the meat course(s) but I think it could go further in reduction. Then again, I am completely happy with a small portion of aged meat resting on the plate.
Above, an aged duck was served with date dressed in the duck’s juices.
Desserts at Saison are tricky – how do you match the food?
Sean Gawle’s buckwheat and black walnut soufflés were tremendous. I never cared much for soufflés but his were delicious. But soufflés never seemed like the proper ending in the context of the meal. His canelés were a nice treat the following morning. There was a granita and bird’s nest dessert that was exceptional, and tied into the textural leanings of some earlier dishes. I never tried the grilled Tartine bread ice cream – that sounds like a proper end for every Saison meal.
This time, Krug sorbet was drowned in Krug. The sorbet was acidic with that citrus zest and notes of honey – it was quite refreshing. But the bath of Krug just felt like unnecessary decadence. The sugar in the sorbet started clashing with the champagne; the texture got thrown off; and the temperatures clashed too. It had luxurious trappings, which supports the restaurant’s price tag but not necessarily its aims. It just seems easy.
Wild berries, however, were stellar. It was tart and creamy; its natural elements resonated with the earlier dishes. It was light but packed with flavor. The wild strawberries are a subtle nod to luxury and explosive on the palate. The French Marigold panna cotta and ice cream swirled together with their complementary textures. And it was a fragrant close to the meal.
Wild berries, french marigold, milk ice cream
Despite the superlatives found above, no meal is perfect. Bring back the original brassicas. Dairy gives the food a small richness that it lacked for a period. Could additional aged meat courses weave their way into more final courses? Last year, one meal relied a bit too much on custard textures. Every meal includes a dish or two that might be too austere. Desserts are always good but have never quite been nailed in the context of the meal.
But achieving a third star should not mean the work is done. Reading public interviews with Skenes, he wants nothing more than to continue cooking, continue refining, continuing pushing his craft, and art, to the best it can be. If it has got this far in a mere four years?
Over 20 meals, it has been remarkable to see a restaurant literally come to life, forge a unique identity, and then deliver on all of the promise.9 With fire – how was this not obvious? Saison is my favorite restaurant in the US. It has been for awhile. It is the lure of the fire that gives the food a depth that conventional ovens can not. Ingredients are treated as the star. Less is always more.
1 – Is it just cooking over fire? The function is Fire x Time, but the inputs are endless. You can grill something directly at high-heat, or indirectly at low heat. Learning how to impart the right amount of smoke. You can smoke them so high above the grill that over many hours they are essentially dehydrated and cured. You can cook in the embers. You can cook and rest, cook and rest. What are different techniques to create bark and texture? There is endless debate on woods.
Charred and Scruffed, recommended by Ideas in Food, is an excellent introduction to the range of techniques that a simple fire offers. As does Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way by Francis Mallman.
Despite the glut of cookbooks, with no end in sight, I’m anxiously awaiting Skenes’s book on what will surely be a primer on cooking with fire. My Big Green Egg is ready.
2 – Before Saison, Skenes was making sandwiches out of a cart. By the time I connected his name to the cart, he had shut it down a week earlier. Saison started as a pop-up, three nights a week, with a cold-ass walk to the outside bathroom in foggy San Francisco nights. There was radical art on the walls – my favorite was a piece where nails jutted out three or four inches! And it was arguably one of the coolest dining rooms of the time. The synth-pop playlist was always a point of conversation before the food arrived. The pop-up turned into a five-nights-per-week affair and the art was mainstreamed. A kitchen counter was added, tickets only. The hearth was added, along with a front-seat bar and more tables. Meat started aging for very long periods of time. A small garden was added to the courtyard. Every review revolved around price, and many took pains to compare its pricing to any number of societal ills. But the reality is simpler – this type of food can not be cheap.
And then it all moved to the new location – a modern interior inside an old historical brick facade. The walk to the restroom is much warmer. The views are much better for everyone. A bar is well stocked. The wine pairings are still so generous that it makes the walk to the bathroom difficult by the end of the night!
It has embodied many of Silicon Valley’s fixations, particularly experimentation and iteration; and in that regard, it is only appropriate that it is located ground zero for the current wave of Internet darlings.
3 – Here are some other reviews of meals from the past year:
DocSconz: Sublime Sensuality
Gastromondiale: A Great American Restaurant – June & October
City Foodsters – Fire Element at Saison
4 – There is some debate as to whether Michelin grades on a curve for their non-core countries. Saison would be three stars anywhere, including Japan, which is, in my opinion, the toughest market. The French Laundry gets three stars just for opening the doors. A recent meal at Benu was much more enjoyable than previous years – but I would still rank it two stars. I’ve had Kostow’s food at several guest dinners and it has been terrific; whereas my meal at Meadowood this summer was good but not great. But it was only one meal. Leafing through his cookbook the other day, I want to return.
In Chicago, I was really impressed with Grace. Yes, the style is not necessarily en vogue, if that matters to some, but the execution on a majority of the dishes was flawless. I would probably give it a high two but I wouldn’t argue with three – it’s well deserved. I will eagerly return on my next visit to Chicago. It has a lot of similarities to Atelier Crenn. Sixteen, too, was tight and exceptional. It absolutely deserves its two stars; and I could see it earning three in the near-future. L2O is more complicated – the cooking is flawless and I found it much more enjoyable than the Gras era. It could be personal preference but I think the food could be minimalized to some degree. It is absolutely deserving of two stars, if not three. At the very high end, Chicago nails it.
I wish Michelin would drop the metropolitan guides and just focus on the entire country. There are such deserving restaurants that will never get the recognition they deserve; and it wouldn’t be hard to fire up the Michelin-mobile and award all of the two- and three-star restaurants across the land. Ranking one-stars would be infinitely more difficult, given their extreme inconsistencies across cities; but the two- and three-star rankings are generally consistent. One-stars, with potential for two, could be easily picked out and featured.
Willows Inn? Castagna? Aubergine? Providence? Georges Modern Tbl 3? McCrady’s? Riverstead? Birch? Elements? Oxheart? Blue Hill Stone Barns? And on and on.
It just makes sense to me – create a market for the entire country.
5 – How come no one told me Hannibal was about food?!?! The show is stylish, fun, and smart in a way Dexter could never sustain. But no one told me about the food scenes! Even with my anti-French bias, how amazing does the food look? It is genius that the viewer never quite knows what is being eaten. But how enticing does it look when Hannibal pulls out a receipe card for, say, beef lung? What an absolutely twisted take on whole animal cookery.
José Andrés consults for the show – would anyone attend a Hannibal-themed pop-up? Do it in Vegas – count me in!
6 – The Sportsman also serves a similar iconic dish: Slip sole grilled in seaweed butter. The fish is caught in the waters outside and served that day. Without the seaweed, it just tastes of the ocean.
Ecosystems and supply chains matter for every industry, and the restaurant industry is no different. It is much easier to get amazing fish from Japan because they handle the product properly from water to warehouse to restaurant. Local fisherman may not have the experience, and/or incentive, to catch and prepare seafood to a chef’s standards.
Two recent restaurant openings – Okuda in Paris and The Araki in London – will be interesting to watch for this very reason. Both are three-starred Michelin chefs from Tokyo; and both are trying to use local catch as much as possible. The early reviews on Okuda are not as strong as I would expect. The Araki is too new for many meaningful review but Skinny Bib has hope. Will they reach the standards they are striving for?
7 – This is becoming my favorite type of dish. It is one reason Willows Inn ranks so high on my list of favorite places. Those mussels. That shiitake. The roasted caraflex cabbage.
8 – I’d like to imagine Ubuntu-era Jeremy Fox is cooking similar dishes in some alternate reality. And that I am a very happy customer in that universe.
9 – I have tried to write a Saison 3.0 review since my first visit. The lighting in the restaurant is tricky and I could never manage to salvage a meal’s worth of photos. Here are a few special dishes from the past two years:
Chicaron of sea cucumber & egg yolk
Koshihikari rice, parmesan, & white truffle
Beef with black truffle sauce
Squab & cherry
Here are some dishes from my first meal in March 2010, pre-hearth, in what might be the equivalent of dredging up bad Senior year yearbook photos. Yes, I have photos from 16 different Saison meals – but these are interesting in the context of the food right now. Three of the dishes appear on the current menu in some remote form.
I never wrote a blog post about this meal because I wasn’t convinced the restaurant was there, much less that it would be long for the world. It was clearly still in the inception phase. It makes a great case that reviewing restaurants in their initial year is short-sighted. But what would the media write about if New! Now! First! wasn’t their modus operandi?
Leeks with oyster jus & caviar
Egg with golden trout row & smoked butter
Crudo lobster & clam with lemon gelee
Beet & bone marrow
I didn’t return until December 2010, probably because it was too difficult to get into Quince that particular night. The hearth was one month into operation and that was when I ate the first version of the, for me, Saison-defining Brassicas. There were two other excellent dishes, out of 10 or so: Wild fluke with ember roasted alliums, olive oil, sudachi and dungeness crab, crustacean broth, sunflower petals, meyer lemon.
But, as mentioned earlier, the brassicas just laid out a compelling vision of the restaurant’s future.
I would argue that the restaurant transformed itself into today’s cuisine around early 2011, as I documented in my original Saison review Embers & Ash.
Since then, I’ve returned to the restaurant at least once per quarter, except for a busy Summer this year where I clearly missed out.
The original hearth from the Mission location