Saison, San Francisco

Located in a quiet block in the Mission district, Saison is tucked away in the back of an 1800’s stable that once served as the Mayor’s carriage house. The space today houses a coffee shop and serves as incubator for a collective of small local businesses. On weekend nights, Saison takes over the kitchen and transform the remodeled stable into one of San Francisco’s most exciting dining innovations.

Reservations are taken one month in advance on its website and upfront payment is required before confirmation. Guests are asked to arrive promptly at either 5 or 8pm as the restaurant only provides 2 scheduled seatings a night.

Diners gather in a small patio outside surrounded by lemon trees and bougainvillea vines. The hostess checks names on a guest list. Champagne is served. The dining room awaits quietly inside, the sound of clinking pots and pans can be heard in the distance. There’s a sense of exclusivity and excitement driven by the mystery of what comes next.

Thirty minutes after arrival, each party is taken to their table, one by one. And even though the dining room is accessible from the patio through a wide sliding door, the path of choice takes diners through the ample kitchen. A move that opens the curtains to the chef’s realm and turns foodies into groupies with a backstage pass.

Season’s concept is about fine dining sans its formality. Traditions are demystified to prove that you can eat extremely well without what they consider unnecessary fuss. The rustic ambiance is designed to celebrate simplicity and focus diners on the luxuriousness of the food. Wall art choices are questionable–what’s intended to look like a gallery feels more like a collection of objects from an arts-and-crafts fair. But all in all, the atmosphere is welcoming enough to make you feel comfortably at home.

This balanced informal elegance is present in many details. From the well-trained wait staff wearing pristine white shirts and ripped designer jeans to the constant changing of brand new silverware placed on the bare wood table, no white linen in sight.

The menu

Saison serves a true menu confiance, one of the only ones in San Francisco. A tasting menu carefully conceived by the chef but not revealed in advance so every dish is presented as a surprise. Food allergies and restrictions can be accommodated but no vegetarian options are available. Like many Michelin starred restaurants in Europe, this is a place for open-minded diners that are willing to put their palates in the hands of the talented chef.

Chef Joshua Skenes started his culinary career working for Jean-George Vongerichtten and later headed the kitchens of Chez TJ and Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern. At Saison, he creates an ever-changing menu based on the freshest offers from the restaurant’s network of small purveyors. The six-course meal is priced at $70, a wine pairing is optional for $40.

Somelier Mark Bright serves thoughtful pairings from organic producers around the world. And in another successful attempt to break restaurant conventions, refills here are free.

The meal

The sight of Saison’s open kitchen is as distracting to a culinary enthusiast as a blackberry is to a workaholic. After each course, you can’t help but watch the nonstop movement of cooks skillfully plating dish after dish, and try to guess what will come next.

The meal begins with warm bread and soft butter with salt crystals.

For amuse bouche, 2 dishes are served, each dinner gets one of them. Yellow watermelon with vadouvan spices and paneer cheese.

Or red watermelon with Pedro Jimenez vinegar and black olive. A refreshing start with mild flavors.

Slow cooked Sonoma Farms egg with Osetra caviar and dashi zabaglione served with brioche toasted with seaweed butter. A delicate dish with complex savory flavors.

Crispy vegetables salad with ice lettuce, shaved cucumbers and borage. Beautifully arranged in a Kandinsky-like abstract composition. Underneath it, raw slices or golden eye snapper with Meyer lemon crème fraîche. Delicate flavors and a nice balance of textures.

Monterey Albacore with dashi butter froth and seaweed bouillon. Tender like butter, the fresh fish is nicely complemented by the crunchiness of the seaweed and the aroma of dill.

Four Story Hills Suckling Pig with Perigord truffle jus. Prepared 3 ways; loin, fromage de tête and leg. Served with a small watercress, ice lettuce and gala apples salad on the side. A very flavorful dish that, even though not perfect (the head cheese’s texture was a miss) has outstanding elements. The leg meat literally melts in your mouth, its flavor only trumped by a crisped pork skin that accompanies it–what I’d describe as a heaven’s bonbon filled with pork fat ganache. Or in other words, something to die for.

For dessert, lemon thyme panna cotta with diced Frog Hollow Farm Peaches macerated in lemon, peach peel gelée and lemon thyme froth. On the side, a crunchy Meyer lemon sea salt cookie complements its textures and flavors. A very good dessert that celebrates the end of summer.

After the mignardises, the moment comes when you stand up and leave without dealing with the bill. Everything is taken care of, and even though you paid it in advance yourself, there’s a strange feeling of privilege. Like if you were a very important guest in an exclusive dining club. And, just as you came in, you leave through the kitchen, as only an insider would.

In short

Saison is an exciting restaurant in principle and execution. The concept brings together exclusivity and warmth, fine dining and unfussiness. Chef Skenes’ cuisine is sophisticated yet approachable. Considering all that is included–6 courses, sparkling water, French press coffee and wine, the prix fixe meal is also a great deal. Come to think of it, dining at Saison is more than a choice, it’s a privilege.

Saison is at 2124 Folsom St.
Online reservations


Virginia said...

Excellent post & photos of your evening at Saison! Can't wait to go...

mmuinsf said...

looks very exciting. Your photography is truly AMAZING and I very much enjoy your writing as well.

strawberry lemonade girl said...

WOW. And here I sit with my sad little bowl of SF Soup Kitchen corn chowder feeling a little lack luster.

This place sounds amazing. Excellent description....I felt transported!

high low said...

What a beautiful meal! I just found your site - I'm coming for a weekend in SF soon and will be searching your site for ideas!

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-bcoate- said...

Just back from Saison. While your food descriptions are spot on, they have changed some of the "privelaged" elements you mention. You are no longer welcomed as a seating group after champagne in the courtyard, you do no enter/exit through the kitchen, and the prices have increased: $98 for food, $68 for wine pairing. The ambiance is wonderful, the service impeccable so the evening was in fact delightful. However with a $450 price tag, I wished they would have kept the old traditions that made you write such a thoughtful review.

asteed said...

For anyone who reads this review, the food is still wonderful but the prices have skyrocketed. $198 per person for food $128 per person for wine pairing. I was shocked after was already in the 72 hour no cancellation period and they had my credit card.