Behind the Fires of San Francisco’s 3 Michelin Star Saison
I’m sitting on a comfortable grey corner couch under a giant mounted elk head, and it feels like I’m in the middle of the California mountains in a secluded log cabin. Instead, I’m in the heart of the SoMa district in San Francisco, dining at one of the city’s most hyped restaurants. This is Saison, a restaurant that anyone familiar with America’s fine-dining scene will be knowledgeable about. It’s one of the West Coast’s most-talked-about restaurants, and truth be told, much of that buzz is around Saison’s price tag. Before even making a reservation at Saison, you’re fully aware of what you’re committing to: Our meal would come to $398 per person before tax, gratuity, and wine pairing (since my visit, the restaurant dropped the price to $298). It’s a significant financial commitment that, in all honesty, sets a rather high expectation, and whether you like it or not, that in turn affects the overall dining experience.
Saison prides itself on bringing locally sourced California produce to an intimate and immersive dining experience. The dining room is unique in its West Coast charm and elegance. Pine cones and leafy greens litter the rustic interior, with brick walls and an exposed ceiling creating a kitschy environment. As you walk through the front door, to your left is a wall of stacked logs of almond wood - hardly the greeting you’d expect at a three Michelin star restaurant. But, it’s a stylish and characteristic reminder of the true heart of Saison’s food – fire.
Saison’s centerpiece is its open kitchen. Unlike most restaurant kitchens, you won’t find gas stove tops or stainless-steel ovens. All of Saison’s complex and wondrous compositions are prepared over fire, lit every morning at 6 a.m. by kitchen staff. From there, the flames are tended to constantly, to achieve the optimum settings for the meal’s various preparations – smoking, searing, grilling, flaming. Staff wielding fans bring the embers to life at the precise conditions, be it with direct heat, over smoldering coals, or using hot ashes. It’s beyond labor intensive. A fan sticks out the back of a chef’s apron, as would a tradesman’s finest tool, and he regularly reaches behind before tending to the fire. Walking through the kitchen, I’ve been there for less than 30 seconds before I start to sweat from the direct flames. Staff members have burns on their hands. The fire is like an unattended child, and needs to be constantly manned.
Our meal opens with a tableside presentation of Saison’s private-batch caviar, cured in house then grilled inside kelp. Served with spinach poached in seaweed butter, it’s a salty dish with warm bursts, and a welcome start to the evening. Local spot prawns, a true celebration of West Coast seafood, have been delicately charred on embers, brought to the table after the very briefest of cooking. Grilled sea urchin on a sourdough toast, one of Saison’s most notorious dishes, is a bite of rich and decadent flavors. The urchin acts as almost like a butter, its smooth creaminess breaking up the saltiness of the soaked sourdough. It’s a broad bite full of deep umami that needs to be eaten quickly, for risk of letting the bread becoming too excessively soggy.
Saison has access to outstanding seasonal vegetables, and those pristine ingredients are transformed into precisely composed creations that highlight their original vibrancy. Corn pudding with tomato jelly and okra is incredibly striking in both its curious texture and flavor and serves as a reminder of how powerful fresh produce can be. Chef Joshua Skenes and his team treat fruits and vegetables with the same delicate respect and precision that is given to their proteins.
Quail is cooked over hot embers, fanned to the right temperature to create a wonderful char and smokiness. Honey glazed, it’s perfectly tender and gently delicate. Pronghorn antelope is served with a sharp radicchio, grilled over the fire with a resulting rich and tender bite coated with the perfect smoky char. It’s beautifully succulent and not gamey at all, rather, almost sweet in taste. Served with a flakey and crumbly biscuit and its addictively smooth honey butter with a wonderfully vivid hot sauce from fermented chili and avocado squash, this is one of Saison’s more substantial courses. It’s also one of the most homely of the evening, pushing away from the constrictions of fine dining, towards the warmth of masterfully crafted, elevated West Coast comfort food.
Dessert, however, didn’t continue the highly captivating movement that was presented with the main courses. A smoked ice cream with grilled pineapple lacked the level of satisfaction and involvement that was experienced earlier in the evening, and while tasty, the salted caramel, chocolate and walnut ice cream also seemed cautious for a memorable finale.
It’s undeniable that when dining at Saison you’ll be constantly comparing the experience to its price tag. More so, it’s a shame that many will spend their time here in a constant analysis of the worth of this meal, rather than simply enjoying the experience for what it is - a superbly crafted jubilation of some of California’s best produce. Almost every dish is presented totally meticulously with the greatest attention to detail, even if modest in portion. At the end of the evening, I may have left the restaurant still hungry, which for the price of a meal at Saison, isn’t exactly what one would have expected. Do I consider this the result of simply wanting more of Skene’s captivating creations? Perhaps - but it is relieving to note that recent changes have been made to the dining experience, such as lowering the price point by $100, and making items like the caviar dish an additional extra (available for $88 per person).
There’s absolutely no denying that Skenes is a talented craftsman, and that his restaurant boasts a skillful ensemble of staff - from those who light the logs of almond wood in the early hours of the morning to those who fanning the flames throughout the evening to the cooks who bring meats to the right temperature through to the service staff guiding guests through the evening. Make no mistake, there’s an excessive amount of detail that goes into every plated dish. The resulting satisfaction, however, comes not from feeling content with quenching that longing for an exceptional meal, but rather, from an appreciation of the finesse with which Skenes composes each moment throughout the evening. It’s a methodical art that you can’t help but completely respect. Making one of the most expensive restaurants in America worth the investment.
The author of this article dined as a guest of Saison.