Garden turnips, bonito vinegar, sea vegetables.
Sweetfish and wild greens.
A table on the terrace.
View into the dining room from the hearth counter.
A wall of wine (at the hearth counter).
This review was for the former Folsom Street location. There are different types of diners: some want surprises, and are fine to relinquish control for the sake of a dining adventure; others want to know exactly what they’re getting into, need to “have it their way,” and there better be steak on the menu. ~SAISON~ in the Mission is definitely for the adventurers. First, the location is a funky one—it’s unexpectedly tucked behind Stable Café on a quiet stretch of Folsom Street, in nightcap distance of The Rite Spot. It reminds me of the arrival at Chez Spencer—once you exit off the dreary street and enter Saison, you find yourself in a total oasis, with a gravel courtyard, a covered outdoor terrace with a hearth and wood-burning oven, citrus trees, and a very California indoor-outdoor atmosphere. All the Danish modern chairs have soft throw blankets over their backs, which you can put on your lap when you get chilly, especially if you’re dining on the terrace overlooking the hearth (my favorite seat in the house—although the corner tables with curved booth seating inside are also primo).
Chef Joshua Skenes (Chez TJ, Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach—California) is totally running a European-style kitchen (and they will happily offer you a look inside), with gleaming copper pots and the city’s sole Molteni stove, and a fleet of kitchen staff. I also learned they have a cook who is now a full-time forager, who goes from the mountains to the sea, acquiring seaweeds, mushrooms, greens, flowers for the tables, and coordinating pick-ups from their farm in Pt. Reyes, and daily pickups from other purveyors. A lot of the produce you taste here never even sees the fridge—and as Skenes explained, some can’t, because the flavor disappears so quickly from the more delicate ingredients. And you’ve never seen fresher (or cuter) baby radishes—well, unless you’re a farmer.
A nightly tasting menu is offered for $98, and while it says 8 courses, you get something closer to 10 or 11 courses with all the little amuse bouches (why, hello spoonful of caviar and corn beignet) and additional courses the kitchen sends out. The $78 wine pairing from sommelier Mark Bright is a super deal and experience—Bright works so closely with Skenes on each pairing, and some are really fresh, like the 2008 Becker Estate pinot noir with the course of radishes (radishes and pinot, who knew?). The list also has a number of food-driven wines (high acid, low alcohol) available, both old and new world, with some cool regional wines, like from the Jura.
This New American food is, quite frankly, so pretty. And it’s also such labor-intensive and carefully sourced food, the kind that you could never really prepare for yourself at home. Many of you know me as a meat lover, but I so adore vegetables. And here, the vegetables were my favorite courses, like the lightly smoky turnips roasted in embers (served with thinly sliced raw ones), along with sea beans, ribbons of seaweed, and this wonderful froth made from local seaweed vinegar and little dried fish that was like buttery sea foam. The course of radishes was an edible bouquet on the plate, with seared turnip greens that took a quick tour on the plancha, but shattered as if they were fried. The vegetables are also such beautiful counterpoints, like the combination of wild sorrel, spinach, sylvetta, and purslane paired with the gently fried sweetfish.
I could see the Four Story Hill squab that is roasted in fig leaves being challenging for some, with half the bird skull served on the plate, and the rich meat is a bright ruby color (the preparation is one that insures the bird ages intact for five days, so there’s a deep, mature flavor). I found it delicious and teetering on elegant-brutal, but it might push things too far for some.
True chocolate dessert-lovers may be disappointed with the two finale courses: ember-roasted plums with a vanilla panna cotta, and summer berries with yuzu ice cream. Personally, these were exactly the dishes I’d want to finish with after a couple hours of making my way through a tasting menu—it’s a refreshing finale that doesn’t put you over the edge.
This place really struck a chord with me—especially when learning all the effort that goes into creating these flavors. The food here is clean, and tastes like nature, and place. It’s in the René Redzepi school of thought, something Bay Area chefs are poised to do really well. They hand churn their own butter here, and soon will be baking their own bread. The kitchen creates layers of flavor, like making a mushroom salt and mushroom oil for the matsutake dish; the mushrooms are also roasted on embers over Douglas fir (which the mushrooms grow underneath in nature). Yeah, that’s a lot of mushroom love. One taste of the lobster and crab broth, full of herbal notes like tarragon and basil, plus lemongrass, butter, (and hey, a little crustacean brain) was out of hand in the flavor department.
So, a few extra details: while it’s a finer dining experience, it’s also a tablecloth-free environment—I saw a few people in jeans, and no comment on the couple both dressed in Eddie Bauer outdoor jackets (not my personal fashion choice for this kind of experience—oh, San Francisco). Service is attentive but also relaxed, and not the most finely tuned, with occasional bumps or awkward reaches. And ladies, since it’s a draftier dining room, I wouldn’t wear open-toed shoes or have bare legs as we get into our fall and winter weather, even with the provided blankets and heaters. The hearth experience was memorable, although it’s also one that exposes you to a bit of smoke, so perhaps the chef counter seats in the kitchen would be more to your liking.
If you want a tasting menu with rich demi-glaces and a filet of beef, then maybe a more classic place like Gary Danko is your ticket. I’d also not come here if I had numerous food issues and dislikes—and be sure to call ahead if you have allergies so they can plan accordingly. (I don’t see a lot of last-minute flexibility being possible on such labor-intensive and composed dishes.) Sit back, relax, soak in the atmosphere (and your numerous glasses of wine), and take a little culinary walk in the forest, and along the shore.