February 1, 2013

February 1, 2013
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The dining room at Saison. Photo: © Bonjwing Photography.

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View from the table closest to the kitchen looking toward the bar. Photo: © Bonjwing Photography.

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View into the kitchen. Photo: © Bonjwing Photography.

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The kitchen. Photo: © Bonjwing Photography.

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The Molteni stove (with the wood-fired MIWE to the right). Photo: © Bonjwing Photography.

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The bar. Photo: © Bonjwing Photography.

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The hand-etched bar glassware from Japan. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Exterior of the building. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

Yesterday I took a look at the brand-new ~SAISON~, opening this evening for service in its new home in SoMa/South Beach. And what a grand home it is. The historic pre-Quake building was built in 1888, and originally served as the California Electric Light Company Building. (For my fellow history nerds, here’s more from the developer’s site: “The building was designed to house arc and incandescent lights used to generate electricity for electric light service. The arc light preceded Thomas Edison’s incandescent lightbulb and was used for lighting streets and commercial buildings.”) In a twist of the classic European notion of a chef having his home above his restaurant, chef-owner Joshua Skenes lives in one of the 94 condos above and behind Saison.

When you walk past the wall of firewood that’s destined for the hearth, you’ll enter a 4,000-square-foot space, with 35-foot timber beams, brick walls, deep gray tones, and a very open floor plan. The sense of expansiveness is notable. To the right is a bar (6 seats) and lounge area, with room for 12 at tables and corner booths. Overall, there are only 18 seats in the restaurant—although they could technically make room for many more—but it all makes sense once you realize the restaurant’s sole menu is a tasting menu of 18-20 courses ($248 per person, with optional wine pairings for $148). Since dinner can take three hours, you may want to keep this in mind when booking a table on a work night.

Between the walnut tables are custom black walnut dividers topped with culinary objets like vintage cookbooks, and plants and flowers (artfully assembled by Natalie Bowen Designs); each console is outfitted with drawers below (they’re individual service stations) and can be wheeled away in order to put a couple of tables together as needed. Past visitors to Saison may recognize the handcrafted wood chairs that have been refinished to a rich tone, plus the comfortable ash-blue corner booths along the wall, outfitted with “Instagram chic” artwork by Mark Leet. You’ll notice very customized lighting at each table. Owners Skenes and Mark Bright collaborated with Michael Gibson, Jiun Ho, and Bassel Samaha on the design.

The biggest jaw-dropper, of course, is the kitchen designed with Tim Harrison, who also designed the kitchens for, oh, just The French Laundry, L2O, and Per Se. Skenes had his prized Molteni stove brought over, plus there’s an eight-foot open hearth and a wood-fired baking oven by MIWE from Germany that kind of blew my mind. Pastry chef Shawn Gawle (previously at Corton) now has a dedicated and spacious pastry area, sure to be the envy of many pastry chefs in town. There are tanks with live lobsters and abalone, and the equipment in the kitchen is (of course) top of the line; if you want a ringside view, table one is the closest to the kitchen (there’s also a larger table for groups with a great view). Even in the main dining area, you’ll witness a lot of activity (you’ll see kitchen staff coming and going from the gleaming refrigerated units that flank the dining room)—there are no boundaries between the kitchen and the dining room. Upstairs there’s more storage, which includes an aging room (currently holding two kinds of duck, beef, and pigeon).

The bar is a new component to the experience. While you won’t be able to dine in the bar area, the cocktails will be using many of the same ingredients as the kitchen. The program was created by a mysterious French consultant that Skenes won’t name. The glassware is extraordinary—it’s all hand-etched from Japan, and so delicate. You’ll need to make a reservation for a spot in the lounge, starting at 5:30pm (dinner seatings will be on the hour). Even if you can’t afford dinner, you should reserve a time to come by for a cocktail so you can peek at the space.

Some of the cocktail components mentioned include bourbon infused with grilled corn from the hearth and salted caramel, and tablehopper was given a preliminary peek at three of the cocktails: no. 1 with rhubarb shrub, white verjus, and Billecart-Salmon Champagne; no. 2 with pandan-infused rum, young coconut water, and Rangpur lime; and no. 3 Nikka Whisky from the Barrel, Cynar, Pedro Ximenez, Three Africans coffee, Boston Bittahs, and oro blanco grapefruit.

I had a moment to catch co-owner and wine director Mark Bright, who mentioned that by February the restaurant should have 2,000 selections stocked, with plans to eventually grow to 5,000. A new addition will be a much larger selection of half bottles, and deeper Burgundy and Bordeaux selections. The glassware by Zalto is exquisite, and reportedly Saison’s order was the biggest single order in the company’s history (I’d be terrified to be the one in charge of buffing those glasses each night). General manager Patrick Ellis (previously maitre’d at The French Laundry) will be keeping a watchful eye over the restaurant’s nightly dance; dishes coming from the kitchen will be served on a variety of elegant trays.

This is a tremendously exciting addition to our culinary landscape—if you’re eager to visit, there are still a few reservations available in the coming week.