Saison in San Francisco has become one of the most hyped restaurants in America. Its chef Joshua Skenes has quickly risen from a local hero to someone whose name has international resonance. What makes his food special is literally not much, simply the fact that it is very pure and simple.
That really is the essence of Saison in San Francisco’s Mission district. The food that Joshua Skenes and his team cook here is certainly not the most flashy or complicated. It doesn’t try to create any big effects or the likes. What it does is simply give the diner a pristine product in its purest form. This approach, with a clear focus on the quality of the product and very careful cooking is something that can be found all throughout the Bay Area. After all, Manresa, Coi, and countless others cultivate this kind of cuisine with great success. Yet, Saison differs from these restaurants. Its food is even more raw, direct and unadorned.
The result is quite impressive in the case of a tuna tartare, which is prepared following an incredibly laborious process. The result is a flavour that is so full and complex that the simple looks of the finished dish really are deceiving. Pair this with the raw tuna marrow, which you salt at your convenience and you have an entirely new approach to a product that is often served in a most uninspiring fashion.
The same goes for the spot prawn that Skenes serves. This really is minimalism at its best, as the crustacean is taken out of its tank and poached in saltwater seconds after leaving the former. The result is a flavour that combines astonishing sweetness with the fine, tangy saltiness of the sea that reminds you of the origins of this pristine prawn. Whilst a dish like this looks disarmingly simple, the first bite of such a spot prawn is nothing but orgasmic. It is not only the flavour, but also the texture of the meat that seems to burst with moisture and crunchy, yet supple meat. Once you worked your way through the tail, the best bit awaits: The head. Suck the brains out of this beast and you will have a rush of the sea going down your throat like you never had before.
With this dish, the ‘side’ of sea urchin with crustacean bisque seems nearly superfluous. The flavours of that part of the dish are so subtle and weak that they really can’t stand up to the sheer intensity and complexity of the spot prawn. Yet, what this dish does illustrate is the problem that people cooking this kind of food sometimes can have: At times things can be a bit too ‘subtle’. With dishes such as this one, Skenes’ food goes into territory that leaves you wanting more intensity and flavour.
This feeling however is pushed aside when you taste one of the dry aged meats or indeed fish that Skenes’ likes to experiment with. Whilst pigeon that is aged for over 31 days doesn’t have much hedonistic pleasure left in its slightly dry meat, one that is aged for a good week is truly sublime. The flavours are intensified, more complex and the gameyness of the bird comes out simply beautifully. Served with hardly anything on the side, this is another lesson that only very few restaurants can give. The last restaurant where such a beautiful pigeon was served to us was Kobe Desramaults’ In de Wulf in Dranouter.
With food as beautiful and intellectually captivating like here it is perhaps not too discomforting that the atmosphere here is rather serious. Whilst the small portions of the food are the only problem one can see here, the service here is certainly spot-on, if a little distant. Apart from that Saison is pretty close to being a perfect restaurant. If you then think about the fact that they will move soon into more convenient premises, you can only imagine what the food will become soon.
We will certainly want to follow the evolution of a restaurant as promising, exciting and truly unique as this. Joshua Skenes and his team have put something together that seems so special, yet so close to our understanding of what great food should be that Saison is one of the very special places on this planet.