As we stepped into the cool San Francisco air after dinner at Saison, we held warm memories of feasting at an elegant hunting lodge. The fir tree and wood stack at the front door had set the scene. Animal heads adorned the walls, antlers perched in antique wine buckets and old bird books lay next to our table. A crystal candy dish triggered memories of sweet treats on Bubbe’s coffee table.
Saison is a highly successful mix of the classic and modern. One of the first wood fire-centric urban restaurants at its opening in 2009, Saison has remained true to its name meaning “season” in French. Attention to seasonality and sustainability manifests at Saison from the décor to techniques and ingredients.
The menu has evolved since the restaurant’s founder, Josh Skenes, opened Saison in the Mission district. The restaurant’s location has also changed; in 2013 it moved to its current address South of Market (SoMa). In 2018, while maintaining an equity position in the Saison Hospitality group, Skenes turned over all day-to-day culinary operations at Saison and the Angler restaurants here and in Los Angeles to Chef Paul Chung, who currently serves as Culinary Director of Saison Hospitality. Since then, Chung has placed his stamp on Saison’s food and evolved the quality of both the American and Asian touches.
With the spotlight on the ancient traditions of roasting and fermenting, we began a guessing game to find the obvious and often more subtle wood-fired and fermented elements in every course. Chef Paul Chung has a way with both techniques that elevates his cooking far above most chefs.
My friend and I were eager to meet the forager and fermentation chef, Alex Zito. Alas, she works in the morning. But we were fortunate that Chef Chung and Executive Chef de Cuisine Richard Lee were in the house.
Though the dining room was filled with staff dashing about, Chung paused to tell us about the fermented elements in the house-made butter during the “asparagus, morel, preserved truffle with brioche” course. This course was a favorite of the 13 on the tasting menu.
“At Saison, everything touches the smoke,” said Chung. “In America, you usually get strong smokiness from barbecue and hot grilling. We use almond which imparts lighter, more delicate flavor in contrast with heavy woods such as maple, oak or mesquite. This is not a campfire experience.”
Indeed, the potent blend of culinary talents of Chung and Lee of Korean and Chinese descent respectively, has led Saison to two Michelin stars. The intensity of cooking and service at a two-star restaurant is evinced by the entire service and culinary staff.
Our first course, named “farm tea Infusion with flowers and leaves,” arrived in an elegant China cup and served as a delicate, refreshing welcome to the evening.
When Lee stopped by our table later, we asked which element of the tea related to wood fire. “We have a rack above the fire to lightly smoke fragile items like the raffia string which ties up the tea infusion,” said Lee. “We call this rack our ‘fire in the sky.’ These thoughtful touches added subtle flavor profiles to the food throughout the meal.
We enjoyed the tea and eagerly awaited the next course, “caviar, coastal seaweed, peas,” which sounded simple, But this dish exemplified Chung and Lee’s elevated style of cooking. The wine from the reserve option, Billecart-Salmon, Cuvée Nicolas François 2007, foretold the brilliance of the wine program.
When the Maître d’ unfolded the caviar from within a banana leaf, we knew it had roasted on the fire. Lee shared the backstory on the custom caviar preparation. The chefs specify a custom cure for the white sturgeon roe. “We add only a moderate amount of our special salt blend for curing to highlight the natural umami of the caviar and not overpower it,” said Lee.
The caviar was deliciously smooth and savory. But the magic of the dish came from the marriage of the caviar and the seasonal pea sauce.
Spring peas were poached and then puréed with a touch of crème fraiche to add depth and viscosity to the sauce. Virtually a fine soup, the sauce pulled the dish up a cosmic notch. As a garnish, Lee dotted the sauce with a tiny purple flower and spring peas and tendrils grilled on the fire. We were grateful that unlike to much so many tiny bites in most tasting menus, the portion size was substantial.
After a refreshing “geoduck, cucumber, coriander” bowl with a light clam broth brightened by lightly roasted cucumber, the next course of “Amberjack, sake lese and adobo” appeared. Lee revealed the obvious question about the ancient method used in the dish. “The amberjack is lightly cured in the sake lees which hold vestiges of the koji from the fermented rice used in making the sake.” Subtle and delicious, we dove into the fish before the additional belly piece of amberjack arrived, grilled and topped with preserved peppers.
Another name for the dish may have been “amberjack lettuce wraps” because the course included hyper-fresh lettuce leaves and two sauces. We tasted and said in unison, “That sauce.”
Chef Lee explained, “Saison is truly a head-to-tail restaurant with seafood. The stock for the adobe sauce includes amberjack head and collar, koji (miso) house made by Chef Zito, red curry and adobe seasoning.”
My friend and I negotiated the last helping of the citrus sauce with fermented kohlrabi and citrus jelly, and I conceded the last delicious bit of the red curry adobe. The pairing of the Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir Los Carneros with great depth and acid to complement the fish was excellent.
We continued to notice the details of the décor. Like the wooden spoon for the spring pea “soup” which added to the hunting lodge effect and unique high-design chopstick holders for each fish course.
We jumped into the next course which looked straightforward. But the “asparagus, morel, preserved truffle” with “brioche, our butter” perked our culinary tastebuds to the extreme. We’ve both tasted bread around the globe but were startled by the deep profile of these rolls with the intriguing butter. Lee came to our rescue with the news that the bread yeast is the same koji mold (aspergillus oryzae) used to make their miso. Another ingredient in the bread which layered more umami flavor was the addition of foraged, dried and powdered trumpet mushrooms. The bread is glazed with another miso butter before baking.
The butter is cultured, meaning fermented. In this case, the same bread miso from the fermented bread is used to ferment the butter. As the cream is paddled into butter, house smoked salt is added and then the butter is aged for two weeks. The bread and butter alone feature layers and layers of flavor. The mother-of-pearl bread plates added a level of elegance to the table.
As for the asparagus, we spied an unfamiliar green leaf atop the fat part. Expensive and hard to find, the leaves are from prickly ash trees and impart a unique citrus flavor. Chung cares for nearby prickly ash trees and brings cuttings with the small leaves known as kinome in Japan to the restaurant for chefs to use.
Preserved truffle was the key ingredient of the gravy-like sauce over the asparagus. To elevate the dish yet another level, Chung shared the secret of the caramel sauce: “That sauce is the umami bridge for dipping the asparagus or bread—it has the same fermented bread miso as the bread and butter with the addition of shallots.”
Venturing back to seafood, we had an off-menu piece of lobster tail with embered tomato jam and Indonesian spice which was light and flavorful. The sommelier then poured Sawabime Tombai Junmai sake from a chilling dispenser before serving the plate.
Then we nearly swooned over the “sea urchin, grilled sourdough.” Delicious on its own, the sake and sea urchin proved an ideal match.
Known as “butter of the sea,” sea urchin is a special treat especially when pristine, recently hand-harvested by divers around the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. Along with the generous portion of uber-fresh sea urchin (uni), the crunchy texture and rich flavors of the sourdough doused in brown butter before grilling added to our sensory delight.
The next vegetable intermezzo was “radishes, lighted fermented” served by Beverage Director Molly Greene who chose a palate cleansing Joh. Jos. Prüm Riesling Auslese from the Mosel. Radishes are dried over the hearth and then lightly fermented. The broth Greene poured over the radishes and flowers contained pears dried over the hearth. A dollop of shiso oil the chefs made from fresh shiso leaves finished the rejuvenating dish.
It was time for the heart of the meal. We didn’t exactly expect to be eating duck heart, but that is what transpired. Neither of us are fans of noshing on the organ. Yet the full dish of “duck, preserved cherry, grilled hearts and gizzards, duck sausage with nasturtium leaf, broth of its bones” arrived with so many layers of flavors and such a beautiful presentation that we found ourselves biting into the small heart piece on the skewer of a young juniper. Chung explained that only a young piece of juniper or pine is used to mitigate essential oils seeping into the food.
Though the tender breast and the offal were lovely, the duck sausage was monumental. Made from the duck leg, the lacquering of the sausage with brown butter before grilling again heightened the intensity of the umami impact. My friend proclaimed that he wanted a whole platter of the sausage. The cherry-scented 1998 Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape paired well with the dish.
Fork tender, the A5 “wagyu (beef), a sauce of its bones” from Mizaki, Japan with bone marrow sauce was the final meat course. The classic intermezzo was a refreshing “shaved ice, blueberry, hibiscus, schisandra berry.” The hibiscus sorbet was dressed in mint and blueberries and dotted with Chantilly sauce. Schisandra is not your average berry. A native Chinese plant is known for its “five flavor” berries radiating sweet, salty, bitter, pungent and sour notes.
The last course of “embered pineapple upside-down cake, Okinawa sugar” was also memorable. Called brown or black sugar in Japan, the sugar is sugarcane cooked slowly until caramelized. “When we barbecue the pineapple over the hearth,” said Chung, “The nuanced notes of the sugar shine when the cake is heated.”
The goodbye course from the chefs was a digestive. The chefs slow roast buckwheat grouts and then steep them in hot water to make another tea of sorts. Though served in a bowl and not a cup, the grouts punctuated the full circle of heathy dining.
We never saw a potato or white rice at Saison, but we had experienced the digestive properties of preserved and fermented fish, vegetables and fruits plus the healing properties of buckwheat and berries and leaves. We spent an evening with natural foods, well-crafted wine and impeccable service.
As we expressed thanks to the service team at the bar before our departure, the Maître d’ offered a tray with two unique, golden sesame pralines. We thought our fantasy meal was over. But no, he then handed us a box with a delicious, salted chocolate as we headed out the door. An unforgettable San Francisco experience.
Saison 178 Townsend Street
San Francisco CA 94107
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