So my wife and I don’t want to start the focus of this place with price, but it is the glaring unavoidable reality that had me in a state of anticipatory anxiety since I confirmed the booking. Only the third most expensive meal we’ve ever had since L’ambroise in Paris, and Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence. We just decided to throw all caution to the wind and yolo it, hoping for the best. It was a solid success, given the amount of caviar dished out, along with the heavy seafood focus, which was all locally sourced. Also taking into consideration the lofty rents in this rapidly gentrifying housing crisis we know as San Francisco, the price was just right. Since my wife got free dental work out of this trip from my dentist uncle, I just pretended I was paying for a porcelain crown at dinner.
Here is the star of the show, the wood. I like how it serves as a wall fixture as well as fuel. The theme, I feel, that will always remind me of this place is ‘smoke’. I am jumping way ahead in the post, but when I see the wood, I flashed back in my mind to the ice cream they served at the end with the panapoly of smoked nuts that had me feeling like I was smoking a cigar while there was ice cream in my mouth. Kind of like the George Costanza phenomenom of eating while having sex.
Good thing I brought some Cuban cigars, Bolivars, for after dinner, which sealed the deal on my carcinogen fix for the night.
A nice palate cleanser to start, in beautiful china, of Meyer-lemon infused water with an herbal bomb, of various flowers and herbs, that I cannot remember, from their farm in Lagunitas, close to Petaluma. Very effervescent. Amazing how such a clear tea had such a robust flavor and scent. The wonders of science, infusion. “No teabags needed, herbs tied up in string, these area few of may favorite things”…tis the season, couldn’t resist breaking out into song.
We loved the warehouse ambiance, high ceilings but yet cozy, lots of marble and wood. Kitchen was also fully visible, pretty copper pots everywhere. Bronze clad bar was decked out. Lots of Restoration Hardware accessories, blankets, etc. Even the stainless steel food coolers were concealed behind us in the dining area along the wall.
Persimons that have been hung to dry for two months. Some major liquefaction going on inside.
Ok, let’s get to the food. First dish was something I had read about and was looking forward to. Massive amounts of caviar. My aunt said that there is a Russian saying that poor people eat caviar on bread, but the rich eat it with a spoon. Well, there was caviar in spades at the table. At first glance, it looked like they were bringing some Oaxacan tamales to the table, which are these wet tamales wrapped in green banana leaves, but rather, here we had a kombu wrapped envelope of caviar that was roasted over their wood-fired oven. Loved the Japanese concept with the paleo/Faviken application of cooking directly on fire/coals, etc. I remember seeing this cinder block stacked contraption in the kitchen that maybe controlled the heat by the distance from which the food was placed on the block. It was configured like some tower that allowed the smoke to rise and infuse the item. The smokiness was amazing, we never imagined having caviar this way. It was very counter-intuitive to the ice chilled preparation we are all accustomed to. It started off the night with a bang, so much flavor, and the mouth feel, like oxtail, coated your mouth, the nuttiness of the caviar, the olive pit-esque collagenous texture of the melting kombu, all I can say is, damn! They brought spoons to eat the caviar out of the second packet, while they mixed the first packet into some bitter greens from their garden. We were scraping the kombu with the wooden spoons like hungry orphans from Oliver
We had some champagne to start us off, and I saved some for this dish, but then the Junmai daiginjo sake perfectly segwayed us into the next dish. This was the sake that was most in vogue on our last Hokaiddo trip. Very well balanced, with clear fruitness yet with clear yeasty fermentation going on. Where as I felt more of a Chinese influence at Benu, it was more distinctly Japanese in essence so far at Saison. I was quickly corrected by the waiter who said it was ‘San Franciscan’ in influence more than anything, and referenced the indelible influences of the Asian community in San Francisco almost going through a divergent evolution here as the food and culture filters through the generations in America.
This was paired with Opa, which is a giant fish bigger than the chef who filetted it. It is in the tuna family, just more sustainable. It was very pretty, and presented in nice glass bowls, again very kaiseki-ish, with the most beautiful set of chopsticks I have ever seen, silver plated.
So I thought these were butter sauteed marigolds, but it turns out that they were dehydrated citrus marigold, with a goose berry, then some gooseberry raisins on the side. I usually don’t mind added flowers in a dish for color, etc, but these marigolds were so buttery and crispy, it was like eating popcorn. So amazingly suprising for how good a flower can taste, besides just being eye candy. It went so well with the opa.
Gooseberry, very common in some of the kaiseki meals we just had in Japan, to bring in the autumn to winter transition. Saison means seasons in French afterall. Very subtle flavor, looks like a tomatillo, like a muted cherry, but more starchy, almost persimmon-like. The syrup laden raisen of the same berry were a nice visual metaphor on the transition of the seasons as well.
Next up was the Uni (sea urchin) from Fort Bragg actually. We are so accustomed to the Santa Barabara and Hokkaido varieties, that it was nice to try a local variant from Fort Bragg that they have locally sourced. It was sweet like Santa Barbara, but had more salinity, not just because it was marinated in soy sauce, but maybe because I was trying to fit it into a new catagory in my head, who knows. The soggy brown bread it was served on was a nice contrast to sushi rice, like a salty version of bread pudding with uni on top. This killed it, just kept my high going from the caviar. As long as it’s gooey, just loved the emphasis on textures with the first few courses already. Mouth feel was out of this world. Had to consume this just by picking it up with my fingers and eating it right away as there was still some crunch to the bread in the middle even though it was gelatenous on the outside.
Ouuu, uni porn…
We could have eaten ten more of these sea urchin.
To follow came the abalone, done right, like they do in Japan, mostly by beating the shit out of it and tenderizing it to the point that it was a bulbous sponge. The pairing with the local seaweed and artichoke hearts was genious. It was funny that the artichoke hearts were more firm than the abalone, not an easy feat. This paired well with the cocktail I had ordered incidentally, which was smoked with artichoke skin and hakushu Japanese whiskey, with the traditional ice-picked hunk of ice inside. Wish I took more photos of this one, just devoured it. It also had capers and abalone liver pureed in a sauce on the side that I just drank before I had a chance to take a photo. I love abalone liver, so unctuous.
Some radish from the garden, again ushering in the winter root vegetables to help cleanse our gooey palates, with delicious clarifed butter drizzled on top. It had a nice daikon kimchi flavor, not super fermented, but slightly, so barnyard, loved it, was paired with FX Pilcher Gruner, one of my favorite gruners that has a Christmas tree scent to it. Or maybe this was paired with the Riesling, sorry, I lost track of the pairing notes. Loved how the radish was served in various ways, sliced thin, atop beet like chunks of it below. The juice below was almost like a yellow tomatoe gelee, with the clarified butter, and fermented essence of the raddish, there was a lot going on here for a vegetable dish.
More fall vegetables, true to the kaiseki homage this place makes. The colors alone of the pumpkin are so mesmerizing, with such nice contrast, very visually pleasing. So here we have cultured pumpkin puree with cold pressed pumpkin seed oil. Talk about labor intensive. If cold press juice costs an arm and a leg, this is cold pressed oil that is only one component of the dish.
Then pumpkin spaghetti, like squash spaghetti that you have probably heard about. On top of this was another smoky, dessicated octupus shaved over it like parmasean cheese. It had that really raw almost rotting pumpkin flesh smell that you get when carving pumpkins for Halloween, so funky and earthy, with the smoke from the dessicated octopus, very creative.
Then this amazing hunk of pumpkin cooked over a fire for three days and reconstituted in it’s own juice! OMG, this is what pumpkin pie should taste like. Only if people had the time to wait three days and watch a pumpkin slowly denature itself over fire. This was like eating, not drinking, a Napa cab, having that wood/smoke bomb in your mouth with the traditional holiday pumpkin flavor, very nicely done, savory to the max. The hand churned cream elegantly cut the richness of the reconstituted pumpkin.
Then came the one meat dish, it was pork, three cuts, one was the belly, with chicharones, again, similar theme we had noticed with Coi, where they marry the early Asian and Mexican influences native to California and it’s rich melting pot history. They don’t necessarily do this in a fusion kind of way, but rather gave each culture it’s own course to showcase their influence on SF. Again, this is the way I saw it from my own cultural perspective, it may not have been what the restaurant was intending, but they kept making a point that they were ‘San Franciscan’ in origin, not Japanese, or anything else.
Then came to true killer wine pairing of the night, CDP Clos des Papes ’98, with the pork consomme, which is commonly served in carnitas courses in Mexico, which is the broth of the pork, cooked with pork bones, like ramen broth basically, but traditionally Mexican. We were joking with one of the waiters in Spanish about how the recipe was stolen from a traditional Mexican preparation of carnitas with consomme.
Look at the femur bone repurposed as a vessle for the consomme.
Look at that consomme, white sage with pork bone broth, paired perfectly with the ’98 CDP above. We had to revisit this wine, and they were very nice about it. I was alternating sips of broth with wine, heaven. The wine list was extensive, but out of my price range for the most part, Richebourgs and other Burgs up the wazoo, so we stuck to the pairings, which were outstanding, but on the young side for the most part. “To be honest…”, as my friend Scot likes to say, I wish there were a few more older vintages and grand crus in the pairing for the price point, but at least the CDP was good enough for me. I get it, they want to highlight the younger, more food appropriate wines rather than drop age worthy gems, especially given that they are not classic/restricted places in the style of L’ambroise or Pinchiorri where they had a grand cru pairings as an option. I realize that those days are maybe over given the popularity of Burgs skyrocketing along with the price over the past 4 years. Nevertheless, the som was very accommodating and gave an excellent recommendation for a reasonably priced bottle of Washington Syrah for my uncle and aunt.
This concludes the main course portion, moving on to dessert. We thought we were in for more protein with what looked like soft boiled eggs, but it was actually vanilla ice cream with smokey caramel drizzled on top. The variety of candied nuts was mind blowing, candied cocao nobs, pine nuts, peanuts, pecans, OMG. I never thought of candied pine nuts. This is one of the ethnic rarities I grew up with in an Armenian houshold that we often ate in rice, but to have it candied blew my mind, the nostalgia of the ‘snobar’ as we call it just activated my limbic lobe like no other.
I love how it looks like it’s inside an ashtray, which is how it tasted and further reainforces the taste in your brain with the visual cue of eating it out of an ashtray, just perfectly highlighted the smokiness I touched on at the start of the blog post. I felt like I was smoking a cigar and eating ice cream at the same time, amazing how they crossed my neuronal wires. I was their Pavlovian dog they were toying with.
Then some very nice Bori cha, Korean barley tea, or Japanese Iri-bancha. It looked like one of those fall scenes inside a snow-globe that you shake up and it looks like falling autumn leaves, nicely done. The visuals at this restaurant overall were stunning. You truly felt like you were eating the seasons.
Then to truly cleanse your palate, a nice citrus cooler.
Looks like the Bakersfield influence maybe with the oranges with the frost over them. My wife was reminded of Mexico again with Chalco, a city outside of Mexico City, being known for this exact same dessert, creamcicle orange ice cream inside an actual orange. Again, joking with a waiter in Spanish how this idea was stolen from Mexico City.
I hope I don’t get in trouble for revealing this secret. Delicious nevertheless.
We ended the night with another Mexican favorite reminiscent cocktail of ‘fresas con crema’ that my wife loved, with straberry puree, creme fraiche, and gin. It was even served de la olla, inside an earthen clay pot.
This night started very Japanese and ended very Mexican.
Reminds me of the birria night we had at the Grapes and Grub event at our house.
Sorry to leave you with this disturbing image, but I thought it is a perfect contrast to the image above it, where the harcore versions of some of these foods are elevated to the molecular realm, and look completely different, yet share the same roots and flavors. It is a beautiful thing, like Rene Redzepi doing a pop up in Tulum, Mexico. Exposing the beauty and contributions different cultures have made to California cuisine, and why it truly has it’s own distinct voice in the cuisines of America. Like the waiter said, it is truly ‘San Franciscan.”