Saison

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Saison had been on my list of must-try restaurants and it was when chef Joshua Skenes announced a series of “fire dinners” with some guest chefs that rushed to book a table because the first buddy he had working with him was the high-priest of vegetables, Jeremy Fox. Since leaving Ubuntu, I have been waiting anxiously to eat Chef Fox’s food again and had some brief hope in his partnership with Daniel Patterson for the Oakland restaurant, Plum, but instead it seems that Jeremy is looking for his own place instead.

What I did not know when I sat down was that the meal I was about to consume, was going to blow the publicly-lauded Benu out of the water. I am sure this write-up is probably a bit stilted because there there is an obvious question as to what the restaurant is like without the guest chef scenario, but based simply on the quality of the ingredients and preparation alone, I will definitely go back to see what Joshua Skenes does on his own. Those Chef Fox influences I know well and could detect his influence in certain dishes.

This review is also a little different in that I have separated out the photographs; I took a handful of shots of the restaurant upon our arrival. There are two seating areas, one inside with comfortable and intimate banquets surrounding a few rustic, dark wood tables and an outside seating area around the wood stove and fire pit. There are also eight bar stool seats; a chef’s table inside the kitchen and a similarly-designed table for the fire pit. After we completed our meal, Lisa and I went outside and struck up conversations with some fellow diners and Chef Fox who had been minding the fires. All of those pictures are at the end of the post.

But to the food first:

Château de L’Aulée Cremant de Loire, NV paired with an amuse of Wild Things, a concoction of cactus, pear, fennel and caviar. A few tender bites of texture and flavor dressed in crème fraîche. Reminiscent of Japanese textures, the cactus provided a bit of stickiness the way Mountain Yam produces a bit of gooeyness. The bright flavors of the pear and slight crisp spice from the fennel were all balanced with the salty caviar and hints of faint citrus from nasturtium buds. These tiny buds provided tiny little explosions of flavor that both intrigued and beguiled. Paired with the lively bubbly, this was a stunning beginning.

Alliment Laugner Cremant d’Alsace Rosé, NV. This 100% pinot noir rosé demonstrates a wonderful strawberry fruit with a faint sweet entry that expands into a delightful flowery blossom in the back of the mouth and was paired with Tomato In Different Ways. A beautifully composed platter was placed in front of us that showed a chunk of green tomato, tomatillo, a peeled yellow cherry tomato, nardello peppers, river vegetables, and small slivers of a pork product. The waitstaff then poured a thickened, unctuous tomato-based sauce and the worship began. With every bite the distinct ingredients produced exciting variations of sweet and spicy, rich and subtle, sexy and demure. We discovered later that the pork slivers were, in fact, pork face so any bite might have been cheek or jowl and the hints of salt playfully toyed with the freshness in the river vegetables and clean tomatoes.

Bread and Butter. We were not given bread and butter upon sitting down, but after two courses. I am not sure whether I should be annoyed or if it was done strategically. The bread comes from Acme and is their Upstairs Bread, a heartier and chewier carb, studded with whole wheatberries and rye without being dense or heavy. Warmed briefly in the outdoor oven, it is served with a disk of house-churned butter unlike any I have ever experienced. Flakes of smoked Japanese nori, river vegetables, and topped with fleur de sel, I cannot remember ever being so excited about a butter before. Had we received bread and butter upon sitting down, we would have easily just sat there and consumed piece after piece of warmed bread with this brilliant condiment. I am reminded of the fresh nori-studded rice I get at Nombe created by Nick Balla which is so good, I take it home for breakfast. The subtle umami and earthiness of nori elevates these simple ingredients but in the case of Saison’s butter, it does not hurt that Saison is churning their own butter on a daily basis. Absolutely gorgeous.

2007 Domaine Leflaive Mâcon-Verze, Burgundy poured with Polka Corn and Okra. The stunning white burgundy had a pale nose of lime rind but produced a creamy mouthy entry which expanded with fleshy and focused wine. I have always lamented Chardonnay for being over-oaked and it has taken me too many years to realize I just don’t like California Chards but this French version has tang and zip and structure. The red okra was prepared in several ways; thin, wafer-like slivers were nestled amongst some cornmeal-breaded and fried chunks. The smoke from the fire and a faint hint of ash played against the sweet seat of corn on which the okra was sitting. Like tomato dish, there is a playful juxtaposition of textures in the crunch of the fried okra with crunch of the sweet corn and crunch of the raw okra, toying against the faint tender okra interior and balanced out by the creaminess of the wine.

2006 Müller-Catoir Weissburgunder, Pfalz, Germany coupled with Various Carrots, our vadouvan, stone fruit and nasturtium. One of the things I miss about Ubuntu is the famed cauliflower with vadouvan and having the memories of that favored flavor brought back in this context was fun and impressive. Several varieties of carrots had been pre-cooked for softening yet given a darkened, charred exterior giving away to sweet mouthfuls of earthy goodness with chunks of peach and nectarine. The burnt crust on the vegetables exploded against spicy flowers and sweet fruit – all these seemingly disparate flavors coming together with their individual freshness; spice without pepper but with flowers showed brilliance in knowledge of the ingredients.

2006 La Font du Vent, Côtes du Rhône Villages, France showed a dark cherry nose and exploded with well-integrated fruit. A tannic entry with balanced black berry in the back of the throat. This showed well against Merlin Beets prepared in ash with buckwheat leaves, wild cherries and grains. This was a truly stunning dish – deconstructed ingredients, letting the diner choose which flavors to bring together. The brilliant aspect? A cylinder of of veal marrow which had been removed from the bone and briefly fried to produce an entirely crisp interior but maintaining the creamy, rich fatty interior. The occasional bits of grain developed the stable, earthy base with a core of the marrow fat, a heightened layer of earth with the clean beets and a top, bright sweet component in the cherry. Scattered amongst the plate were a few slivers of pickle, but pickled what? We weren’t quite sure — it could have been pear or apple but the bottom line is that the pickle produced a cleansing factor which elevated the simple marrow.

2006 Jaboulet Crozes-Hermitage, Rhône, France, a rich, jammy syrah unlike most syrah I have experienced from California in its intensely smooth, concentrated mouth. So easy to drink and a surprisingly big wine to be paired with Heartbreads served with muscat grapes, asparagus green, and alliums. We were told there were five kinds of garlic constructed within the dish but we were hard-pressed to detect that, they were so well integrated. Superbly prepared protein, a very thick, crunchy crust capped the lighter, sweeter underbelly of the meat. These were served atop a tiny brunoise of carrot, cocoa and romano beans, haricot verts, vidalia onion slices, and a few scattering muscat grapes. All of the ingredients themselves provided relatively delicate flavors with the wine elevating it in boldness. I can still taste that crunchy carnitas-like exterior of the heartbreads, craving it really…

Rhubarb Sorbet with milk granité. A simple slice of roasted rhubard set next to a quenelle of rhubarb sorbet but it was the milk granité which brought the simple offering together. That faint creamy structure which occurred in the back of the throat with the melting granité gave the sharp, rich sorbet a rounder mouth flavor.

2009 Giacomo Bologna “Braida” Brachetto d’Acqui, Piemonte, Italy. A slight, sparkling wine is ruby red in hue with tons of candied raspberry and cherry on the sweet side which surprised me to be paired with a fruit-based dessert, Summer Berries in their consommé with yuzu ice cream. A similar complaint that I had a Benu, simple fruit desserts with a frozen component does not quite satisfy my sweet tooth in that I want something with a little more substance. I greatly enjoyed the incredibly fresh fruit which had been macerated enough to soften and sweeten them and the yuzu was demure in its citrus component with a little crunch coming from the broken cookie underneath. I guess it is the Fried Dough Ho in me that craves something a bit more cakey and substantial.

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A few closing thoughts; as I stated above, this meal was far more successful and memorable than Benu was for me, just a week prior. Here, every dish was a discovery of textures and fresh flavors without the pretense of style over substance. Each individual ingredient could easily stand on its own but the brilliance came from their combination and preparation.

The service was exemplary with one small snafu in that we asked to share the wine tasting as neither of us want to drink that much. We commented that the pours seemed heavier than they should be which ultimately proved to be true; we were charged for two pairings. The tasting was $98 and the wines were $88. Service and tip and health care costs were added already but it still made for a $250 per person evening, a bit on the pricey side when it is this type of dining I wish I could afford on a daily basis.

There was a brief moment at the end of the meal where the outdoor fire pit was producing so many sparks out of its flue that the fire department showed up. Chef Skenes confirmed that it was the first time that had happened and it was a bit of a humorous moment in that regard. In chatting with other diners after we finished our meal, I confirmed that we were not the only diners who were happily reveling in a transitory experience. It is this sort of experience that I look for in innovative and superlative dining.

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