How did this pop-up become the most expensive restaurant in S.F.?

Josh Sens | April 19, 2012 | Food & Drink Lifestyle Story Restaurants Reviews Eat and Drink Culture

With its slumbering warehouses and block-long empty lots, Folsom Street, in the Mission, looks like the kind of neighborhood you'd turn to for taco trucks and Chinese takeout, if you'd turn to it for any food at all. But on the evening we arrived, my wife and I had spent the whole day fasting, and we don’t do that for cheap eats. We’d resorted to these drastic measures in preparation for a blowout: Saison’s new chef’s counter prix fixe dinner, with 22 courses and 18 drinks—which represents the city’s most expensive meal.

After parking on a lonely stretch beside a chain-link fence, we jaywalked 17th Street, our footfalls echoing in the stillness, then turned off Folsom and down a granite pathway, toward a covered courtyard where orange embers glowed in a wood-fired hearth. A host smiled and beckoned. Ducking through a doorway, we stepped into a dining room with seating for 26 and the cleaned-up-rustic bearing of a former stable. Patrons were spooning into pearls of caviar, adornments on a crown of smoked sea urchin, which rested on a bed of creamy cauliflower and tiny, quivering cubes of roast- chicken gelée—an early offering in a tasting menu that fetched $198 and an additional $118 for a wine pairing.

Here was a world far removed from its surroundings, a sanctum for hyperdevoted food pilgrims, IPO millionaires, and other assorted members of the city’s discerning gourmand club. But the dining room wasn’t where we were eating. On this anointed evening, our place was in the kitchen, where, for $498 each, tax, tip, and alcohol included, we’d watch as 32-year-old Joshua Skenes staked his claim as the city’s most talented, audacious, ambitious, and quite possibly delusional chef. For the privilege, we paid up front, with no refunds, as all diners at Saison do.

But before we bit into our first amuse, we needed to wrestle with a pointed question: Is any meal worth this kind of money? Of course, Saison is not the first restaurant to charge an arm and a leg for a repast. Four-figure dinners for two have long been common fare at Thomas Keller’s temples, Per Se and the French Laundry. Not to mention the Restaurant at Meadowood, in the Napa Valley, which this spring unveiled a $500-per-person menu that doesn’t include wine. But Keller is a legend. Per Se is in a fourth-floor aerie overlooking Columbus Circle in Manhattan. And wine country measures wealth by the planted acre. In the calculus of haute cuisine—in which diners compute cost but also cachet—Saison represents a more complex equation. It asks us to make sense of an exorbitantly priced restaurant in a scruffy quarter of San Francisco, run by an upstart chef who four years ago was hawking his wares from a sandwich cart.

Not so long ago, this scenario would have been considered absurd if not downright impossible. It doesn’t take a city elder to recall an era when the highest-end dining in San Francisco was reserved for the city’s high-rent quarters, like Russian Hill and the financial district, and the people creating the food were long-established chefs like Gary Danko at his namesake restaurant and Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys. That starchy age is over. The same boom in food-geek culture that turned chefs into pop stars has propelled haute cuisine into territory populated by the hoi polloi. In this brave new world, two-Michelin-starred Coi operates on the same block as a strip joint. Rarefied Benu has found a home on a charmless block in SoMa. And Saison has trotted out a black-tie menu in a neighborhood where the Symphony Gala set has long been loath to tread.

That the black-tie crowd has started trickling in at all owes entirely to Skenes, who, with his business partner, sommelier Mark Bright, launched Saison three years ago as a Sundays-only pop-up before expanding operations to three and then five days a week. Early reviews, this critic’s included, were fawning (I awarded Saison three stars in December 2009), and last year, Food & Wine magazine named Skenes one of America’s best new chefs.

Yet for all the big-time buzz around Saison, it’s never really been hard to get a seat. It still isn’t; reservations in the dining room are readily available midweek, and we booked our seats at the chef’s counter only five days in advance. Just as price and location present hurdles, so, I suspect, does the up-front-payment policy. Skenes says that this is for simplicity—you come, you eat, you leave—and that most patrons like it. Bottom line: On all of the above, he hasn’t budged. In fact, last year, after pondering a move to a more central location downtown, Skenes doubled down on his Folsom Street space, raising, not lowering, the barriers of entry. He added a chef’s counter and raised prices in the dining room.

Skenes’s firm stance is an outgrowth of his vision for the restaurant, which he describes as a “nonprofit” operation, as much an art project as a business venture. That’s not the kind of plan that gets you VC funding, and it makes you wonder: Is Skenes’s maxed-out menu the masterwork of a soaring talent or the clouded vision of a hubristic chef, caught in the updraft of his own ego?

Coming in, I knew I loved Skenes’s cooking, and I didn’t really give a whiff about his ego, since few top chefs are shy on self-regard. But 22 courses? Eighteen flights of wine, beer, and sake? On a less-than-glamorous block of Folsom Street? What kind of madness was this?

The only way to find out was to pony up the cash and start eating.

"This is to awaken your palate," our server says.

We are taking up two seats at the four-seat wooden counter, overlooking a kitchen with a barnlike wood-beam ceiling and a front end opened to the dining room. At the heart of the kitchen is a gleaming Molteni, a sports car of a stove, and arrayed around it, a dozen workers in off-white uniforms custom designed by Levi’s, prepping and plating in monastic silence. Their Zen master is Skenes, slim, stoic-looking, with brownish-reddish hair, whispering orders, inspecting every dish before it’s sent. This is not the Food Network. There is no clank or clatter. It’s as if a team of ninjas had stormed a farmhouse and set up a cooking school.

Behind us, an empty fish tank gurgles. The live langoustines, we’re told, will arrive tomorrow. If we reached across the counter, we could plunge our hands into a sous-vide bath. The waiter gives us each a glass, filled with a frothy, electric green liquid. Propped in it is what looks like a sprig on a frosty winter morning: wood sorrel soda and crystallized oxalis root. These are our instructions: Nibble on the root; bolt back the soda. Our man is right. The lemony pop of the combination, softened by the faintest crunch of sugar, is Skin Bracer for the tongue.

Next comes warm broth in a wooden bowl, with wildflower petals, turnip, and radish. It’s bouillon, light in color, intense in character, derived from seaweed and dried fish. Its briny notes are the sea distilled.

Our palates, awakened, have now been warmed. Two courses down. So far, so very good.

A well-crafted degustation is like a well-told story. It teases at the outset, lures us in. In the early going, Skenes maintains a brisk pace with a bevy of raw dishes: a deep-shelled shigoku oyster, in its ember-roasted juices; a sashimi-like cut of bluewing robin, kissed by the coals and smacked with red onion escabèche; a live scallop on the half shell, topped with translucent coins of kumquat and daikon and a refreshing splash of Miewa kumquat citronette.

There’s a brightness to the cooking, and it comes as a relief, scarred as we have been by old-fashioned tasting menus that open with amuses, then build and build, somewhat unamusingly, burying one, at last, in an avalanche of butter. All those hefty sauces and thick reductions. Over many courses, they push the average human with a normal constitution across the line from sated into miserably stuffed.

Skenes is mindful of that border. His portions are petite. And his cuisine steps nimbly around classical constraints, favoring something like a Japanese aesthetic. He layers flavors, repeating elements but in subtle variations. White asparagus, poached in milk and seasoned with a foam of white soy, fish sauce, and the restaurant’s housemade butter, pairs with sea urchin, cured in its own seawater. Roasted pigeon, wrapped in cherry leaves and aged for 38 days (why not 37 or 39? I hear you asking; just go with it, is my reply), is fired over cherrywood until its deep red meat is tender but resistant, then garnished with olives, cured Asian pear, bitter chocolate, beet purée, cured plums, and cherry blossoms: game bird and stone fruit to the nth degree.

By now, we’re far from famished, but we’re also far from finished. As the menu moves to its meatier middle, we’re still happy to tag along.

In the dining room, meanwhile, the rabble aren’t going hungry either. They get 18 of the same courses, including a quenelle of foie gras and caramelized white chocolate, and bone marrow fritters, bedded on beets that were roasted in the jus of those very marrow bones. What our counterparts don’t get is the same special treatment (an extra-large spooning of caviar, for instance) or front-row seats to a culinary show.

From the moment we arrived, we’ve been watching a young cook just a few feet from us, dusting rice crackers with river vegetable, salt, and dried shrimp floss. Not exactly pyrotechnics but important. The crackers complement a dish of Kindai bluefin tuna whose exotic preparation we’ve also been eyeing: Before being bathed in a vinaigrette made with its own roasted bones, the fish is roughly torn with the jagged edge of an abalone shell. Snicker if you will, but the texture it produces is a revelation, and besides, for half a mortgage payment, I want to see wizardry with more than just a knife.

A superb meal and first-rate entertainment. It's an age-old pairing. But the last time my wife and I tried for such a double feature, we overpaid for dinner in Hayes Valley, then suffered through an opera that afflicted us like the musical equivalent of a root canal. Our evening at Saison has cost twice as much, but we’ve enjoyed it three times more.

Plus, it has come with a lot more wine. Lush white Burgundies. Silken Sonoma reds. Or maybe it’s the other way around. What we do know is that Mark Bright chooses wisely and pours freely. When dry-aged beef arrives, flecked with the truffles of a sauce Périgueux, Bright pairs it with a French syrah, then adds a bonus pairing: a glass of syrah he produced himself. “Only one barrel,” he says. “Can’t really do this for the dining room.”

Nearly three hours in, and we’re not in a food coma, but we are nicely delirious, exhilarated by the cooking and—OK—flushed with alcohol. We are also swept up in the communal spirit of an interparty conversation, a rare occurrence at high-end restaurants, where tables tend to keep to themselves. When the guys sitting next to us arrived, their straitlaced dress and manner led me to a false conclusion: I assumed that they were dweeby, Zynga-era zillionaires. But as the wine loosened our tongues, we got to chatting. One was a farmer from Vancouver. The other was a waiter at a casual Napa restaurant who said he scraped together three months’ worth of savings for the meal. What I had assumed could only be a bastion for the 1 percent of the 1 percent is something different—maybe not a rainbow coalition but also not a fully closed-off club.

I would have liked to have that story as ammo a few nights before while defending myself against the judgment of a friend who took umbrage at our plans for the Saison megameal. “Excessive and immoral” was how she put it, as if I’d planned to drive a Hummer over a baby seal.

True, no one needs a 22-course dinner, just as no one needs a Beemer. Or a ski trip to Tahoe. Or a Club Med vacation. The rich are getting richer, and our unjust world is rife with cause for outrage, but there are better targets than a high-end restaurant. If you’re into refined dining, very refined dining, San Francisco has no better option than Joshua Skenes’s Saison.

When dessert came, it came in waves: a parmesan sandy with white chocolate–parmesan ganache; preserved–Meyer lemon custard, gelée, and sorbet, topped with a tiara of chrysanthe-mum foam; a scoop of popcorn ice cream that suggested Häagen-Dazs churned by a higher power.

We had reached our limits, and so had the kitchen, except for one final gift: a creamy-centered canelle, which we took home for our kids. Outside, Folsom Street still slumbered as we strolled its sidewalks, inhaling the night air, clearing our heads. The post-prandial bliss would linger for some time, as would the simple pleasure and peace of mind that comes with the memory—and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it is true—of money well spent.

Saison: 2124 Folsom St. (bet. 17th and 18th Sts.), S.F., 415-828-7990, $$$$

Dinner Only, Reservations Recommended, Wheelchair Accessible ****


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