May 23, 2017
Let me begin by saying that I went to Saison kicking and screaming. Nothing I’d read about the restaurant sounded appealing. It was now officially California’s most expensive restaurant. It had three Michelin stars. It sounded beyond pretentious.
Everyone in our little group was equally suspicious. But none of us had been, and we were curious.
So we were utterly unprepared to walk into an old brick warehouse and find the most casual, quirky and comfortable three-star experience of my lifetime. Sitting in that high-ceilinged room, right in front of the walk-in refrigerators watching a gaggle of chefs cook in the open kitchen gives you the sense that you’re eating dinner in a friend’s loft. The room is so open, so airy, that although other diners are all around you, they never become obtrusive.
The food? Josh Skenes’s food is simple, subtle, delicate and very much about this place at this moment. There was not a single dish I didn’t love.
The meal began with caviar: cured in kelp, drenched in clarified butter and eaten with wooden spoons. Pure heaven.
Turbot. Eating the turbot at Elkano in Spain (read about it here), I had a fish epiphany. Saison was different – but every bit as good. First we had sashimi – the fish slightly crisp and very clean, with Japanese lime, salt and an astonishing elixir made from the bones. Like clear soy sauce; I wanted to pick the little dish up and drink it down.
So were the ribs, grilled and so sweet I ate every little morsel, leaving the bones stacked like tiny toothpicks on the plate.
The heart of the fish, raw.
The fish innards, turned into ambrosia.
Santa Barbara spot prawns with their delicious roe.
Sea urchin on fat, crisp chunks of sourdough grilled and drenched in a rich umami combination of butter, bread and soy until it had a texture both crisp and wet at the same time. It’s hard to upstage uni, but the croutons almost did.
Last year’s tomatoes, confit.
Tiny red abalone.
A box crab- funny little fellow, with the sweetest flesh.
Turnip and – you guessed it – butter.
Peas and sorrel, as limpid as a springtime brook, each tender pea cut in half.
The biggest, sweetest, juiciest quail I’ve ever encountered. Barbecued.
Antelope: remarkably clean meat.
Here comes Mr. Bear. At the beginning of the meal the chef came out to discuss how we felt eating bear. I’d never had it before, and I was expecting something strong and gamy. This was not that: had you told me I was eating bison, I would have believed you. These were big meaty, delicious ribs.
Desserts were blessedly simple. Some pickled blueberries…
Ice cream and caramel.
And a Cara Cara orange, frozen into ambrosial creaminess.
This was a parting gift, snuggled into a beautiful box of extremely soft wood:
Salt distilled from the bay and lightly smoked. Herbs gathered on the farm for tea. And a clear soy-like sauce brewed from seaweed, smoked fish and dried mushrooms and cold-brewed over for six months. I’m going to treasure this – and think about that fantastic meal every time I open the box.
A note about the wine list: it’s everything you expect in a three-star establishment. Huge, well-sourced, often rare and always expensive. If you want to spend thousands, that’s no problem. But when I asked the sommelier to rustle up some bargains, he was up to the task.
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