review: holism… (saison)
Those are Josh Skene’s words, not mine.
In a spirited email exchange that ensued after my meal at his restaurant, saison, that’s how he lovingly referred to the twelfth of sixteen courses I had at his Chef’s Counter.
Skenes had salted the cavity of one of the birds. The other one, he left unsalted. Both were hung to age. By the time I showed up for dinner, the salted one had been hanging for 32 days, and the unsalted one for 70 days. Both were roasted over cherry wood, carved, and framed in a cherry tree: blossoms, leaves, and a glass of rosé, unexpectedly salty with cured cherry blossoms.
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Now, some might dismiss this hyper-aging thing as mere spectacle and sport: just because one can do something, doesn’t mean one should. While I agree with that sentiment (that’s how I regard a lot of molecular gastronomy), Skenes’s “old-ass pigeons” didn’t strike me as accessories to a culinary pissing contest.
I can’t speak for him, but I imagine there was research and development at play here. I don’t think this was simply an exercise in vanity. As far as I know, Skenes wasn’t serving “old ass pigeon” to the general public. Rather, these birds were reserved and offered to us as special guests, likeminded eaters willing to try something new and provide honest feedback.
Some have questioned the safety of consuming birds aged this long. Okay, this might be a legitimate concern. Neither a scientist, nor a doctor, I have no basis for evaluating the health risks involved. All I know is that I’ve eaten meat (among other things) that has seen far more age (or, is claimed to have seen far more age) than these birds had, and I’ve gotten along just fine. I know this doesn’t mean that consuming hyper-aged meat is safe. But I’ve found no evidence that hyper-aging meat can’t be done safely either.
So, the only thing left for me to tell you is that I did like it. As you can imagine the salted, 32-day dry-aged pigeon was much milder than the unsalted, 70-day dry-aged one. I preferred the texture of the 32-day pigeon – it still had some moisture to it, which helped maintain its meatiness, whereas the older pigeon was more leathery. Without the marbling of fat to protect and soften it, the breast meat was a lot less waxy than aged beef or cured pork.
As for flavor, neither was exactly quaffable – both were just a bit too strong to be enjoyed in large quantities. But I probably enjoyed the intensity of the older meat more, a sliver of strong funk that I suspect would be beyond the tolerance of most. Others have described it as meaty Epoisses. Yes, it had that musty, barnyard flavor. But to that, I would add a touch of greasiness, and, not surprisingly, the taste of liver. It’s not something I’d want to eat every day. But, as a rare, culinary curio, I valued the experience immensely.
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But I refuse to let those pigeons hijack this post. As novel and as good as they were, they weren’t the highlight for me.
There were many more exciting things at dinner that night, not the least of which was a beautiful round of line-caught wild king salmon, wrapped in “sacred pepper leaf,” served with onion escabeche, and perfumed with anise hyssop and kaffir lime. Simple, clean, herbaceous, and fragrant, that was probably my favorite dish of the night.
There was a stunning – and I do mean *stunning* – brioche bun piped with whipped sheep’s milk cheese, coated in honey flecked with gold leaf, and topped with a nub of honeycomb. The textures, the flavors, the contrast of tangy and sweet: it was perfect.
And there was a unforgettably tender cut of ember-roasted sika deer that was also poached and basted with warm oil. It was sauced with its own juices, which were infused with caramelized alliums and coffee. The sweetness of the alliums transitioned seamlessly, and naturally, into the bitterness of the coffee. It tasted like onions. It tasted like coffee. It tasted like onions. It tasted like coffee. It was a brilliant back-and-forth; I couldn’t stop tasting that sauce for the effect.
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Saison first appeared on my radar via my friend LaTache, who was one of the restaurant’s earliest enthusiasts. Go, he urged.
So, on my recent trip to San Francisco, I put saison on my itinerary.
In full disclosure, Skenes knew that I was coming in for dinner. Mutual friends – chuck being one of them – had marked my reservation. So I knew, even during our meal, that my experience there was extraordinary (that is, extra-ordinary). I don’t know that we were better served than others, but we had more courses than usual, including quite a few special ones, like that “old-ass pigeon.”
Skenes and I have become better-acquainted with each other since. Few chefs email me after I’ve had dinner at their restaurant to seek my honest opinion. He is one of them. A healthy exchange followed suit, in which I learned a lot about him and his culinary outlook. Our dialogue continued in Kansas City, where he flew to join me at my table a few weeks ago for a Friends of the James Beard Foundation dinner that I helped organize at The American Restaurant.
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Criticisms? I had a few. I shared them openly and honestly with Skenes, and I share them with you.
The opening courses, each with multiple components, felt fractured. I know that he was trying to present food thematically – what grows together goes together. But some of it didn’t quite come together for me.
For example, the first course featured “eggs.” To one side, there was a tissue-thin flatbread topped with all sorts of herbs and eggs: yolk and white of a hen’s egg, salty trout roe, cured shad roe, and smoked mullet roe. It looked like the circus and was difficult to eat. Arriving concurrently was a spot of white sturgeon caviar, gently smoked over embers – naked, almost stark in comparison to its colorful counterpart. Other than both having eggs, the two seemed to have little in common.
The second course was even more confusing, a seemingly random assortment that might have made more sense served in succession rather than together. There was an oyster with cucumber and lemon verbena. There was a beautifully layered cup of “tubers,” sweet and comforting. And there was a pig ear terrine, with bittermelon, radishes and nasturtium. I appreciate the exploration of bitter flavors, but this last one was a bit too ascetic for me; it needed something to round out the sharp flavors.
Tartare of bluefin tuna belly followed. The fatty meat had been mixed with torn abalone shells, grilled sinew and tuna fat, and topped with roasted tuna bone gelée. That was delicious. I can see why he paired it with a rice cracker with shrimp floss and perilla salt. But I didn’t quite understand why he would serve tuna spinal fluid as a chaser.
It was a slow start.
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But the aged bluefin tuna belly at course number four was the turning point in my meal. After that, it was a pretty thrilling ride.
That tuna belly had been lightly smoked every two days for more than a month. Unlike the pigeon breasts, the tuna was well padded with fat and took on a rich, waxy texture. It was sturdier – less creamy – than I had expected it to be. The fish came dressed with a splash of roasted tuna bone soy and yuzu. We ate it with our fingers. It was great.
There followed a study on brassicas, the family of mustard plants, in all different textures. There were toasty grains and a velvety run of quail egg yolk, which helped mellow out the bitterness of the greens. This, too, was a highlight.
And there were more such dishes, holistic looks at nature, like the one that had me wallowing awhile in the briny richness of crustacea, and another that had me celebrating the sweetness of summer. This is what Skenes does best: he holds a mirror up to nature, and as if by duplicating its image, saturates it with color and flavor.
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There’s a rambling rusticity to saison.
A hearth, which is central to Skenes’s cooking, anchors it at one end, in a dim lounge, from which a dining room seems to grow and blossom into the bright expanse of the kitchen beyond. It’s a bohemian space, reckless and free-flowing. Even as I walked through it, I wasn’t sure where one wall ended and another began, or even if there were any walls at all. I’ve never been in a restaurant quite like it. I fell in love with it. I know that Skenes has announced that he is looking for a new space. While I understand why it might be financially advantageous for him to move, from a romantic standpoint, I hope he stays where he is.
My friends and I were seated at the Chef’s Counter, a hightop with a panoramic view of the kitchen. The white beams, the vaulted ceilings (the kitchen used to be a horse stable), the calm of the cooks moving quietly about, and the cool breeze coming through the screen door: it is one of the loveliest spaces in which I’ve had the pleasure of dining.
In some ways, your meal will be very different than mine. Skenes told me that he’s rethought and reconfigured a lot of the courses I had, especially those first few. And, in the few months since I ate at saison, he says his cooking has evolved tremendously.
But in some ways, your meal will be very similar to mine – at least, if you eat at the Chef’s Counter. I’ve realized since my meal that what I experienced was probably a beta test (my words, not Skenes’s) for “the switch,” a recent change to the dining format at saison that stripped the dining room down to 18 seats, where there is now a $198 tasting menu; and increased the number of courses at the Chef’s Counter to 16, where each person will now pay $498, all-inclusive (that includes wine pairings), making it one of America’s most expensive meals.
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I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to saison, but when I do, I’ll be anxious to see what evolution has taken place since my meal there in September.
Skenes has a unique perspective, an approach and style like no other’s. His is one of the most exciting new voices I’ve encountered among American chefs today. But I don’t believe that he has mastered it completely – not yet, anyway. I look forward to seeing it develop, mature, and refine.
Nor has he worked out all the plot devices he needs to tell a complete story. But maybe that’s what makes his cooking so exciting to experience right now. Like the space in which it lives, his food is raw, slightly unfinished, and striving.
Only thrice have I walked out of a restaurant so impressed by its reach, so confident in its merit that I’ve been presumptuous enough to predict to the chef’s face that he would find another Michelin star. And in all three instances, it happened within a month. Skenes is one of them. Perhaps it’s dumb luck – Delphic I am not. But I like to believe that it’s a credit to Skenes’s talent and confidence as an artist that his second Michelin star, awarded last month, seemed imminent and inevitable to me over the course of one meal, 16 courses with which I leave you.
Yolk & white, cured shad roe, cured smoked mullet roe, wild herbs.
White Sturgeon Caviar
Gently smoked over the embers.
A sauce of grilled oyster pique, cucumber, lemon verbena.
Pig Ear Terrine
Pig butter, bittermelon & radishes, nasturtium honey.
Layers of Tubers
Parsnip milk & puree, carrot royale, oxalis.
Kindai Bluefin Tuna
Torn with abalone shell, grilled sinew & tuna fat,
ember-roasted tuna bone gelée.
Shrimp floss, perilla salt, and river vegetable.
38-day Aged Tuna Belly
Roasted bone soy and yuzu.
Textures of Brassicas
Stew of toasted grains, quail egg, bouillon of dried sardine and wild seaweeds.
Corn pudding, summer vegetables set in a tomato consomme.
Wild King Salmon “Rod & Reel”
Sauce of ember-roasted bones infused in clarified butter,
white soy, onion escabeche, kaffir lime.
Ragout of Dungeness Crab & Sea Urchin
Lobster quenelle, crustacean bouillion infused with Meyer lemon cream,
tarragon, basil, mandarin.
Ember-Roasted Foie Gras
Buttermilk, quince, bittermelon puree, celery, quince consomme.
Slowly roasted over the embers with berbere spices & yogurt vinaigrette.
Ember-Roasted Wild Spotted Deer
Stew of chestnuts, walnuts, caramelized alliums, sunchoke, yali pear.
Sauce made from deer juices, caramelized alliums & coffee.
Nuvola di pecora, brioche, honeycomb.
Preserved Lemon Custard
Lemon sorbet, chrysanthemum gel & froth.
Popcorn Ice Cream
Roasted twig tea.
Crystalized, filled with raspberry pâté de fruit, raspberry sugar.
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2124 Folsom Street (at 17th)
San Francisco, California 94110