New Saison Chef's Counter [San Francisco]
Saison is high on my list to go next time I'm in SF (along with Benu). The new plans may be a little too harsh on my wallet.
$498 total (including wine, tax, and tip) for the chef's counter (4 people max per day) and $198 regular tasting menu for the main dining room. Benu is $180 for the tasting menu. I'm sure the chef's counter is a truly unique experience, but $500 total per person seems a little high for their current reputation. FYI, I spent less on the extended tasting menu at TFL, although we only had a couple of glasses of wine. But that's for impeccable service, 20+ courses, and a little bragging rights of going to TFL (yes, unfortunately that counts). I guess they're going for a 3 Michelin star for next year. Best of luck to chef Joshua Skenes and company.
I'm from NY so for comparison as well (not looking to stir up any NY vs SF trouble here), the 18-person chef's counter at the newly 3-starred Brooklyn Fare is like $185 a person (without wine), Eleven Madison (Manhattan board's favorite restaurant) is $195 for the tasting menu, and a "weird" comp, the tasting menu at Brooklyn pizza joint, Roberta's (4 people max, only on Wed and Thurs) was $160 when I went in the spring.
I feel like $300, $350 max (in total), I'd consider going.
My hubby and I tried the chef's counter for our wedding anniversary last week, and we had a whopping 24 courses and 16 wines! It was definitely an experience, sitting at the counter in the middle of the kitchen and watching all the chefs prepare the dishes. They definitely treat the chef's counter customers well, starting us off with a glass of rose cremant to enjoy in their outside bar while we waited since we arrived early.
I don't have all the space to mention every single dish, but here are a few of the standouts:
- caviar: they gave a good sized portion, probably 1/4-1/3 of an ounce, and it was quality stuff. I liked the combination with the uni and the gelee at the bottom. Still doesn't quite beat "oysters and pearls" from TFL though.
- flight of fish: this counted as a single course, but there were 7 different fish (well, 6 fish and 1 shrimp). I'm not much of a fan of shrimp but the one I had here was definitely one of the best I've had. My favorite were the "coal-kissed" fish where they touch it with a piece of hot coal...just had a great smoky flavor.
- brassicas: the combination of the toasted rice and other grains, savory soup, and quail egg was surprisingly very comfort-food-like. It reminded me of a super high-end version of lugaw which is a filipino rice soup with egg (similar to congee)
- layers of foie gras: I wonder if they're circumventing the ban by "giving away" this dish to the people who pay for the chef's counter. Technically they're selling tickets to sit at the counter, not selling the foie gras. It wasn't as good as the foie I've had at Atelier Crenn a few months ago, but I really enjoyed the beer paired with it, it was an unusual pairing but worked perfectly with the foie gras.
I never thought I would ever actually say this in my lifetime, but the wine pairings actually had *too* much wine for me! After our glass of rose, we had a glass of champagne which we didn't realize was supposed to last several courses, but they kept refilling it as we kept drinking it. I probably should have slowed down more since there were 14 more wines after that. At least after we requested it, the sommelier started warning us if a wine is supposed to last multiple courses so we can pace ourselves a little bit. At one point though where we pretty much got one wine per course and these weren't tasting pours, they were at least half a glass if not more. It was really nice how they also had a sake for one of the courses (surprisingly, not with the sashimi) and the beer with the foie gras. They were definitely very generous with the wine pairings so I think we got our money's worth with all the booze. The overall price of the dinner was similar to French Laundry, but here we got probably 8-9 glasses of wine each, compared to around 3-4 glasses total at TFL. I was definitely smashed at the end of the meal, compared to other places where I might have a nice buzz at the end. I kind of wish I wasn't since the last few courses were kind of a blur for me.
It was cool to sit in the middle of the kitchen, though the tradeoff is that you don't get the formal service that you would get in the dining room. It was nice though that some of the chefs would serve some courses to us directly, even chef Skenes himself personally served us a few courses! I was kinda hoping they would give us a little something extra at the end since it was our anniversary but maybe they only do that in the dining room or don't do it at all, unlike other places I've been to.
I don't regret going but I actually thought there were more "wow" dishes at Atelier Crenn, where I went for my birthday a few months before. We had maybe 17-18 courses there (as opposed to 24 here) but the dishes there seemed more memorable (maybe because I wasn't super-drunk). For my thousand bucks I'd probably sooner return to French Laundry than come back here, though it was a good experience nonetheless.
I tried the chef's counter last night. It's at the far end of the kitchen from the dining room, two cold stations are right in front, great view of the charcoal grill station and a couple of others. I should have counted the cooks, I think mdg's right, if you added up all the staff the ratio is roughly 1:1 to diners.
Not that the flavors were very Japanese but it reminded me a lot of eating omakase at a great sushi bar. Most of the dishes were one or two bites, 90% seafood and vegetables. I think the only carbs were some mixed whole grains in one dish, a couple of pain au lait rolls, and a canelé. By the end I was satiated but didn't feel overfed or the sensory overload I usually suffer after ~20-course meals.
Really creative use of fresh herbs, e.g. fava leaf in the grilled peas. One technique I hadn't seen before: searing things with a hot coal ("coal-kissed"). One new-to-me ingredient, "bone vinegar," a jelly made from boiling fish bones in vinegar. The gargouillou had some of the best anchovy sauce I've ever had, they said it was not house-made and not Red Boat but otherwise it's a secret. (Farmed) bluefin spinal fluid, also new to me. Best caviar I've had.
There's a series of photos on flickr taken a few days ago that is almost identical to what they served me:
Several of the dishes matched the descriptions in mdg's report from December, but who knows how similar they actually were.
Wine pairing was almost one per course, mostly excellent matches, never had an empty glass. A couple of the best matches were a sake and a dark British wheat beer. Great service. Very warm and friendly staff.
$498 seemed maybe a little steep but not at all unreasonable given the food costs and labor. I want to go back when they have langoustine and aged birds.
re: Robert Lauriston
re: Robert Lauriston
I think the chef's counter menu is the same plus a few more dishes. I got copies of both. I count 20 dishes on the regular menu, I was served 26 counting the canelé, which does not appear on either menu, I think everyone got those. The descriptions of several dishes are different (e.g. "egg, oyster, smoked allium" vs. "farm egg") but I'm not sure they actually were different. Extra dishes on the longer menu were the bonito, spinal fluid, bone marrow, lamb, and popcorn ice cream.
The dining room menu says $248 plus $128 for the wine vs. $269 and $120 for the chef's counter per the receipt. When I go back I'll probably do the dining room.
We ate at Saison a few days ago in the dining room rather than the Chef's Counter. There were 8 listed courses on the menu, but "First Bites" was a series of 3 courses and "Cru" was a series of 2 courses, plus an unlisted cheese course and extra dessert, so 13 courses in all (plus the pate de fruit served with the check).
The food was exquisite and very labor-intensive. With all the staff in the kitchen and the house, there was pretty much a 1-to-1 ratio between customers and staff. There's no way my verbal description can do justice to the food, but I'll try anyway.
The last of the first bites was a bitter green salad that featured an amazing anchovy beignet. The crudo included an amazing tuna dish with mixed meat and fat, like tuna bacon. The brassicas dish followed with a bonito broth accompanying greens cooked in a wide variety of ways. That may have been the best 1-2 combination of the evening, though the "smoked toffee" foie gras and the 30-day aged wood pigeon would be close behind. The house-churned butter served with the delicious house-made olive bread may have been the best I've ever had. The cheese course was whipped sheep's milk cheese in a brioche - really, really good. Preserved citrus 6.28 was an apotheosis of lemon dessert. The closing popcorn ice cream was a real delight.
The only miscue was the crustacean dish. It had great potential as a deconstructed lobster stew, and the broth was stunning. The lobster tail portion had little flavor; As ex-New Englanders we've cooked much better-tasting lobster ourselves. I was really surprised to see the lobster in such a locavore place. We were told this was lobster farmed in the Pacific Northwest, but those farmers seem to have a ways to go.
We didn't go for the wine pairings as those tend to be way too much for us. Both the Ravello white from Campania and the Narcisse Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast were excellent - you can do wines by the glass from anything in the pairings. We were started with some lovely Collet Champagne, and the green tea to finish was another delicious touch.
Saison ranks right up with Coi in terms of favorites for a tasting menu place in the Bay Area. I'm so glad I don't have to decide "Saison or Coi?" but instead can delight in having both of these superb restaurants so close to home.
Not clear what's actually going to be happening with the non-chef's counter menu at Saison. Grubstake indicates they'll continue to offer the current tasting menu at $198: http://sanfrancisco.grubstreet.com/2011/11/saison_reduces_seating_adds_ti.html. The Chronicle says they'll be offering longer and more "luxurious" tasting menus: http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/....
I'd assume a longer menu and higher price, since otherwise the change in seating doesn't make much sense.
I can't offhand think of any other SF restaurants following this model: very small, very expensive, focusing on a luxury, elite experience. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.
2124 Folsom St., San Francisco, CA 94110
IMHO, this is a very risky business model. I mean a place like Masa can pull it off because 1) it's in NYC and 2) you know you're getting these ridiculously expensive products/ingredients flown in from around the world. I mean the guy combines toro with caviar. I doubt very few restaurants/chefs in the US could pull off this over the long-term (key phrase) - really only the big names like Keller, Achatz, Masa, Urasawa, Ripert, Boulud, and probably David Chang and José Andrés (probably missing a few names and limiting to US-based chefs). Trotter couldn't do it in Vegas with Restaurant Charlie. If any of those previously mentioned guys opened up a 4-spot chef's counter (where they actually cooked - yes, very hypothetical), it would sell out one or two months in advance of the first day taking reservations/tickets. I still see open dates for Saison right now on that seatme website.
Again, not looking to start any NYC/SF/any other city debate. I wish Chef Skenes all the best. I hope I'm lucky to try out his cooking one day.