Simplicity equals sanity, that’s what a book on Elise’s night stand said when we started dating back in the RISD grad school days.
A book that 6 years later came to life with our meal at Saison. There is no other place like Saison to understand the simplicity paradox explained in that book: a meal that at first sight looks simple, with excellent flavors, but delivered all the complexity that only can be found in a handful of restaurants in the World.
But let’s start from the beginning. Saison was the center of the conversation by most of our food friends: Fantastic, excellent, you have to go, you know nothing until you go, blablabla. With the expectation level set, on our first trip to the West Cost we knew exactly what to do.
The expectation bar was raised even higher after a memorable dinner early that week at Aubergine in Carmel by 2013 New Chef of the Year. What an incredible way to showcase California! products, The energy that the staff at that place radiates is hard to compare to anything. I can’t wait to go back and stay there for a weekend.
Saison has gone through quit an impressive evolution, starting from a pop up in the Mission District, to one of the most astonishing spaces I can remember. This visit was for the newly open restaurant in SOMA. The space is like no other, tables are laid out around the open kitchen — it’s an evolution from the counter tables restaurants that are popping up all around NY. The tables allow intimacy and at the same time a great view of the whole kitchen flow from the prep stations, fire pit to the final assembly. The only “but” to this type of set up is that, since the tables are at a lower level than the kitchen, you can’t really see what is going on top of the kitchen counter.
In a similar way to how our first meal at Noma changed the way we see Nordic cooking, Saison changed the way we see cooking in US. Skenes departs from the French or Italian influence that can be seen typically in NY restaurants and reminds us more of our trip to Japan. Meticolous plating, great ingredients, fire and perfect balance of flavors reminds you more of eating at Ishikawa in Tokyo than in San Francisco.
As in User Experience Design (what Elise does) or product design, less is certainly more at Saison, through a “thoughtful reduction”: No need for unnecessary flowers, espherifications, plating on the top left corner of the local sourced pottery, or crazy sauce splashes. Skenes cooking is just pure and honest flavors, Flavors that at some point disappeared through my childhood, but came back to me through this dinner, perfectly defined. But this is not only about flavor, what made this dinner great was how the flavors came together, achieving a dimension that only a brilliant mind like Skene’s can create. A sensation hard to explain with my broken English (I would need to go back with Elise so she can explain better) but in the meantime, no other better way to explain it that with pictures: Dinner started in the best possible way, with some Krug by the bar where you could see how the table was being set up. After that we were moved to our table for three memorable hours.
It’s hard to highlight any dish better than other. Our waiter kept coming asking if we liked each of the dishes, and after the second one we asked him to shut up, as he already knew our answer was going to be YES!, some of them left us speechless. I have to say this guy probably had the easiest possible job — to ask how was food as Saison.
The sea cucumber or Espadrena was possibly one of the highlights of the nightas it is a very Spanish product. It was served in two passes, the first one the skin fried as a chicharon, with egg yolk, just something I never seen before: a chicharron that tastes like the sea. The second pass, the actual sea cucumber, extremely tender and fatty ( in Spain the texture sometimes tends to be more like squid ) but what made it memorable is that fatty flavor combined with cucumber and innards sauce, making the main ingredient acquire a different and intriguing taste.
Another highlight was the abalone dish over its liver with artichoke consommé — sublime, earthy and marine flavors. The abalone liver is like a natural concentrated seaweed. In fact the female liver is a neon green color from the seaweed filtration. Note that the male abalone liver on the other side is light brown. Here you can find both liver side by side from a recent trip to Japan:
Fortunately, we came during the truffle season so when we were asked if we wanted to add truffles to the tasting, and we couldn’t say no. Extremely intense white truffles were shaved on top of Koshihikari rice and Parmesan. Great smell, intense flavor but probably a dish out of context in the overall dinner. The Truffles although excellent overpowered the rice flavor, that acted just like a mere driver and we couldn’t differentiate the tastes. The truffle dish felt like the Bang & Olufsen remote controls, that are intentionally heavy ( they add weight), so people can get the sense of “high quality”. Sometimes the high quality can be found in just white rice, with no need to intentionally add any “weight.”
Don’t be fooled by Saison’s seemingly simple surface, nothing in this restaurant should be qualified as simple. Every detail is perfectly prepared by Josh, one of the best at organizing the nature in a meaningful way. Saison is not only about great ingredients, excellent service or their signature fire pit, but how all that come together. As many had said before –probably the best restaurant in US; an eye opener meal in a restaurant called to redefine the food scene.
178 Townsend St, San Francisco, CA 9410709
In case you are curious, the book that Elise had on her night stand was The Laws of Simplicity, by John Maeda. It is an exploration into the importance of simplicity, structured into 10 laws. These laws can be applied to design, business, economics and why the hell not to cooking
Here there are the first three:
1st Law: Reduce The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction
Maeda offers a concise method for working with this law called SHE: shrink, hide and embody.
2nd Law: Organize Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
When you can’t reduce and hide any more, organize what’s left into something meaningful.
3rd Law: Time Savings in time feel like simplicity.
For example, the iPod Shuffle music player shrinks time by removing song selection from the process of playing your music tracks — simply hit Play and the device will play songs at random. In the same way restaurants now have moved to tasting menus, and even removing menus from their websites, why dinners need to spend time choosing what to order when the per on that knows better is at the other side of the counter.
You will need to read the book the check the other seven….
for a bit more … Here is something that was very inspirational to Elise while at RISD grad school: John Maeda’s Ted Talk on Simplicity. Link Here
On a side note I am sad to report that Mr Maeda is leaving RISD for a new role back in the Tech and design world. He will be missed!