At Saison, chef Joshua Skenes' $398 "discovery menu" is not only one of the most exclusive eating experiences to be had in San Francisco - if not the U.S. - it's also one of the most intimate, with just eight hand-designed wooden tables filling out the high-ceilinged dining room. In early 2013, the critically acclaimed restaurant moved from its far humbler location in the Mission to this innovative space that manages to be luxurious and opulent without being over-the-top stuffy. Plush throws, pillows and gorgeous handcrafted plateware from all over the world decorate each table. But there are no white tablecloths, and most of the servers will actually entertain a joke. The fully exposed kitchen means the preparation of each dish is just about as transparent as it can be. Diners witness freshly foraged herbs as they're tweezed onto fire-cooked vegetables or black truffles shaved into perfect rounds to form the brackets of a liver mousse "sandwich." Earlier this month, Zagat tasted through all 20+ courses to bring you this window into the escapade. Note that wine pairings for each course add $248 to the bill, but the restaurant has explained that the price of the meal can be tailored to a party's preferences. Is it worth every penny? You decide.
The restaurant is designed around a marvelous open kitchen, which is in full view of the restaurant's eight tables. Diners watch as their courses are constructed and interact with different members of the kitchen and front-of-house staff, who alternate bringing the dishes to the table to explain the intricacies of each dish. Although the ingredients are the best in the world, the service style is friendly and makes for a more intimate and educational experience.
A taste of white sturgeon caviar is served over sturgeon belly that's been cured and smoked on kelp and a gelée made of the grilled bones. This dish shows Skenes' desire to amplify and enhance the purest essence of a particular flavor by using all of its components together in innovative ways.
Sea bream is barely kissed by the coals in the kitchen's open hearth, so the fish maintains its pure flavor. The bream is served with a quarter-size dollop of monkfish liver and a delicately fried cherry blossom leaf.
These slices of horse mackerel are gently pickled and served over thin slabs of rye toast.
Kelp-cured golden-eye snapper is gently warmed under the coals and drizzled with vinegar made from the bones.
Local abalone is roasted "using an old fisherman's method" over the embers and served with a sauce of the liver and capers. This abalone was easily the most tender we've ever eaten.
A generous amount of brilliant orange Fort Bragg sea urchin comes on a slab of sour Tartine bread that's soaked in "sour bread sauce." A delicate portion of river vegetables and wild fennel are hidden under the urchin, and a light brush of soy touches the fish.
Golden trout roe crowns a viscous bowl of cured grated Japanese mountain yam and cultured vegetables for one of the most texturally surprising courses in the meal.
Asparagus is poached in its own juices over the embers, then grilled with green garlic.
Dungeness crab is topped with a robust gelée made from its shells. A cluster of grilled sea greens in a seaweed vinegar sit on the side.
A tender artichoke heart is stuffed with scallop and grilled, served with a wild thistle barigoule.
One of the more surprisingly flavorful dishes of the night, this celeriac is poached in smoked water and served with some herbs from the restaurant's farm in Marin. The spicy broth adds an Asian element to the flavor profile.
Buttery Parker house rolls garnished with sea salt are a homey surprise addition to the table.
"White asparagus royale" is served with foam and perigord truffle sauce
Toffee candy made from duck liver is served with layers of milk (via a light ice cream), bread and beer. The result is both rich and naughty. Note how the bubbles in the foam match the bubbles in the plate, a type of textural detail that recurs throughout the meal.
A decadent black-truffle sandwich "cookie" holds a layer of chicken liver, grilled pecan honey and pecan powder.
A wood-pigeon tourte is accompanied with sunchoke and sunflower seed butter and a sauce made with coffee beans. A coin of pair gelée cuts the richness between bites.
Dry-aged beef is grilled in a bed of hay and served with carrots that have been hung over the fire for a few days and then rehydrated with carrot juice - the ultimate roasted root vegetable.
This citrus dessert looks deceptively simple, but contains a lot of labor to create the buttermilk marshmallow sorbet, hibiscus noodles, confit Buddha hand, granita from blood orange, bergamot, Meyer lemon, grapefruit and sour orange, and the frozen cells from those fruits that all sit atop a light syrup-soaked birds' nest. It's all drizzled with coffee cocoa nib oil then topped with lemon thyme and rosemary blossoms.
This perfectly puffy black-walnut soufflé is surprisingly low in sweetness.
Black-walnut ice cream comes with the black-walnut soufflé, adding a comforting sweetness and temperature contrast.
Milk chocolate ganache mignardises are flavored with fresh spearmint. These are served with tartlettes of Meyer lemon and poppy, or sometimes with chrysanthemum and kumquat.
These chocolate truffles look rustic but hold an incredibly elegant pure liquid center of Jasmine tea.
Still more dessert: these are textbook French canelés - custardy and caramelized - served in a box made of cinnamon - a play on the "canele" moniker, which also means "cinnamon" in French.