San Francisco's luxe hunter-gatherer experience

Remember that 1980s television show Fantasy Island, where a man dressed in white made visitors’ every wish come true? Saison is the culinary equivalent — a customized and luxurious hunter-gather fantasy dining experience in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood.

Chef Joshua Skenes and his team source the best produce from anglers, ranchers and organic farmers, and then regale diners with dishes that showcase each ingredient to its advantage. It’s an elemental dining experience where your meal is cooked over an open flame and you eat with your hands. Yet there are exquisite details — like the housemade sakura salt or the delicate dishware with kintsugi-style veins — that tell a story.

The cuisine is matched only by sommelier-partner Mark Bright’s beverage program that showcases some of the world’s best wines and rare spirits, including a bottle of Chartreuse from the 1800s.

Saison is a place where you’ll find yourself wishing that time could slow down so you can savor every moment.

Our Inspector's Highlights

  • Prepare to be pampered by a whole team of polished and engaging service professionals. Rather than having one person catering to your needs throughout the evening, you’ll find that service is a team sport at Saison.
  • There’s no set menu. Before your reservation, you’ll correspond or speak with a member of the restaurant’s service team so it can craft a dining experience that satisfies your personal tastes and preferences.
  • The produce here is exceedingly fresh, as much of it comes from the restaurant’s two-acre farm in western Marin County, just outside San Francisco. On a recent visit, the bounty included mizuna and red leaf lettuces, purple mustard, orange calendula blooms and milk from Saison’s brown-and-white cow named Vibrance.
  • An evening at the San Francisco restaurant is filled with fine details that have personal meaning to the chef. You’ll be offered a selection of handmade hunting knives from the Skenes’ personal collection to slice your steak, and he has stories about all of the trophies of bighorn sheep and deer adorning the walls.
  • While Saison’s level of cuisine and service place it in the top echelon of dining establishments in the world, it’s far from formal or stuffy. Exposed brick walls, piles of firewood in the entry and an open kitchen that hums with activity keep things feeling cozy — and don’t be surprised to find yourself singing along to Michael Jackson, Madonna, Don Henley or Hall and Oates on the playlist.

Things to Know

  • The brightly lit open kitchen resembles a stage, and if you really enjoy seeing the chefs in action, then request one of the handful of kitchen tables that flank the hearth and the custom Molteni range.
  • Get ready to play with your food — at least a course or two is served sans utensils. You may find yourself choosing ingredients to build your own lettuce wrap or gingerly eating a buttery morsel of bread crowned with sea urchin by hand.
  • For an intimate glimpse at Saison’s cuisine, foodstuffs and environs before your visit, follow chef Skenes on Instagram (@jskenes). His feed has become an insider’s go-to timeline for the fine-dining restaurant.

The Food

  • Tasting leeks cooked in embers was a revelation for Skenes, and cooking on an open flame is central to Saison. Our dinner began with the flavors of smoky roasted pineapple in a lobster lettuce wrap and ended with smoked cream and fire-smoked caramel studded with cacao nibs.
  • Nothing goes to waste here; the chefs find a way to use every part of an ingredient. In one course, we enjoyed roasted pronghorn antelope loin that arrived at the table on a sizzling brazier, followed by a white soup tureen that opened to reveal a gleaming grilled antelope bone and aromatic bone broth seasoned with a tiny sage leaf.
  • While Saison has been described as American-French, the menu constantly evolves — these days the dishes feature many Asian touches, such as the cherry blossom salt that is served with the lettuce wraps. And Skenes lets his Southern roots show in the flaky spice-dusted biscuit served with house-churned honey butter and housemade pumpkin hot sauce that accompanied the antelope.
  • Seafood lovers will be in heaven: Saison has tanks stocked with live abalone and lobster, and sublimely fresh shellfish will be a part of your dinner if you desire. The chefs work with fisherman along the California coastline to source the best sweet sea urchin and brown box crabs, an unusual delicacy.

The Drinks

  • Say yes when you’re asked if you’d like to start the evening with champagne — it’s often Krug’s Grande Cuvée served in custom Zalto stemware. Then comes a nosegay of herbs, including anise hyssop, marigold and mint steeped in a vintage teacup to cleanse your palate.
  • While restaurant partner and wine director Mark Bright is devoted to the wines of Burgundy, he believes in pouring the best possible beverage to accompany each course. That might mean a seductive Margaux, like the Château Malescot St. Exupery, or Enter Sake Shuhari, a rare junmai daiginjo from Kyoto that tastes like drinking a floral-scented cloud.
  • Besides its extensive list of top-flight spirits that are widely available, Saison has a knack for acquiring vintage bottles from distilleries and breweries that are no longer in existence. Japanese whisky aficionados will want to inquire about The Joker by Hanyu or Rising Sun single malts, and rum connoisseurs will want to try the 1915 Rhum Clement from Martinique — it tastes like bananas Foster in a glass.
  • The purveyors of the cocktail program source ingredients with the same rigor as the kitchen. While the menu changes often, an example of the well-crafted offerings is the exotic Smoked Heart, which employs Cardamaro, a wine-based cardoon amaro that is infused with charred artichokes.

Reservations required
Valet parking
Getting There
178 Townsend Street, San Francisco, California 94107
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