The definition of “restaurant” is changing in these challenging times.
You’ll find more and more chefs branching out to cook one or two nights a week at tucked-away, re-purposed, rented venues — a more economical, and less risky move these days than contemplating the debut of a full-scale establishment all on their own.
That’s just what Executive Chef Joshua Skenes is doing at his Saison restaurant in San Francisco. The tiny, 25-seat space is open only on Sundays for two dinner seatings, but is expected to add Saturday dinner service in another month or so.
It opened in July in a historic stable next to the Stable Cafe. The cafe is not open on Sundays, but rents out its rear dining room for special events. Skenes had already been renting the cafe’s kitchen to prep his gourmet sandwich cart, Carte415, which he operates 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays inside the lobby of 101 Second St. in San Francisco. The cart features a different sandwich, salad, soup, Greek yogurt parfait, and housemade beverage daily. It’s Skenes’ answer to a fresh, healthful, good-tasting lunch on the go.
Since he was borrowing the cafe’s kitchen regularly, it wasn’t long before he got the idea of operating a restaurant there on weekends. He opened Saison with friend, Mark Bright, a notable wine consultant who at age 21 joined the sommelier team at Bellagio in Las Vegas and began working the floor at Aqua restaurant there.
I first met Skenes seven years ago. The then 23-year-old was chef of Chez TJ in downtown Mountain View, where he was turning out spectacularly elegant, big-city dishes in a charming, yet far from cosmopolitan, setting just doors away from a brew pub. I still remember being astounded by a prix-fixe course of sashimi, cut like tiny jewels, and served with aged Japanese soy sauce. To say I was blown away by that meal is an understatement.
So I was not the least surprised to hear shortly thereafter that celebrated Chef Michael Mina had made the trip all the way from San Francisco to dine at Chez TJ. He was so floored by his meal that he whisked Skenes away to open Mina’s Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort in Monarch Bay in 2005.
Hearing that Skenes was back in the Bay Area, my husband and I decided to splurge on dinner at Saison a few weeks ago. Reservations are taken one month in advance to the day. You pay in advance through PayPal. The four-course dinner is $70 per person, and $40 more for wine pairings. An automatic 18 percent gratuity is added. Bright is very generous with the wine, too, coming back to refill glasses that are emptied.
You enter the restaurant through two massive stable doors that take you down a long driveway.
Glasses of bubbly greet you as you check in and wait outside to be escorted to your table.
You are led through the large kitchen first to get a glimpse of the preparations going on for the meal. Sous vide machines gently cook vacuum-sealed bags of this and that, while cooks put finishing touches on amuse bouches.
You’re seated either in the garden patio surrounded by colorful blooms and a lush lemon tree, or inside amid modern art work. Servers wear jeans and button-down, cotton shirts. Tables are bare, dark wood; the chairs are your garden-variety slat type. But the stemware is Riedel, and the plateware as fancy as any white-table-cloth establishment. I’m a girly girl who admits to liking the opportunity to don a glam cocktail dress now and then. But I have to say that there’s something kind of freeing about sitting down to a high-end, uptown meal in a down-home setting.
The first clue to the level of finesse you’ll be experiencing comes with the amuse — a quencher of tiny melon balls, gelee, and a peeled, teeny cherry tomato. Yes, peeled.
That’s followed that evening by Skene’s slow-cooked egg in the shell with creme fraiche and Osetra caviar. Dig your spoon all the way down to hit the liquidy yolk. Its metallic-taste and unctuous nature combine with the rich creme fraiche and salty caviar for languid luxuriousness in your mouth.
Next, local spot prawns done crudo-style — raw, and drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice, and piment d’espelette. The incredibly sweet prawns have a delicate crunch that gives way to buttery tenderness. I could have eaten seconds.
Airy white foam covers the top of a white porcelain cocotte, obscuring what’s underneath. It’s a surprise package of tender red sea bream wrapped in greens. Dig deeper into the smoked butter bouillon to discover bits of sea urchin, along with the unexpected textures of tiny croutons and barley. It’s an amazing combination of ingredients.
Another surprise awaits with the Marin Suns poularde, a young hen, whose breast is served cunningly with foie gras, which has the same exact hue. You stick your knife into what you think is chicken, only to find it slide effortlessly through the rich slab. It’s trompe l’oeil on the plate.
Dessert is a perfectly textured lemon thyme panna cotta that’s soft, smooth, and just solid enough. Tiny thyme leaves are sprinkled on top for a burst of welcome herbaceousness, along with icy berry granita, and fresh blackberries.
Each diner goes home with a package of the restaurant’s shortbread cookies. Flavored with lavender and sprinkled with sea salt, they’re floral, buttery, and savory. You’ll be hard pressed to stop at just one.
Skenes may be redefining what a restaurant is, but it’s a good bet that diners will embrace this new concept. After all, what’s not to like about ending an evening well spent, as if you just left a garden party thrown by a good friend who can really, really cook?