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Best of the Best 2013: Dining: Saison

Photo by Bonjwing Lee

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Saison (415.828.7990, www​.saisonsf.com) is the ultimate tribute to the power of the pop-up. In a little more than two years, it went from a weekly $70 prix-fixe dinner in San Francisco’s Mission District to a full-fledged restaurant that earned two Michelin stars—despite its location in a chilly barnlike structure. In February, Saison made its latest leap, reopening in a historic brick building near AT&T Park with a kitchen and 18-seat dining room outfitted to the specifications of its chef and owner, Joshua Skenes, and his partner and sommelier, Mark Bright.

With the move, prices for the 18- to 20-course dinner increased from $248 to $298, plus tax and tip. Wine pairings add another $148, making it one of the most expensive tabs in the United States. What diners pay for is the immense creativity of Skenes’s menu, much of it fueled by fire. The small courses come out with the timed cadence of a metronome over a period of three hours—three hours of total bliss. Pumpkin mousse topped with smoked caviar and garnished with a translucent amber sheet of dehydrated pigeon jus arrives in an etched goblet. Blue-wing sea robin is topped with a sheet of amber gelée and a delicate cluster of fried kelp with herring roe clinging to its branches. A crudité of lettuce leaves and vegetables, some dehydrated over fire, is arranged in a bark bowl with anchovy paste on the bottom; diners are told to forgo utensils for the dish, and waiters bring warm towels at the end.

The meal ends with a pot of fire-roasted buckwheat tea accompanied by oatmeal macaroons, a square of rhubarb gelée skewered with a silver toothpick, and a truffle with a liquid center of Earl Grey tea. The combination evokes a Zen-like serenity, at least until the check arrives.