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Accessible Nouveau Dining

Through giant stable doors, down an unassuming sand and gravel walkway alongside an 18th century carriage house, a sudden, perfectly-contained oasis emerges much like a secret garden. A blooming orange tree dominates the center, framed by walls of bougainvillea and a patio of large inlaid stones, while heat lamps radiate over smartly dressed couples holding hands and glasses of cava. A woman greets you with a smile and crosses your name off of a list.

Named for “season” in French, Saison is part of the increasingly popular, new breed of restaurant — one that isn’t really a restaurant at all, or at least as restaurants have previously been defined. This pop-up, prix fixe, fine-dining experience from Chef Joshua Skenes and Sommelier Mark Bright began in July 2009 as a Sunday night-only affair, with the recent addition of service on Friday and Saturday nights.

Reservations are taken one month in advance through their website, and the meal in its entirety — including 18% gratuity — is paid ahead. When 25 guests enter the intimate back room of the Mission’s Stable Cafe for a five-course menu created solely for that evening, they are alleviated from any other responsibility than to dine.

Saison strikes a difficult balance between theatrics and sincerity, and the dining experience feels intensely personal. It’s not just walking through the open kitchen to get to your table; nor is it the invitation, at any point in your meal, to walk into the kitchen, talk to the chefs, and see for yourself what is being prepared.

At a recent Sunday seating, one by one, diners were called by name in the staggered order of arrival and led through the gleaming industrial kitchen to a more subdued, white-walled dining room, where painted rafters offered a gentle reminder of the building’s historic past.

In place of white table cloths and stuffy service, Saison favors rustic wooden tables and servers sporting white, untucked dress shirts and jeans. A communal table runs through the room’s center but chairs are generously spaced, sparing bashful diners from forced interaction. It’s still elegant, if a bit bare; still fine-dining, but simplified. The focus is on the food.

Early Girl tomato gelée boasted Galia melons and peeled tomatoes painstakingly crafted into perfect spheres, each mouthful an alternating burst of sweetness and acidity with the resinous warmth of anise. The slow-cooked Sonoma egg in Dashi broth foam with caviar, chives, and butter that followed played up the opposite end of the spectrum; at once rich, salty and unctuous.

A sashimi-style flight of fish served to cleanse the palate, the incandescent slivers meticulously arranged into a still life. Fresh, clean flavors dominated, though decorative flecks of puffed rice and nasturtium muddled a few of the more delicate bites.

Scallop in sea urchin jus with caviar and chard resonated with the silky, sweet richness of the sea, while a beautifully seared Monterey Bay abalone came smartly nestled on a bed of braised greens — an unobtrusive stage for the seafood’s firm, meaty texture.

Our entrée arrived as slabs of perfectly pink Paine Farm Squab with roasted beetroot, fresh watermelon, and huckleberry. The skin’s delicate crunch was matched only by the bird’s exquisite meat beneath it, both robust and tender. Tangy yuzu ice cream in citrus soup signified a brawny finish to the evening, with its coffee-infused olive oil dotting the surface of the bowl.

Details like the warm artisanal bread and VOSS water (sparkling or still) were not overlooked. And though difficult-to-pronounce ingredients and complicated techniques abound, the menu maintains a playful sense of improvisation, simultaneously ambitious and approachable.

This is not to say this restaurant is without problems. Too often, the wait between courses was too long, and on one occasion, a table even lapped us, getting their fifth course before our third, swiftly bashing the building mystery of what was yet to come.

Some servers were remarkably less informed than others about the dishes at hand, and though the silverware was briskly cleared after every course it was not always replaced without reminder. French-press coffee had to be pointedly requested, and half of the room was ushered out without receiving their mignardises — small cookies often served at the end of the meal.

Those who find value in volume may find the portions small, even by tasting-menu standards, and at $70 for the five-course tasting menu, the price is steep. However, any hesitation toward the optional $40 wine pairing should be abandoned, for the “tastes” are not prim offerings, but healthy pours of well-selected wines so continuously replenished that you may leave without ever seeing the bottom of your glass. Drinking diners are often more forgiving, and the generous beverage service bevels the serious lag in the kitchen.

There’s an honesty to the Saison experience that pairs well with the novelty, a feeling of inclusivity and exclusivity, as if your passion to know good food and the chef’s passion to create it have somehow together willed this space into being. Saison may play with what we’ve come to expect from a restaurant, but it hasn’t failed to deliver great food, good service, and a pleasurable meal.

Market-driven French
Reservations Essential? Yes