reservations


The entry to Saison

Words and photography, Jesse Jackson IV | jesse@ndlo.co

I have found dining at Michelin starred restaurants to be as different from a more standard dining experience as watching a film in the cinema is from watching on your couch. While I haven’t done it as often as I would like, I have had the opportunity to do so more than I ever expected, and each time I am struck by the difference in pace, expectation, and execution. A neighborhood bistro requires a certain number of patrons each night to keep the lights on. As a result, while it may or may not be explicitly stated upon arrival, the restaurant wants your table back after a couple of hours have passed. There are various techniques employed by the maitre’d, the kitchen, and your server to expedite your departure; some utilized more skillfully than others, but ever present.

My wife and I tend to prefer to secure the earliest possible reservation, to idle over our meal – perhaps drink a bottle or two of wine, and think long and hard about dessert. Due to this predilection, we have experienced a wide gamut of these techniques and have made a game of giving the other a nudge when we see them in action with a fellow patron. That said, we remain acutely aware of the justifiable needs of our preferred establishments and do our best not to overstay our welcome.

A view of the table
Towards the kitchen
By way of contrast, as a guest at the few Michelin starred restaurants I have had the pleasure of visiting, I have been made to feel as though I were their only priority for the evening. Rationally, I understand that the reason this is possible is due to the profit each table returns, thus allowing the focus to shift from turning the table to delivering the best experience possible for the duration of time the guest desires. It is to the benefit of the restaurant that this tends to coincide with the cries of submission emanating from the wallet or handbag of the lucky so and so footing the bill for the evening. Emotionally, however, that understanding does not detract in the least from the impact great hospitality can have. There is also an element of reversal of roles that I find to be fascinating in these elevated dining environments.

In certain contexts, the relationship between server and patron veers uncomfortably close to lord and vassal. The patron says jump, with the understanding that the livelihood of the server is in some small way tied to their willingness to reply how high. This imbalance of perceived power can lead to uncomfortable situations in which the server is forced to either reestablish proper boundaries or be run over. Through the years, I have gained an appreciation for the fact that for some, captaining a server team or presiding as maitre’d is an aspirational goal, and the best are often found in Michelin starred establishments. Here, while exceptional service remains the goal, the server is akin to a sherpa, guiding her guests towards the mountaintop with a mutual understanding that she knows how best to help her guests get to where they wish to go. This exotic unfamiliarity allows guests to relinquish control and to be transported towards their desired summit - a sublime dining experience.

Tea Service
Bergamot.

Upon being seated at Saison after entering from Mission Bay, my dinner party and I were handed heated towels with which we were to wipe the dust from our brows and sweat from our hands. The simple luxury of a warm towel was quite welcome after having braved the famously vertiginous streets of San Francisco, the ritual washing of hands a meditative moment that aided our transformation into dinner guests ready to be transported into the world of Saison.

As an early piece of amusement for the evening, one of my dinner companions issued a challenge to the party, requesting someone among us to name the scent infused within the towels. After a quick moment of reflection, it came to me – bergamot. In a touch characteristic of the dining experience to come, the towels with which we were expected to prepare our hands for our meal were scented with local herbs from a nearby market, and primus inter pares were the bright, citrusy characteristics of bergamot. This sensory awakening continued with the tea service, which directly followed the clearing of our warm towels. The tea, also sourced from the local herb market, was an enchanting mix of jasmine and mint – the freshness of which was evident in the potency of the flavor, enhanced of course by being served in proper china. Having no preconception of what to expect based on the reputation of the restaurant, clues were being laid as the service progressed.

Americano
Agarapart
Before coming to the matter of the food, I desired something to further whet my appetite. My go to aperitivo is a toss up between the Americano and the Campari soda, depending on whether or not the taste of sweet vermouth will overpower the ensuing course. A strange take, to be sure, especially given the bitter taste of Campari could be said to be even more powerful than that of sweet vermouth, but I find it a wonderful palette cleanse. Campari soda was in order for this particular evening, followed swiftly by a bottle of Agrapart & Fils a Avize Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs to further prepare our palettes for the wine to follow.

Seaweed and Caviar
Seaweed and Caviar
Served alongside our champagne was the first course of the evening, a dish combining roe, peas, and seaweed, with a pea foam as the base. Afterwards, we had a bottle of 2020 Suerte del Marques Listan Blanco, a beautiful white wine made with palomino grapes from the Valle de la Orotava, in Spain. The mineral, slightly acidic quality made it a lovely pair to our next course, a sashimi of locally sourced fish.

Suertes del Marquez
Fish
Accoutrements
Dish
A beautiful riesling
Prior to our next course, the next pairing was presented - a 2019 Hans Wirsch Iphofër Kalb Silvaner, from Germany. The minerality of the terroir was immediately apparent in the wine, and the full bodied nature of this bottle stood up well to the course with which it paired, a beef and charred asparagus dish accompanied by various reductions. By this point, I was too.. inebriated isn’t perhaps the right word, but certainly immersed in the evening, carried along by the heady mixture of being in such a special place while reflecting on the antecedent tour through wine country with my traveling companions.

Table vibes

Prior to our next course, the next pairing was presented - a 2019 Hans Wirsch Iphofër Kalb Silvaner, from Germany. The minerality of the terroir was immediately apparent in the wine, and the full bodied nature of this bottle stood up well to the course with which it paired, a beef and charred asparagus dish accompanied by various reductions.

Even after setting the intention to have no expectation of the flow of the meal, I nonetheless had subconscious feelings about the manner in which things would progress over the course of the evening. Being a wine enthusiast, I anticipated a steady progression through any number of bottles from the best local producers, with a nod to the French added here and there. One may imagine my surprise when, alongside the bottle of champagne, our table was presented with a sake cooler with half a bottle of sake chilling over ice. A surprising turn, but one that made total sense considering the service to that point – keeping us as guests on our toes.

Sake Presentation
Imbibing
Sushi
By this point, I was too.. inebriated isn’t perhaps the right word, but certainly immersed in the evening, carried along by the heady mixture of being in such a special place while reflecting on the antecedent tour through wine country with my traveling companions.

I have long vacillated between a desire to be precise in the description of events as they happened versus evoking the way they felt, irrespective of the particulars. Oftentimes, this tension manifests in specific ways; for example, there is no reason to name by producer and vineyard the wines we drank, along with tasting notes; a bottle of white wine is descriptive enough, considering that you, dear reader, are unlikely to go purchase each bottle mentioned to check whether or not they would make a good pairing with the course I describe, and yet I insist on the naming of each.

By way of contrast, my descriptions of food admittedly leave much to be desired for the itinerant gastronomist reading the work. Practically speaking, this dichotomy exists because the methods involved in the preparation of the food presented to me exist beyond the ability of my vocabulary to describe them. Due in part to this knowledge gap, I am able to disconnect intellectually from the food and to instead engage sensually, emotionally - the same way a diner in a Michelin starred restaurant for the first time may - in order to determine whether yes, I like this, or no, I don’t, with no care as to whether or not I should.

Sake Presentation
Imbibing
Sushi
Sake Presentation
Imbibing
Imbibing
Imbibing
Imbibing
Anyone who has had the good fortune to sit and enjoy a coursed meal, especially one with drink pairings, recognizes a particular point during the service when the sheer ammount of food catches up to you. You wonder if you'll be able to finish the food as it is presented, but it tastes so good that you do everything in your power to press on. I certainly reached that point during the evening, but the company (helped along greatly by the wine) carried us through to the end, and a few post dinner digestifs served us well in to the night.

Imbibing
Imbibing
Imbibing
Imbibing