While there has been a trend in recent years toward a minimalist dining experience—there are still diners who are willing to pay a premium for an ultra high-end, over-the-top experience. Restaurants (think Hakkasan and Roka Akor) spend big bucks on architectural and interior designs intended to wow. And the food must match the thrilling ambiance and push the envelope in its own way.
This unusual restaurant from chef Joshua Skenes opened several years back as a once-a-week, pop-up in a Mission café known as The Stable (at the turn of the 19th century, the space served as a horse stable for the mayor of San Francisco). It eventually became a permanent spot under the name of Saison, offering an elaborate—and very expensive—tasting menu with an optional wine pairing.
Saison recently moved into a much larger and more attractive space in the 1888 California Electric Light Company Building at 178 Townsend Street in SOMA. After a reported $2.8 million kitchen and dining room remodel, the restaurant is now open for business.
The 4,000 square foot space has an open floor plan, exposed brick, 35-foot high timber beams, a six-seat bar and lounge, and a dining room with an open view of the kitchen. Skenes spared no expense on the custom blown glassware and refined dinnerware; he spent $100 a piece for hand-etched water glasses and $300 for each porcelain dinner plate by Hering Berlin. Ten $8,500 walnut tables, custom-made by Original Timber of San Francisco, and $1,000 walnut chairs, by Hans J. Wegner, warm up the big, industrial space, along with antique cookware and cookbooks, which adorn the many side tables.
It’s difficult to describe the chef’s style of cooking. While he employs foragers and even rents land from a farm in Marin to source and grow local ingredients, he also has no qualms about flying in rare and hard-to-procure proteins from around the world, such as blue-wing sea robin.
Skenes and business partner/sommelier Mark Bright—along with a staff of 24—serve only 18 guests at a time. The pre-fixe (the only available option), ever-changing menu offers diners 18 courses for $298, plus an optional—and recommended—wine pairing for an additional $148. Assuming you have a drink at the bar, you and a companion should plan on spending well over $1,000 for dinner, making Saison the most expensive restaurant in the Bay Area—exceeding even the price of The French Laundry.
The whole experience is highly artistic and theatrical. The diner is, at best, only a spectator and must submit all control to Skenes and his staff, who will dazzle him or her with their creativity. Guests who arrive late will miss out on courses, as the kitchen must maintain strict control of plating and timing. Saison has a beautiful custom-made hearth, and nearly all of the dishes incorporate some fire-cooked element. The blue-wing sea robin is gently seared with a hot ember and then draped with a gelée made from fish bones and topped with fried kelp and herring roe. Other courses might include Parmesan custard or green peas with a sauce of grilled pea shells.
The experience lasts approximately three hours and can be a bit daunting, if not exhausting. At Saison you are paying a premium to experience Josh Skenes’s vivid interpretation of his own cuisine, using the most radical and pristine ingredients he can procure—a concept which some diners will embrace and others will not. Open Tuesday through Saturday, from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m.
Now open in the Ferry Building, in the old Culinaire Cookware Antique store, Bouli Bar is the brainchild of Boulette’s Larder owners Lori Regis and Amaryll Schwertner. The 50-seat space has been completely made over with long, blonde wood tables, a variety of fancy light fixtures, and an exposed industrial ceiling. The earth tones and muted grey colors throughout the space create a soothing, Zen-like retreat from the bustle of the Ferry Plaza Market hall. The menu is less complex than Boulette’s and focuses mainly on dishes cooked in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven.
Choose from a variety of pizzas, such as Lost in Translation (tuna, togarashi, cauliflower, lemon, herbs, sesame) or Baccala (salt cod, potato puree, roasted garlic, parsley). There is also an assortment of artisan salads (most of the ingredients are sourced from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, right outside the door) and mezze plates served with house-made pita bread. Open Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Recently opened inside the historic Gramercy Towers, Osso Steakhouse, owned by restaurateurs Jerry and Jennifer Dal Bozzo, is set atop Nob Hill, and it’s a trip back to old San Francisco. Everything about the place is vintage, retro, and with a strong art deco design. Jennifer mixed black and white, zigzag patterned floors, leather banquettes, etched glass dividers, and private booths bathed in a cool green neon light. After watching a lot of old black and white movies and being impressed by the staging, she decided that art deco captures the right look and feel for a classic steakhouse.
The kitchen is led by executive chef J.C. Becerra who specializes in bone-in, dry-aged steaks and an assortment of classic—even vintage—steakhouse dishes.
James Stolich’s CookWithJames.com provides regional Italian and Spanish dishes for all occasions. He has been featured in UrbanDaddy.com, AgencySpy.com, and Jenn Garbee’s intriguing book, Secret Suppers, about rogue chefs and their little known culinary lives.