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First Bite: Saison Does Fine Dining Without the Fineries

In the ongoing trend of chefs thinking outside the box, Saison—a Sunday night “restaurant” put on by Kris Esqueda, former Michael Mina sommelier Mark Bright and chef Joshua Skenes—has been luring diners from all over the city to a urban-cool space tucked behind the Stable Café in the Mission District. Skenes is now taking reservations for weekend nights too (reserve for September 5, 6, 18, 19, 20, 25 and 27). For $70 you get four courses; add $40 for wine pairings.

Skenes is a classically trained chef that has earned his stars: As the chef of Chez TJ, the SF Chronicle awarded him 3 ½ stars; he also earned three stars from the LA Times as the executive chef of Stonehill Tavern—Michael Mina’s restaurant at the St. Regis resort in Monarch Beach.  Then he took some time off.

I dined at Saison last night—its seventh night of business. After waiting outside huddled around a heat lamp for about 30 minutes, eavesdropping on people discussing their latest dining conquests (this is the kind of place lures restaurant conquistadors), we were sat at the “chef’s table” (so many quotation marks are needed to explain the new restaurant movement!). The table is a commercial kitchen stainless steel table, outfitted with dripping candles and French cookbooks, situated smack in the middle of the big, brightly-lit kitchen, between the dishwashers and the line lined with cooks. The other diners were in a small dining room set off of the kitchen.

From the truly sublime uni soup with a crostini smeared with uni butter, to a beautifully plated liver mousse with melon, to honey-roasted squab, served with the head split down the middle (pigeon brain has officially been added to my repertoire)—our courses were all expertly prepared. It was food that could have been delivered straight from a Michael Mina restaurant. Skenes, a really humble guy, served us personally, as part of our chef-table status.

But oddly, as someone who doesn’t adore fine dining, I felt myself longing for some of the fine-dining comforts—more professional service, a different space, a table not set beside an open door (I dined chez scarf). The novelty/cool factor  (as in “This is so cool that we’re sitting in the middle of the Mission District eating this food!”) was undeniable, but didn’t outweigh the disconnect I felt.

I'm not sure Saison is a sustainable venture, but it's answering something  that diners are searching for. Similarly, the excellent Commis in Oakland, Melissa Perello’s former Monday night venture at Sebo, and RN74, all have delivered the same recession-driven message: "Fine dining is dead. Long live fine dining!" Keep the food and wine (and general price point), but put the waiters in jeans, skip the tablecloths and ditch fancy space. I’m just assuming that while stuffier ventures might have seen their day for the time being, the shakedown is going to present us with a new genre of restaurant, that's neither Zuni nor the Ritz. Let's call it fine-enough dining.