Saison for special occasion?

I usually leave the posts about high-end Michelin dining in the Bay Area to the tourists, but my wife has a special birthday coming up in September and I’d like to take her out for an equally special meal.

I’ve drudged through the many polarizing posts on the old Chowhound forum and feel as though I’ve gained little insight; opinions seem very strong and fall at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Here’s my position - I’m trying to get beyond the ‘value’ angle because once we’re splurging on an expensive and indulgent meal, I’d prefer to focus on the most unique and comprehensively enjoyable (subjective) choices, informed by the ingredients, flavors, subtleties, and aesthetics, over the abstract relation to cost and getting the most bang for buck.

I have read a number of critiques that seem to evaluate the merits of Saison based on the cost of the meal. Without getting too far gone, the problem that I have with this, is that such evaluations are not necessarily evident without additional, complementary forms of data. For instance, I’d reasonably expect that most (average) individuals couldn’t afford regular outings (weekly/monthly) to a restaurant like Saison, and therefore presumably save the experience for exceptional occasions. As a result, opinions tend to be colored by how comfortable individuals are spending at a certain price point, rather than presenting an impartial review of the most fundamental factors, as outlined above.

I’ve already committed to an exorbitant night out with the missus. We don’t do it often and as such, I’d rather not factor cost into the equation, as I don’t believe it’s relevant to the enjoyment or experience. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’m trying to decide whether Saison is the place to go.

I get the sense (right or wrong) that it’s similar to the modern kaiseki kitchens of Tokyo; places like RyuGin, etc. From what I’ve read, focus seems to be on the purity of flavors in highlighting ingredients rather than showmanship in the kitchen. I tend to enjoy this approach more than experimental molecular magic tricks.

My wife’s favorite restaurant in the country is EMP and as such, I was also considering Crenn as an alternate. I want to stay in the city, so Meadowood and others aren’t an option. She’s primarily a pescetarian (she goes for chicken when she’s in the mood, provided it’s ethical, free-range, etc) and our meals in Japan were among her favorite dining experiences of all our travels – Ryukin, Sawada, Ishikawa, Ginza Okuda, Yoshitake, Gion Yata, Kamigamo Akiyama, Kitcho, Hiranoya, Negiya Heikichi, Fujiya1935, Kahala, etc. Surprising, as she ate many foods outside of her comfort zone.

Not really sure where I’m going with this… I’m swaying back and forth, between Saison and Crenn. Benu’s also on the table, but it seems to be more fusion-y and it looks to feature less wife-friendly ingredients; ie. not as seafood based as the others. That said, I can be swayed.

I’d just like to get some feedback on all of the above options, with merits and flaws weighed against one another. I know that my wife would enjoy the open dining room at Saison most of all. She’s really into cocktails too. The disappointing reviews on Chowhound are really the only thing that has me second guessing our options.

I know this is a tired topic and I apologize for yet another one of “these kind” of threads. I’d greatly appreciate some input however.

Thanks!

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Added perspective: at least one guy on the “other” forum claiming Saison is the best restaurant in the U.S. right now, while others are accusing the kitchen of perfunctory and overly precious platings of filler courses, ie. 3 pieces of asparagus woven together by floral arrangement.

haven’t been to Saison since they raised their prices (after their 3rd star) but even at the old prices i left underwhelmed and bored after the 3 (?) times that i ate there. perhaps cocktails there followed by dinner at say Mosu/ Quince (good cocktails- ask them for the old fashioned with Pliny the Elder) / Benu. The last time i was at Crenn, dinner took so long that it became excruciating. ymmv. PS. i did stop a couple times to eat at the bar at Saison but the food selection at the bar is quite limited and not particularly memorable except perhaps the lobster sashimi, if they still offer it, and the strawberry & sabayon drink. there is also the exorbitant new sushi place Hashiri, haven’t tried (and probably never will, at those prices) but your wife might like it (you can do drinks at Perennial beforehand, or AQ).

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Thanks man. What did you find boring about Saison; dishes just weren’t creative or interesting?

I don’t mind long drawn out meals as long as the service isn’t lacking. If there isn’t exaggerated lags between courses, I actually find it fun on occasion.

Were you otherwise impressed by Crenn? How would you compare to Saison and Benu, if there’s any correlation?

BTW, I was just offering the Japan restaurant analogies because I saw similarities, real or imagined, between the style and menu of Saison. Her favorite meal to date was at Eleven Madison Park. I’d say that sort of menu, preparation and presentation would be most rewarding in her book, which is why I was looking to Crenn over Benu.

Aside from the length of dinner at Crenn, I quite enjoyed the whimsy and creativity there (on I think 3 separate occasions), which I did not find at saison. Benu is more Asian than Crenn, and while not every dish was a home run, a few of their dishes were quite stunning imo (several visits, but none after their 3rd star). I suppose you could also try his new place in the SF MOMA, although I don’t have high hopes for it after several disappointments at Monsieur Benjamin. PS. Coi under their new chef is heavily seafood oriented and quite competent, but more classical French than Crenn. If you do go to Benu, your wife might enjoy drinks beforehand at Hakkasan, such as their snap pea drink, tomato julep (b.y.o. tomato ), or room temperature whiskey cocktail.

This is a stretch but my first meal at Petite Crenn about a month ago was by no means luxuriant, but very satisfying, and vegetable / fish centered, and there’s a nice plating and prep show if you sit at the counter (though if you’re in the backless stool seats are incarnations of hell camp, then nevermind)

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Thanks for the details. I’d love to try Benu but the current summer menu features beef rib, quail and frog’s leg - not really geared towards the missus and probably less than ideal for the occasion. I just don’t see my wife really enjoying a lot of the dishes. Based on your feedback and the polarizing opinions that I’ve read on just about every other blog and review site, I think we’ll most likely dump Saison and stick with Crenn. I’ve heard through the grapevine that their wine list is somewhat colorless and uneventful; was that your experience? Also, out of curiosity - was the length of your meal effected by sub-par service or lack of timing and precision in the kitchen, or would you say it’s just the languid pace of the restaurant?

The place in SFMoMA seems pretty redundant to me… it’s essentially a restaurant that’s focused on chef-driven menus without a chef-driven kitchen and devoid of originality. It’s a concept menu with no concept. I just don’t get the watered down “best of” approach; it seems very gimmicky to me. I mean, I’ve eaten at so many of the featured restaurants countless times (Au Pied du Cochon, Joe Beef, Toque, Commander’s Palace, Momofuku Ssam) and others at least once or more (Commis, French Laundry, Tartine, Sant Pau, Osteria Francescana, Ryugin, Fujiya 1935, Gion Sasaki) that I don’t understand why anyone would want to sample what’s surely going to amount to second-rate variations, devoid of context. Very few of the courses would make for complimentary pairings with one another. I’d personally rather wait and anticipate visiting these restaurants in future travels, then eat conceptual facsimiles of haute-cuisine in a museum cafe. Obviously, not my thing. :slight_smile:

Maybe we’ll go for lunch on the same day, just for fun. :slight_smile:

Is it pre-fixe all day, or do they offer a la carte lunch menus?

I’ve been meaning to check it out.

At Crenn, we abstained from wine so can’t comment. If you can get a reservation for when they open (5pm), preferably on a less busy day, you might have a faster meal, at least that has been my experience.

(Deleted)

We’re going on a Tuesday to coincide with her actual birthday but I couldn’t get a res before 8pm. I think there’s a 5 or 5:30 res but that’s way too early. I was hoping for 7-7:30.

Please take the following with how many ever grains of salt you deem appropriate . . .

Random thoughts/comments on the original post:

While I have eaten at any number of very expensive restaurants, it is quite difficult for me to ignore the – again, for me – not-so-abstract relation between the cost of the meal and the quality and enjoyment of it. When the “outrageous” cost overwhelms the quality/enjoyment, my conclusion is inevitably either a) “not worth it,” or b) “glad I went, but I never have to go again.”

Been and Coi? Well, my wife¹ was underwhelmed by both and, for her, fell into the first category. Saison was in the second . . .

Atelier Crenn, OTOH, is a place we both love, BUT you need to be “into” her vision. Or as barleywino put it, [quote=“barleywino, post:5, topic:5651”]
whimsy and creativity
[/quote]

Those who are not, or who don’t “get” it, often shake their heads in disappointment. (FWIW, it’s never seemed all that lengthy of a meal to me, or rather, I never found it “too long.”)

I’d also look at places like Akiko on Bush and Omakase on Townsend – neither are as “fancy” as Saison, but the meal itself will shine. Quince is another, though not as much seafood-oriented.

YMMV . . .


¹ She has, for the past 35 years belonged to a “dinning group”; the four of them dine out once a month at some of the top places in SF and the Bay Area. When it comes to places like the OP is discussing here, I let her check them out first and then we’ll go together later. Since both Benu and Coi fell into the “not worth it” category, I will confess I have not dined at either one; while she liked Saison better than the other two but was so astounding by the astronomical price tag, I haven’t been there either. Some meals ARE worth (or, at least can be) that amount of money, but these in her opinion were not.

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Kusakabe is also now offering a higher priced ($150 iirc) omakase, although i haven’t tried it because i find their regular omakase ($100 or so) is filling enough. (whenever the price of omakase rises above $100 or so, i usually decide that if i’m going to spend that much, i would rather save my pennies for the omakase at Sushi of Gari (NYC)). or maybe just get a couple orders of iwashi and some Kubota 30yr daiginjo at Koo.

gives you time to partake in some drinks. you can always hang at the bar at Pabu and try their pistachio or soy sauce drinks.

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Thanks Jason; sounds like we made the right decision! I canceled our res at Saison this morning.

As for the cost:enjoyment ratio, I do understand. We spent close to 1k/person at 7-chome/nonochome kyoboshi in Tokyo several years back. It’s a tempura restaurant in a dingy looking space in Ginza and we were quite literally the only customers in the entire restaurant, which is understandable in retrospect. As much as we enjoyed our meal, which was undoubtedly the most sophisticated tempura we’ve had, it was still just tempura and very hard to justify at those costs. We didn’t feel there was any direct relation between cost and quality of ingredients, as was evident at high end sushiyas like Sawada. It was our most expensive and least memorable meal, looking back. Like you said, I don’t exactly regret the experience, but it’s not something I’d ever do again. Sounds like Saison probably falls under the same umbrella, so we’ll slum it at the bar one night, enjoy a few expensive cocktails and tiny bites of uni toast. If there was unanimous concensus on it being the greatest meal, I’d have kept our reservation, but Crenn seems genuinely more enjoyable and with the difference in cost, I’m going to book my wife a day package at the St. Regis spa, since she gets the day off work.

Kukasabe was actually the initial plan, but I’m sure my wife would enjoy Crenn far more.

You can also ask Pabu for their “secret” drink list. They might also still be doing their foie drink but the last time I tried it, they were no longer doing the foie garnish, which was a deal breaker for me

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hi!

I don’t get all the hate for saison. I see it even here – “bored” – don’t get it. I think some of that must come from the exorbitant price and expectations set by it. The flavors are rich, satisfying, interesting. Portions of rich items are small, focus on veg and fish is high, sauces are dashi / smoke style not cream style, which allows one to get through the meal pleasantly. The focus on wood and smoke is now very current. Dishes like Uni Toast have been widely copied. The best way to go into any restaurant is with slightly lower expectations, and if you come in with more of a “hey, at least we’re eating here once, I bet it’s not THAT good, heh heh”, you’d likely come away very surprised. So, I think - given the level of places that you’ve eaten at and stated ability / hope to look beyond the price, you’d have a good meal at saison. At least, I did. Did I prefer Saison 2.0 ? Yeah, kinda. Flight of Fishes and Brassica were earth shattering dishes.

Saison’s alcohol is great. The pairings are outstanding. They’re doing a lot of sake and beer and very much not in the big reds. I talked them into a “half pairing”, where I quoted the amount of alcohol I was willing to consume ( about a half bottle of wine during the evening ), and they thoughtfully poured only some of the pairings. When this works - when the wine guys gets into it instead of splashing the pre-decided pairings - it’s fully awesome and worked that particular night.

But given what you’ve said, I do think you’ve made the right choice with Crenn — but let me say one thing. In the 4-some I went with ( mom & dad, girlfriend & self ), every person was “squicked” by a dish. That is “WTF are they doing putting that on a plate??? It’s DISCUSTING.” Even me, and my ability to eat weird food is pretty high. There was one dish where the beef - kobe I think - into such a state that it was like a booger. I’ve not had anything like it, and almost choked. My girlfriend flat out refused to eat the carrots, which is ( I think ) the ones served on the dead tree branch and look like worms or pupae. Everyone one of us had a DIFFERENT dish that we hated. The experience was… unusual, to say the least.

She is - or was - doing the weirdest, most avant gard cooking. It is flashy, and technique. It is the menu that is lines of poetry and nothing about ingredients. It is arrogant and full of itself… and it’s a real trip. I liked it a lot, but I’m kind of intellectual and felt there was a thoughtful framework around what she was doing… a bit of french “F the bourgeolis, let’s storm the bastille”, but maybe I constructed that myself… and I know my dining companions were a bit mystified.

Alcohol at Crenn is less of a thing. The pairings aren’t that well tuned. Imho, you’re better off grabbing a single glass through the night, or sticking to water. I think she wants you to taste the food and not have your tongue and wit get bombed.

Coi - I went pretty recently, maybe it was early last summer - and I thought it was pretty good but my dad loved it. More than Saison. I think it was the fish focus. Manresa-ish in complexity of dishes.

Benu - I went on a weird night. I had gotten the tickets on a night my dad could make it, then he bailed at the last minute. Those tickets are non-refundable. It was also the week between Christmas and NY. But it’s more of a straight-ahead michelin 3 star experience than something crazy like either Crenn or Saison… and didn’t work for me. Lower dish complexity, missing a bit of that extra “something”, but great ingredients. Just felt - that particular night, again a weird night - more like a 2 star. I’m just giving them a mental do-over.

Let me put a word in for Lazy Bear. They’re in the same price range, but I think only 1-star right now. The food, IMHO, is closer to very high one star through two star, but either you like the “gimmic” or you don’t. I do. Watching all the other people at the communal table eat a single dish together, and talk about it, is really, really interesting. And the pre-meal lounge thing where you’re suggested to introduce yourself. It’s just such a different “thing”… the food’s not massively complex bangin’ like Coi / Saison / Crenn / Benu… they are doing dishes where they can make 50 at a time. And there’s fewer courses, so it’s something you can do without the full investment of a night ( 2.5 hours ). There’s a guy on CH - maybe he moved over here - that was massively vituperative against LB, said it was a fraud… I don’t think it is, and for the thoughtful diner, it’s worth a visit. Maybe it isn’t worth ALL the hype of selling out weeks in advance… but it’s an interesting meal experience.

Finally - I think one of the serious problems with this kind of dining is the attitude any diner brings on a given night. Most of us don’t want to have this kind of dinner often, so we try once, and bring our own baggage that particular night - such as, but not limited to, expectations. And heaven help us if the kitchen fumbles ( I once waited 45 minutes for a course at Manresa… and then received a little sliver of dried out meat… haven’t been back in years, even though I know I should give them a pass because on balance they are awesome - I’ve had a couple of the best meals of my life there - but I had brought my sister, and she still mentions it, so why shouldn’t I still hold a grudge? ). The non-professional reviewer has trouble sorting through the differences between their own experiences and what the restaurant brought to the evening - pros too, but that should be the skill and competence that professional reviews cultivate.

Anyway - I hope you have a good meal - and remember to set expectations low !

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Brian, what a fantastic post – one of the best I’ve read in a while! Thanks for the incredibly detailed feedback and insight. I tend to agree with you on most points and I’m also feeling quite confident that we’ve made the right decision this time 'round with Crenn. I’ve not yet been to Lazy Bear, although I’ve been to a number of David’s old pop-ups going back almost five years now. In fact, his was one of the first places I dined in the city (after Tadich and that place in Chinatown with the really diverse and regional fixed-prix tastings menus that I can’t remember the name of!) and I’ve always enjoyed the experience - and it is an experience; one that’s far greater than the sum of its parts! I’d be curious to check out his restaurant, now that he’s “established” himself. As for Saison, we’re going to hit the bar sometime this fall for some a la carte tastings and cocktails.

Here’s my thoughts on some of SF’s high-end. They’re all different and each deserve a proper review, but at the risk of overgeneralizing, i’ll just give my impressions off the cuff.

Saison - exquisite, inventive flavors, which are at once complex and pure. Very thoughtful progression. My favorite in the city. Yes it’s wildly expensive, but you know that already, and my attitude towards dining there is less about value/opportunity cost of how many more percent expensive it is than elsewhere, but more about “am I willing to pay what they ask for a fantastic meal?” i really think most of the criticism comes from issues about price and perceived value. someone eats the “fire in the sky” beet and says, “what the hell, I’m paying $500-$1000p/p and one of the courses is a beet?” well, it’s a beet dehydrated over fire then reconstituted with bone marrow, topped with pickled rose, and at times there’s been flavors of things like peach. so you have a beet that tastes like steak as a smoked, juicy vegetable mingled with the bright aromatic flavors of rose and peach. genius to me, but others scoff at it.

Benu - supremely technical, if a touch clinical. Menu exhibits flawless cooking technique, but aside from the pastry and dessert (which has been the most memorable part for me), it’s the technical cooking skill that’s admirable, in my opinion. Dishes like winter melon with chicken creme and caviar, or lobster/foie gras xiao long bao have kind of a 1-note trick to them, even if they’re executed well. service and experience otherwise flawless, even if decor feels dated.

Atelier Crenn - it’s been a while since I went (they’ve since got a new chef de cuisine, from Saison), but I thought it was largely pretty good but had the most misses. it’s big on presentation, and sometimes the food is quite good, sometimes it’s overshadowed by the pyrotechnics. it wants to be evocative and dreamlike, and at times it’s enchanting. the food isn’t always successful, though, and it’s sometimes baffling, but if you buy into her vision and let the experience take over it can be fun. the food is the most polarizing among people, in my opinion.

Mosu - sorry, i’m being reductive, but the menu really does feel in part half urasawa half benu. i liked the urasawa part better (things like toro wrapped around ankimo and pickled daikon with ponzu sauce). the Asian-New American hybrid courses weren’t as balanced in flavors, in my opinion (quail with olive, lemon, and bamboo). but it’s impressive at times, and still has a lot of room for growth in others. overall, good but young and promising if it gets more focused and retains the early momentum. experience is fairly cold and awkward, though, despite some professional service.

Hashiri - very good but isn’t top tier like other Japanese places which are similarly priced. mainly it wasn’t consistent, and sometimes it feels like there’s two kitchens going on. the kaiseki dishes were quite nice in presentation and thought but not at the level of the best kitchens in the country; the flavors were always a touch off - the ponzu gelee was slightly flat, the goma dofu was too starchy, the dashi was too thin in taste, ginger didn’t match the morels, etc. i’m nitpicking but it’s all relative - and i could immediately pinpoint better examples of near identical dishes. however, the nigiri sushi is very, very good, but the only let downs were the prepared neta - ankimo, anago, kohada, tamago…ironically, some of the staples. otherwise, the sushi is excellent and technically maybe some of the best in the Bay Area, but maybe they have a different chef preparing some of the neta and Mekaru-san is in a different league than the others. really excellent service but the experience is a bit mixed - i’m eating delicate kaiseki-ryori and there’s a huge mural of jimi hendrix holding his crotch and a bottle of champagne? i’m being tough on this place because i had some excellent sushi meals elsewhere right before and after (not in SF).

Manresa - i’ve really enjoyed this in the past but i’m not sure if it’s my most recent visit or their new style, but i felt like the style changed (my first visit since their new chef de cuisine). maybe i have to adjust my expectations, but it lacked the progression; it was more literal, and a little austere, as in: here is the sea (very briny and bitter citrus was interesting but not particularly delicious), here is the garden (very bitter and stripped down “naturalistic”), here is cioppino (very bright flavor), here is yuzu custard, etc… it’s a talented kitchen but i still think it’s definitely 2 stars, not 3. with that said, i quite like Manresa in the past so maybe i just got an off menu.

Quince - good and perhaps underrated, but if i visit quince, I prefer to splurge at the Salon with caviar and champagne instead of the tasting menu.

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