The restaurant has only recently reopened after a major renovation that turned the former pop-up into a permanent restaurant open five nights a week. Outside, a stone wood-burning hearth has been built on the brick patio. "Ember cooking coaxes out this subtle sweetness and depth of flavor that gas doesn't," Skenes explained. (For more on the hearth, see the video below.) Inside, the entire kitchen was redone with equipment like a Moltini stove that doesn't have any open flames. Both his kitchen and his food play with that interesting juxtaposition of ultra-primitive and ultra-modern.
An example: leeks roasted in ash, served with chewy slices of conch and conch vinaigrette. The leeks were sweet and tender and pretty much unmodified other than having the outer, ash-covered layer removed. But the presentation was far from rustic, with slices of conch and leek arranged in an oversized bowl with a tangy foamy emulsion on top. Despite the primal fire cooking, there were a lot of tweezers out in the kitchen when it came time to plate stuff.
Another fun aspect of the food at Saison is Skenes's approach to making the most flavorful food he can by "harvesting a little piece of nature," i.e., looking at what grows around an ingredient in its natural environment and pumping up its flavor with those things. (Daniel Patterson does a similar thing at Coi, as we learned when we talked to him about his carrots-and-hay dish.) Our favorite dish of the night was a good example of this. A super tender abalone seared on the stove was served with "coastal herb sauce" made out of the plants from the coastline such as wild lettuces, nettles, and sea beans. Some artichokes and capers echoed the briny tang of the sea and a sea bean was draped over the top. It was a mouthful of ocean. Sommelier Mark Bright paired it with a South African Sauvignon Blanc that was citrusy, thymey, and super crisp.
We sat at the chef's counter in the kitchen, where we got a good view of the action, but the dining room also looks straight into the open kitchen. It has wooden chairs that look like they came from a fine woodworker, banquettes upholstered in slightly coarse and rustic blue fabric, and white paint on the open beam ceiling. The whole place has a definite farmhouse vibe, which suits the location, tucked in the rear of a building behind a café. You have to walk in through a gate and down a little gravel side yard to get in.
You could tell this incarnation of Saison was only a few weeks old, and not entirely in its groove yet, but it's one of the most ambitious places we've seen crop up in a long time, so it will be interesting to see how it grows. We'd like to come back when it's really in its flow, sit by the hearth under the orange tree, wrap up in one of those blankets, drink a glass of wine, and see what's cookin' in the fire, and what else Skenes has up his sleeve.