THIS year, two restaurants in San Francisco did something that should have been done a long time ago - they broke the monopoly that Napa Valley restaurants The French Laundry and Meadowood enjoyed for years as the only three Michelin-starred restaurants in San Francisco. Now, both Saison and Benu - two vibrant, creative modern eateries - have achieved the highest honour in the Michelin guide, bringing some of that bonus glitter to the city's dining scene.
At Saison, the three stars is a validation of chef Joshua Skenes' fiercely independent-minded cuisine that looks appropriately on-trend on the surface but is actually grounded on the very basic tenets of cooking: fire and aging. For the martial arts-trained chef, the goal has always been simple: just to make the best-tasting food with the best available ingredients. But everything else in between comes from his own thought processes and obsession with technique and execution. While awards were never an incentive, he sees it as a validation of his efforts. The three stars is "a significant milestone and of course something we are very grateful to achieve".
A recent meal there proves that he is very much at the top of his game, with every diner enjoying variations of a menu, that, if you give them carte blanche, is a roll call of the best seasonal produce California has to offer, executed with his signature precision and respect for nature.
From their own farm comes the sweetest smoked red Jimmy Mardello peppers on a bed of whipped buttermilk, while their own potatoes are fried and dolled up with Oscietra caviar, in broth made of potato skins. Barely cooked lobster is plated with yuzu cream and lightly vinegared seaweed that boasts purity of flavour; while Battle Creek trout fillet is layered with jellied roe and topped with a whisper-thin crackling of skin, with bone vinegar made with the fish bones that has none of the bite of vinegar but a sweet mellowness instead.
The list goes on: Monterey abalone slowly cooked over the fire, Fort Bragg sea urchin layered over sourdough toast soaked in a Bovril-like sauce; root vegetables served with a sauce made of sea cucumber innards, and more. There is a certain austerity that is Japanese-like but "I've never looked at it as Japanese-inspired because it's flavour that we are after and ultimately the enjoyment one derives from eating the food. I'll use flavours from anywhere if they taste good to me. Most chefs simply cook the way they like to eat and this happens to be what I like to eat. Delicate, deep flavours, aromatic, balanced - all, of course, things that are commonplace in Japan. However all of the ingredients you will consume at Saison are from the Bay Area. The seasonings, the seaweeds, the fish, the preserves, etc."
Now that the excitement of the three stars has quietened slightly, chef Skenes is full on into his next project - not another upscale designer eatery but the direct opposite.
Skenes is teaming up with Adam Fleischman of the Umami Burger group to open Fat Noodle - a fast casual eatery that sits perfectly with his enthusiasm for Chinese food. Before he chose cooking as a profession, chef Skenes was a qualified martial arts instructor and spent time travelling through China so it's a cuisine he's well familiar with.
"Fat Noodle was created because it's a type of food I love to eat," says chef Skenes, adding: "Now I have somewhere to eat after work. "
He also has another option: Les Clos - which is a venture by Saison partner Mark Bright, who is the equivalent of chef Skenes in the wine and sake department. In addition to curating Saison's wine list, Mr Bright runs his own wine business and recently opened Les Clos just a stone's throw from Saison in Townsend Street. The casual wine bistro is helmed by chef Shawn Gawle, Saison's ex-pastry chef who actually didn't start out working in sweets. With a background in the hot kitchen and experience working in Joel Robuchon's L'Atelier restaurants, he brings a keen flair to Les Clos's tiny but well-curated menu of simple French fare.
With a precision honed by his pastry-making experience, chef Gawle turns out light, crispy-airy chickpea pancakes slathered with tapenade; gooey bone marrow mopped up with crusty bread; creamy mussel stew with a heady scent of saffron; excellent head cheese and light-as-air potato gnocchi - all washed down with a comprehensive range of wines and sakes in every budget.
Les Clos is close to the heart of Mr Bright, who explains the concept as "simply myself bringing the experience of Burgundy that I love and miss when I am not there to the diners of San Francisco and California. It's basically my living room and exactly the place I would love to eat and share Burgundy with other people!"
Obviously, this is an ethos he shares with chef Skenes. With the upcoming Fat Noodle, diners know that whichever restaurant they choose, they're assured of food that's polished and real, just like the owners behind it.
178 Townsend Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 Tel +1 415-828-799
234 Townsend Street, San Francisco, CA 94107
No reservations for parties under six people