We live in one of the great culinary cities of the world – and certainly the US – graced with many a Michelin-starred restaurant from Napa to the South Bay.
While I have dined at 30 of the 38 Michelin-starred restaurants in the Bay Area, and many more around the world, I’ve recently had a heavy dose of restaurants graced with this highest European accolade. In the last 8 weeks alone, I’ve dined at 1 to 3 Michelin starred destinations in Modena, Italy, Salzburg, Austria, Zurich, Switzerland, and A Coruna, Spain.
Coming home to meals at these two San Francisco Michelin-starred restaurants (two stars for Saison, one for Campton Place), I’m proud of our quality in the international mix – and that Campton in particular is half – or even a third – the price of the European restaurants.
SAISON, SoMa (178 Townsend St. between 2nd & 3rd Sts., SF 415-828-7990)
Granted, a $248 tasting menu (plus $148 for wine pairings) is such a steep ticket, I’d rarely be able to indulge – and certainly not on a writer’s income. But on a November visit to scout out the new cocktail menu at Saison, I was treated to a ten course dinner, and was frankly, blown away in a way I never was in the original Saison in the Mission, much as I loved that setting. Entering the new space, one faces a wall of wood logs, high, industrial ceilings, brick walls, open kitchen, and cozy nooks established with sectional mini-couches in the bar.
With its two Michelin stars, I couldn’t help but recall three and one Michelin-starred restaurants I’d just had the privilege to dine in days before, having just returned from a three week trip in favorite countries, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland.
Dining here, my expectations were in check, not necessarily high. But by the end of the meal, I was proud of my hometown as interpreted through Saison.
Though there are too many fantastic restaurants in San Francisco to count, Saison has a global sophistication about it that immediately impresses. Chatting with Head Bartender Chase White (who was a chef in the kitchen at the original Saison), reminded me of conversations in any of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world as we discussed favorite restaurants, cities and bars around the globe. Executive Chef Joshua Skenes’ cuisine is forward-thinking, made with perfect precision and technique, service is impeccable, and the knowledgeable palate of staff like White is blessedly worldly and experienced.
The dishes begin to arrive and it’s array of complex flavors in surprising iterations, properly sized so as to ensure fullness but not gluttony. The first seven courses on my visit were seafood, a fascinating round of dishes like amberjack (“coal-kissed fish”), subtly kissed with coalfire and cherry blossoms, topped with radish and plum paste. A sliver of Japanese mackerel is briefly placed over the fire, crispy with herring roe and feather boa kelp in a delicate vinegar broth made from mackerel bones. With vinegar bite and smoky-silky fish, the vivid flavor of roe and of-the-sea comfort of kelp meld into a fascinating whole.
My favorite seafood dish was a lively trout roe custard of custard and roe swimming in grilled fish bone stock (are you picking up on a bone theme here?) contrasted with brightness from “ember preserved” (roasted) tomatoes and a little tomatillo gelee. While that dish was the pinnacle, Monterey Bay abalone “roasted over the embers” (embers and fire are the other common theme) is almost meaty and hearty, accompanied by a little bowl of abalone liver broth.
Chef Skenes creative sensibilities are showcased in combinations like black cod poached in coconut oil, dotted with the red flesh of sweet blood limes and a crispy garnish of paper-thin plantains. But it’s savory duck liver toffee, a mousse-like mound, that pushes through the stratosphere, a bewitching dish that could be both brilliant entree or dessert simultaneously. The silky liver mound is complex with dehydrated olives and caramelized chocolate bread crumbs, topped with milk and dark Bavarian dunkl beer foam. Grapefruit segments hide beneath the mousse, like winter-bright surprises, while a 1968 Boal Madeira makes for a lush, nutty pairing. All together, it’s a bit of ecstasy.
Two courses of dessert from Pastry Chef Shawn Gawle end the meal with the vibrant burst of raspberry marshmallow sorbet (the freshness of a sorbet, but textured like fluffy marshmallow) and Meyer lemon curd, herbaceous with basil. This is followed by a candied black walnut souffle, apples and ice cream, partnered with a honey-sweet glass of 1975 Sauternes that takes on a layered, funky sweetness with black walnuts.
White’s cocktail menu is draw enough. Paired with a couple plates, the bar is an ideal way to check out Saison without the full price tag. There’s decadence for the taking in the case of a $58 cocktail (!?), Le Parcoco, using the best of the best. Del Maguey Pechuga mezcal is the pinnacle of the great mezcal line made in the classic pechuga style where a chicken is hung, dripping, over the still for a day while spirituous vapors condense into a clear liquid. The Pechuga’s citrus, earth and smoke is tempered by Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, given lovely bitter-sweet backbone from Campari and orange bitters, topped with Krug Grand Cuvee Champagne. It’s sheer decadence.
The rest of the cocktails are a pricey $18, a price that is still lower than cocktails in many major cities in the world – thankfully the quality and taste is high. Rather than named, cocktails are numbered, covering a range of flavor profiles. Recently, No. 1 is a vivacious, clean Daiquiri-esque blend of Plantation 3 Star Rum, with the purity of young coconut water and lime. This is the kind of drink I’m almost always in the mood for. White uses the Perlini Carbonation Cocktail System to carbonate the No. 2 with subtly bitter Byrrh Quinquina and California-produced Margerum amaro, sweet vermouth, and orange.
A vibrant standout is the rosy red of beets in the No. 4, a wonderfully earthy-bright concoction with Chamucos Reposado tequila, Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, orange juice, lime and a savory, spicy perk from Memphis BBQ bitters.
In the No. 5, Elijah Craig 12 year bourbon and lemon gain mystique from buttery-salty notes of grilled popcorn and salted caramel. These are the kind of cocktails I seek out: classic in ethos and technique (read: balanced, harmonious), yet inventive, challenging to the taste buds, even fun.
That description applies to the food as well. So excuse me as I dream of scooping up another bite of that lush duck liver toffee and toasting with a Le Parcoco in hand.
CAMPTON PLACE, Union Square (340 Stockton St. between Post & Campton Place, 415-781-5555)
Only in London have I been able to find a wealth of upscale, inventive Indian fine dining, along with curry houses and casual eateries. We have our share of chaat outposts, dosa destinations and curry houses from SF’s “Tandoor-loin” (Tenderloin) down to Indian-dense Santa Clara. But across the US – even in NYC where I enjoyed restaurants like the now-closed Tabla – there’s been little in terms of upscale Indian cuisine similar to what one finds in London at longtime restaurants like The Cinnamon Club.
Campton Place has been the fine dining restaurant of the Taj Campton Hotel for over 20 years. Though I’ve enjoyed meals in the spare, refined dining room every couple years over the past decade, my latest visit this December was the best yet. Executive Chef Srijith Gopinathan is creating some brilliant French-and-Indian-influenced dishes blessedly strong on Indian flavors from various parts of that massive country (one of the great food countries I’m still dying to visit). The seamless service team is a strong as ever, attending to each need thoughtfully yet unobtrusively.
Vibrant amuse bouche and palate cleansers like lime ginger ice dotted with edible flowers or a savory-sweet avocado, arugula, and green apple foam confirm that this meal is alive with flavor… and not easy to pair wine with. Thankfully, Campton’s wine pairings are in the hands of Master Sommelier Richard Dean and Director of Food & Beverage Rahul Nair. Dean was one of the first master somms in the country and is expert at complicated pairings, often focused on small producers, like the charming porcupine label of a 2012 Sergio Mottura Grechetto from Umbria, Italy, paired with Spice Pot, or a small production 2009 Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain Cabernet paired with lamb.
On the current regular menu ($70 for 3 courses, $95 for 6), Spice Pot “chaas” delighted me with its North Indian chaat-inspired flavors of tamarind, cilantro, carrots, sugar snap peas and potatoes inside bhel puri, and little puffed rice, swimming in a flower pot filled with yogurt. As the dish is set down on the table, liquid nitrogen around the base of the pot emits an atmospheric smoke. This dish is a prime example of the playful refinement with which Chef Gopinathan interprets Indian cuisine.
On the current Spice Route menu (a worthwhile splurge at $95 per person), a course of grilled cauliflower, kale leaves and grapes is gracefully touched with Meyer lemon milk and tart tamarind, paired with the mineral crisp of a 2011 Laurenz V Gruner Veltliner from an engaging Austrian winemaker I became acquainted with over lunch back in 2011.
On the regular menu is butter-poached Maine lobster tail surrounded by rolls of thinly sliced sweet potato, and edamame fennel vada (South Indian fritters/fried balls). Sitting in a curry of coconut, the lobster is accented by turmeric and tamarind, carrying coastal breezes and decadent luxury in each bite… not unlike another lobster gem of a dish up the hill at 1760. Seafood is a continual strong point, whether blessedly medium-rare scallops over an exotic yellow madras potato curry, accented by brussels sprout leaves and turmeric foam, or tender Atlantic Black Cod slow-cooked in a toasted shellfish (lobster, shrimp)and black rice crust.
Meat is likewise touched with a golden hand, particularly on the Spice Route menu. Tandoori quail is crusted in Hunter spice, a roll of juicy meat next to a pool of tomato curry, the highlight being an oozing, fried quail egg ravioli. Dean’s pairing of a 2011 Charles Audoin “Les Favieres” Marsannay has just the right acidity to contrast the richness of the egg.
Slow-cooked lamb rack crusted in a panch phoran spice mix (a mix including cumin, fennel, nigella, black mustard, fenugreek seeds) is surrounded by mounds of pine nut pilaf, pineapple nage (pineapple poached in a broth of white wine, herbs, vegetables), and Bloomsdale spinach.
Post-dessert, a small mug of cardamom-laced hot chocolate arrives partnered with mini-toasted marshmallows, while the mignardise platter is graced with seasonal pleasures like cardamom rosemary brown butter bread and pumpkin macarons.
Fine dining has diminished enough in recent years of strained incomes and a declining economy, but Campton’s current menu makes a case for keeping it alive: not as a stodgy remnant but a stimulating, international journey of flavor.