How much is a meal worth? In certain parts of the world, say Taipei in Taiwan, I could buy two black pepper pork buns on the street, packed with flavor, and get stuffed for only $3. So why would I go to Mume, in the same city, and pay $100 to achieve a similar result (i.e. getting full)? Because it gave added value, of course, and a culinary experience beyond that of a tasty, yet simple piece of baked bread filled with meat, greens, and spices. Where is the limit, though? When is the bliss not worth the bucks? I believe that’s individual, and to a large extent dependant on your wallet. Equally important, however, is the feeling you get from the total experience. My personal limit was breached at Saison in San Francisco.
The 2nd Most Expensive Meal in America
So, where does Saison rate in the world of expensive meals? Ever since they raised their price tag to $398 before taxes for the set menu, they’ve been featured on top lists somewhere between 6th and 10th place – depending on whether you count taxes or not and take the wine pairing menu ($298) into consideration. Most lists agree, however, that Saison is currently the second most expensive restaurant in the USA, topped only by Masa in New York. We ended up paying $626 per person (a total of $1253), and that included nothing more than a glass of Champagne each to start, two cocktails, a fairly cheap bottle of wine to share ($128 compared to a retail price of roughly $40), and Chemex-brewed coffee. At that price level, I expect to be beyond amazed.
Money Can’t Be an Issue
Without my determination to spend most of my money on eating at the best restaurants in the world, I couldn’t really afford such an extravagant meal. More importantly, though, it didn’t feel like it was worth the cost, despite the fact that it was an excellent meal per se. Saison should have been a restaurant I would want to tell the world about – and it’s on my map of favorite places in San Francisco! But the point is, that to truly enjoy it, money can’t be an issue for you. Because there are far less costly and, at the same time, better meals out there. I’ve had my share of expensive meals before, both at Noma, Maaemo, and Geranium to name a few, but they always left me with a feeling of satisfaction afterward – that my money was well spent. Saison did not. I’m all for paying your employees well and using high-quality produce, but in the end, you still have to make it worth the while for the guests. When Maaemo, in the not-so-cheap country of Norway, is half the price for twice the amount of servings and with much more complex dishes, there’s something not right.
Our Dinner Course by Course
I’ll take you through the meal course by course – they are all pictured in this review. The amuse bouche was a cup of tea, or tisane to be precise. Elegantly presented in a lovely porcelain cup, but in the end, it was just a cup of hot lemon water and herbs to clean your palate. Roast kelp in butter, baby spinach, and fermented proprietary caviar was the first real course. A dish that felt unique, at least, with a new and exciting flavor to the caviar. I loved the military colored presentation in rough ceramics. The next dish came in two servings. First one was a miss – the slices of raw turbot were probably not cut along the muscle fibers properly, which gave the fish a slightly chewy consistency. The condiments on the side did not lift the flavors. The second part, on the other hand, was delicious. A sort of fish wing made from turbot head meat. It reminded me of the turbot ribs we’ve had at Noma and Pjoltergeist.
Course no. 4 was a local spot prawn. Not the amazing quality I had in Dénia, Spain, but still good. Remember to suck the brains out before you throw away the head. A lesson I learned the hard way at Quique Dacosta. A serving of Korean radish and clarified butter was tasty – possibly served in a Norwegian bowl called “Siri” from Hadeland glassverk (not confirmed). Next up was my favorite bite: uni on liquid toast. Sea urchins on top of a bread pudding of sorts – made from toasted Tartine Bakery sourdough bread that was basted with a juice made of the leftover bread, browned butter, and egg yolks. Salty, umami-rich and with a heavenly caramelized sweetness. Possibly a contender for my list of the best 25 dishes of 2017. So far, the meal was largely pleasant.
Then came two main courses that seemed designed to make us full, quickly, being basically just protein. Although the quail was perfectly grilled, it got a bit dull after three bites, when all we were eating was half a bird. Antelope came with a reduction sauce, plus biscuits and honey butter on the side (which I found a bit weird as a pairing). Sure, antelope is a rare meat, and it was presented and cut tableside, but it didn’t feel like a three-Michelin-starred dish. We also got a broth from the roasted bones afterward, but sadly, it wasn’t all that tasty and not really what I craved after all this meat. A shot would have been okay, but not a full soup bowl.
And just like that, we ventured into the final part of our dinner. Smoked ice cream with salted caramel, accompanied by candied pecans, peanuts and a few more nuts that I can’t remember. The second, and last, cold dish was an orange buttermilk creamsicle (a mix of ice cream and sorbet) served inside a hollowed orange. Compared to the apple at Noma, which was a far more sophisticated and elegant serving, this brought memories more of a home-cooking party trick I once performed myself. The orange came with marinated blueberries (the not-so-blue-inside American type) and fresh kumquats on the side. Not to be eaten together, really, more of a separate snack. At least coffee was included, but there were no further petits fours. I enjoyed both desserts, but it felt like a sudden ending.
Enough Pleasure to Justify the Pain?
Our host was fresh in his job at Saison, only a few months in, but otherwise experienced. Maybe that’s why he was a bit stiff and seemed almost nervous. We connected better with a smiling waiter named Mike, who had been at Saison since the very beginning. In fact, he told us that Saison started out as a pop-up restaurant eight years ago, and moved quickly on from one to two, and finally three stars. According to sources who have dined here regularly, the menu used to be much longer (and at the same time cheaper). The magnitude of a 2015 Saison meal is illustrated in this article by ElizabethOnFood, with the full 18 servings, compared to our 10. Pete Wells of New York Times asked the question back in 2013: “How much are we willing to pay for an extraordinary dinner?” and furthermore: “The issue is whether Saison delivers enough pleasure to justify the pain.” His answer back then, when the menu cost $298, was yes. For the $398 menu today, my answer is no. Chef Joshua Skenes apparently spends less and less time at Saison, and more hosting dinner parties in Sonoma, and indeed his presence was missing this evening too.
What’s the most expensive meal you ate? And was it worth it? Please share in a comment below.