Saison – Some relationships go wrong from the start. Others fall apart over time. In either case, the reasons are usually clear to all involved parties. But there’s a third sort of devolvement: a collapse that comes out of the clear blue, seemingly without reason or precursor.
If I’m moved to complain about a restaurant (rather than just report various types of mediocrity; it’s a big world out there, with no lack of alternatives) it’s usually due to a mix of good and bad that clearly doesn’t have to be, a frustration with a place that should be doing better. The truly inexcusable is a very rare event indeed. And whenever I’ve encountered in it the past, it has been a holistic experience: a restaurant failing on every conceivable level. But with all that as preface, I’ve never been as baffled by a dining experience as that at Saison, a restaurant that serves fine, occasionally brilliant food and pairs it with the worst wine experience I have ever encountered. Ever.
Let’s back up. Saison is a restaurant of massive, naked ambition. Tucked into the end of a faux-rustic alleyway in a gives-one-pause Mission-district nowhereness, it makes quite a few demands on the diner: come to this out of the way place, eat what we tell you to eat at the pace we prefer (and at an extravagant price), and then spring for the taxi home.
That’s coupled with the star-quality (critics would add star-fucking) pretensions of the restaurant, in which a lot of useful space is given over to design elements, and in which the chef spends the last hour or so of service posing for photos with adoring fans, almost all of them double-X-chromosomed and many of them more or less blonde-at-the-moment. Nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as the restaurant delivers.
Which it does, from the kitchen, and thus the chef can be excused his posing and preening. It’s not, looking at a sample menu, entirely clear what the restaurant intends: California/pan-Pacific cuisine relentlessly upscaled, modernist/molecular extrapolation, or something in-between? Well, at least on my night, it’s much more the former than the latter, arranged as multi-course explorations of an idea more than a progression from taste to taste. There is unquestioned technique on the plates, and some of it isn’t exactly detailed in Larousse, but at very few points is one trying to puzzle out a strange transformation of form or substance. Mostly, things are recognizable, even when combined in odd ways.
There are, as with any meal of this type and ambition, missteps and imperfect ideas. But the great majority of dishes are at worst very good, and at best surpassing. Pacing is mostly excellent, delivered by a waitstaff that can speak knowledgably and enticingly about the food, and which has no problem going to the kitchen for a point of clarification when asked.
So if I could rewind the clock and go to Saison to eat, eschewing alcoholic beverages, I would be a wholehearted, perhaps even enthusiastic, advocate for the place. Even though it’s expensive and (one hears) about to get rather dramatically more expensive. Even though it’s a tough reservation. Even though it’s the exact opposite of “have it your way” dining.
Alas, I make the mistake of ordering wine…
There are, on the night of my reservation, at least two dedicated wine waters. I don’t know if they’re sommeliers or not (I restrict my use of that term to those with certification; a quirk of mine), but there’s one that’s clearly in charge and another that’s clearly his support. We get the in-charge one. At least until…well, let’s not jump to the end of the story quite yet.
The wine list is a little odd. It’s quite long, conspicuously expensive (no real surprise given the environment), and it has a fair number of prestige names, but even in that realm there’s a bit of discomfiting wrong producer/wrong vintage oddity, like a musician who knows all the notes to a famous song but has no idea how it actually sounds. When it roams afield, it picks up a substantial number of names I’ve never heard of. Now, I’m sure that’s most non-oenogeeks’ experience of wine lists, but it’s pretty unusual for me to look at page after page of wines and wonder, “who is that?”
Nonetheless, there’s plenty that seems worth ordering and from that subdivision I select two bottles: a riesling with a little age and a Rippon Pinot Noir with more, from an intriguing two-vintage vertical of a Central Otago wine that one doesn’t often see on American wine lists. I ask for the older of the two.
Champagne is offered as an accompaniment to the first courses, which are a series of musings around the idea of eggs:
Feuillatte Champagne Brut “Réserve Particulière” (Champagne) – Broad and uninteresting, its cute little apple and ripe lemon decorations ultimately adorning nothing of actual substance. (11/11)
It’s a decidedly un-ambitious Champagne for such an ambitious restaurant, but indifference to by-the-glass sparkling wine is hardly specific to Saison (at least it’s not Veuve). But then, the problems begin.
Another egg dish. Another pour of Champagne. Yet another egg dish. More refilling. At this point, I’d prefer the riesling I ordered, as I begin to wonder if it will be consumable by the time the meal moves into its red wine phase. There’s a multi-course pause (as the by now incredibly tedious Champagne continues to be resupplied), then the head wine guy arrives to inform me that the riesling is no longer available.
Running out of a wine is no big deal, of course. It happens. It would, admittedly, have been nice to learn this earlier in the meal, so an alternative could have been selected. But he has instead arrived with his own replacement, and it’s a very odd one given that what I’d wanted was a riesling. While I also appreciate initiative on the part of wine directors, and am more than open to suggestions from the best of them, I prefer those suggestions have either a relation to what I’ve tried to order or a firmly-stated justification for their substitution (appropriateness with the food, personal enthusiasm, whatever). Neither seems to be the case here.
Brocard 2008 Chablis 1er Cru Vau de Vey (Chablis) – Chardonnay. By which I mean: yes, it’s ostensibly Chablis, but really it’s just French chardonnay with a restrained hand on the manipulative tiller, in the very tiny pond through which the captain of this wine is motivated to navigate. (11/11)
I push back a bit, but at the pace with which wine transactions are happening, I fear that a request for the wine list will result in a long stretch with no wine at all. Thus, I take the path of least resistance and (reluctantly) accept the alternative. I can already tell that I’m not being listened to, that my preferences are being pushed aside by the wine waiter, but as my dining companion and I are having a generally excellent time, and as I’m in the mood for neither stridency nor argumentation, I let it go.
Despite not getting the wine I’d wanted, I am offered the opportunity to conduct 100% of my own wine service vis-à-vis the Chablis. This despite several pointed two-empty-glasses stretches in which the wine duo is standing motionless in front of a cabinet, doing nothing, and I’m doing my (fruitless) best to stare them down. In any case, eventually there’s no more of the mediocre Chablis, either, and I finally manage to flag the inattentive wine guy down and ask after my pinot noir.
Another long pause. A very, very long pause. Red meat has started to arrive, I know there’s not a whole lot of it before the sweet stuff takes over, and there’s still no wine on the table.
In the interim, I am offered yet another stopgap wine: a wretchedly oaky white Burgundy. Really? At this point I’ve had enough, and reject the choice, asking more insistently for the Rippon I’ve ordered.
More delays. I’m now eating game meats and really wishing I had some red wine. Finally – one sees it coming – I’m informed that the Rippon is also out of stock. The obvious thing to do would be to offer the other vintage as a substitute, but I strongly suspect it, too, would not be found. One begins to wonder, at this point, how much of the seemingly lengthy wine list is actually represented in the restaurant’s cellar. One wonders, more pointedly, why this information could not have been communicated much earlier in the meal.
But, as I now see, this has never been about my getting what I want. This has been, and is, about drinking the wines Mr. Wine Guy wants me to drink. A state of affairs to which I do not at all object, if 1) approached forthrightly, and 2) my preferences and reactions are actually considered.
Neither is the case here. The restaurant’s menu nudges one in the direction of a series of pre-selected pairings, but I’m only inclined to accept those if I trust the judgment of the selector. Which, at this point, I’m glad I didn’t.
The next make-up wine is announced as a Graillot Crozes-Hermitage. Well…hey! I like Graillot. Everything’s about to be forgiven, right?
But…but…wait. What is this over-concentrated, oaky mess in my glass? This can’t be Graillot, can it? It’s just impossible.
(maybe) Maxime Graillot “Domaine des Lises” 2009 Crozes-Hermitage (Rhône) – Heavy, woody, impenetrably dense, and dead-fruited; if certain financially semi-solvent Australian importers of past repute (and bacon-of-the-month clubs) had ever worked in the Rhône, this is the sort of wine they’d have sought. I’m given to understand that there’s a familial connection to the great Alain Graillot here; if true, this is an embarrassment to his name. (11/11)
Now, I offer the above note as half-speculation, half-sarcasm. It’s pure hypothesis, because I don’t see the label (assuming, as it’s poured, that what I’m getting must be the Graillot with which I’m familiar). But I simply cannot believe that the Graillot I know and love could produce this sort of monstrosity. Given a choice between concluding that the domaine has abruptly gone to hell or that Saison has offered me the relational alternative (or for all I know, something else entirely), I’m going to go with my palate. I cannot prove this, of course, which is why it’s a conditional note.
Additional glasses of Bizarro Graillot are not offered, either, so as the last few animal flesh courses come and go flanked by mostly-empty wine glasses (I admit to repeatedly going back to the wine, trying to figure out how it can possibly be Graillot), I’m torn between wishing someone would notice this and being glad they don’t. But when Wine Guy finally returns to the table and asks after the Graillot, I don’t hold back the full expression of my distaste. Nor does my dining companion.
Well – the proposal comes – how about a barbera, which will be (it is asserted) an excellent match for the interstitial salad? My exasperation is reaching critical levels, but at this point I’m a little desperate, and agree to give it a taste. Unfortunately, a “taste” isn’t offered. It’s just poured, in both glasses, and then walked quickly away. It’s an oaky, flabby monstrosity of a wine, and after a tentative sip the rest goes untouched.
Now, with two full glasses (as the last of the semi-savory courses disappears) providing the coda to what has been a series of increasingly disastrous interactions between customer and Wine Chief, one might think that some efforts towards recompense would be in order, and I start preparing the politest possible conversation I might have to accomplish that. I don’t mean monetary recompense, I mean: let’s have a conversation, Mr. Wine Guy, and figure out if there’s something on this list that I’d actually like to drink. Because at this point, I’m rather thirsty for something that tastes like wine rather than ego. But no. This is the point where things take a turn from the sub-competent to the unbelievably absurd.
There are about five courses left. About an hour’s worth of dining. There are two full glasses of opaque oak juice on the table, just sitting there begging for some sort of attention, removal, replacement, or at least comment. And I will not see either of the wine waiters at my table until every one of those courses has been consumed and the plates taken away. Dessert wine? Digestifs? Not, on this night, an option.
Well, no. The above is not precisely true, regarding the wine waiters. I see them – they’re standing about fifteen or twenty feet away, at their station. But they don’t approach the table. The head guy won’t even look in my direction, despite five-minute laser-like stares in his as he stands, motionless aside from pointless fiddling with some sort of wine-opening implement, looking anywhere and everywhere at nothing in particular. At one point I slide my seat back, looking as if I’m about to stand up, and as if electrocuted he immediately scurries into the kitchen and disappears. The kitchen. (He doesn’t exit said kitchen carrying anything.) He is overtly, pointedly, avoiding me. Or more precisely, hiding from me.
One waitress – I need to re-emphasize that food service here is of an exemplary standard – intuitively picks up on our dissatisfaction. She apologizes profusely, but what can she do? I ask to speak to Wine Guy. Or the manager.
I get neither (the manager is, apparently, not on site). Twenty-five minutes pass, the waitress with whom we’ve shared our unhappiness repeatedly returning to our table to apologize and, in a quieter voice, to commiserate. In the most cowardly act (or rather, failure to act ) yet, Wine Guy completely disappears and his assistant – who has had nothing to do with our table – is dispatched to offer the apologies that Wine Guy is obviously too chicken-shit to offer.
The fact is, I have no heart for the tongue-lashing I’m desperate to deliver. Because nothing is this guy’s fault, really. It requires mind-reading on my part to say so with confidence, but he clearly looks miserable about his assigned task. He apologizes scores of times, as the inevitable anger eventually does rise in my voice, but lacking time travel there’s nothing that can be fixed. The evening has been more or less ruined, he knows it, and he’s been sent to do the dirty work of the person who is actually at fault. Ultimately, I’m somewhat sympathetic to his plight (I’m at least gratified that someone has the cojones to apologize; in the absence of a manager maybe the chef might have, were he not otherwise engaged in modeling and flirting), but the one thing I cannot be is happy.
The offer is made to remove the wine – all the wine – from the bill. Since I haven’t actually ordered any of the wine that’s going to appear on said bill, I can’t say that I mind, and so I accept the offer. I once again consider escalating my complaint, but really, what’s the point? The only other thing I could extract is more money, and while the restaurant as a whole is responsible for my dissatisfaction, there’s nothing they could offer me at this point that would make up for their failures. And it’s not like I’m ever going to come back. Were this the very last dining option in San Francisco, I’d choose takeout from Safeway. So, deciding the evening has already been enough of a disaster, I accept the offer to not pay for wine I didn’t order and ask for a bill for the rest.
Our waitress gets a fine tip, along with a firm instruction that no matter the official or unofficial restaurant policy, not one penny is to be shared with the wine staff.
The glorious codas to the evening are twofold. Near the meal’s end, I head outside to seek the restrooms, having not seen Wine Guy in ages and hoping that he’s slunk home in shame. Of course, he hasn’t: he’s standing in the alley smoking what must be the world’s longest-lasting cigarette. He sees me and whips around to stare at something fascinating on the completely featureless wall. I slow to consider all the various cutting remarks that could vent my anger towards its true target, but again find no solace in the prospect. The evening’s already irretrievable, and I can’t imagine Wine Guy doesn’t know who ruined it, given his pathetic cowering and slinking. The most I can manage is a dismissive, French-style exhalation of disgust as I pass.
When it’s time to leave I ask for a taxi, as one must. Which doesn’t arrive. I walk back inside and ask again. Still no taxi. I walk back inside a third time – the restaurant is empty and breaking down their tables at this point – and ask yet again, beginning to wonder if the wine staff is in charge of transportation. At this point, a taxi passes on the otherwise mostly dark, entirely desolate street – not a taxi that’s been called, by the way, just one that happens to be driving by – and I’m delivered far away from this unbelievable evening.
Saison is a restaurant with Michelin-starred ambitions. Of this they make no secret. And it’s a very, very pricey meal, especially in the context of San Francisco dining. There’s no question that they can cook. But what they offer on my night isn’t amateur hour, isn’t even failure unworthy of critical recognition, it’s a debasement of the very concept of service itself. And did the restaurant not do so many things vastly better than well, I’d dismiss it as unworthy of this level of reportage. But it’s not. It can’t be. If it wishes to play amongst the adults, it must be judged as one of them.
So there it is: the worst wine service I have ever experienced. I pray there will be no future contender, but one thing I know for certain: Saison will never get another chance.
Disclaimer: if you’ve been reading this far you already know this, but 100% of the wine is comped by the restaurant.