It always felt a bit incongruous to see Joshua Skenes dressed in a hunting cap and plaid flannel shirt while running the kitchen at Saison, his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco.
On my last visit, about a year ago, the food was spectacular, but it had changed significantly, revealing a rustic, primal quality. Instead of the manicured plates you find at similarly starred restaurants, the three courses were meant to be eaten out of hand, and some dishes were served family style.
I wondered where the restaurant was heading, especially when Skenes admitted he was losing interest in preparing small bites of manipulated food, the hallmark of fixed-price tasting menus.
It became apparent why Skenes decided to step away from his three-star kitchen when he opened his second restaurant, Angler, on The Embarcadero, in September. Visiting Angler felt as if the 18-seat Saison had been the test kitchen for the new restaurant, which boasts 100 seats inside and an additional 75 on the street-side patio. It’s as if Saison has been reborn in a less-expensive, more-approachable format.
Skenes’ billed hat and the 1980s music pumping from the sound system go well with the new restaurant’s brick walls, hung with animal heads and replicas of whole fish. The beautifully conceived interior features herringbone wood floors and widely spaced and generous walnut tables and chairs. It’s a cheeky mix of casualness and formality, with waiters in dark suits and ties. Yet it comes together flawlessly, with a special bonus of picture windows that afford spectacular views of the Bay Bridge and its dancing light show.
Still, the focal point is the kitchen, with a 32-foot long hearth where all the food is cooked over open fire.
The black metal frame that runs the length of the walnut kitchen counter separating the dining room from the kitchen is hung with copper pans interspersed with dozens of bouquets of drying herbs, long octopus tentacles, sunflowers and haunches of ham. The countertop holds not only the essential plates, but also vases of flowers and herbs that look as if they were just picked from a lush kitchen garden.
Earning Michelin stars is a goal for many chefs, but Skenes feels more at home in this casual space that swirls with natural energy. He and his partners also are collaborating on a second Angler, in the Beverly Center in Los Angeles.
The flagship Saison is now being run by Laurent Gras, a much-lauded French chef who garnered three Michelin stars at L20 in Chicago before moving to New York to start a consulting business. He’s inarguably a great cook, but his style is about 180 degrees from what was being produced at Saison. Skenes, still a partner in the restaurant, says Saison is evolving to fit Gras’ style, while still being influenced by what Skenes calls a “pantry” of house-made seasonings.
For instance, for the signature sauce at both Saison and Angler, Skenes blends seaweed, herring and other small fish and grilled bones. He inoculates them with a special bacterium to produce a culture not unlike soy sauce.
“It’s the flavor of California rather than Japan,” he says.
Skenes also uses techniques such as “ambering,” in which he cooks items such as tomatoes under slow heat to develop a savory barbecued flavor with a rich mouthfeel. He also evaporates sea water over fire to produce smoked salt. “Anything can be ambered,” he says.
While the flavor palate may be similar at both restaurants, Angler is Saison on steroids. Skenes cooks a whole chicken in the style of Peking duck, first dry-brining it before separating the skin and rubbing the flesh with oil. He then hangs the bird for a couple of days. Before cooking, the skin is lacquered with honey, Angler sauce and other spices. The whole chicken arrives at the table with its blackened feet still intact and the skin looking like highly polished mahogany.
Sustainability fuels all menu decisions at Angler. One kitchen wall features tanks filled with water that mimics the ocean, providing a temporary home for live fish, sea urchins, abalone, spot prawns and both king and box crabs. The tanks also support the growing and cultivation of seaweed, a key ingredient in many dishes — such as the seaweed butter that accompanies Parker House rolls baked in the wood oven and served with house-cured caviar.
Skenes uses the shell of a sea urchin as a bowl, blending the seafood with cauliflower foam and lobster sauce. The abalone snatched from the tanks are braised, glazed with boar fat and grilled, creating a smoky liquid that enhances the seafood. With this bold flavor profile, many dishes live on the edge, creating an exhilarating experience augmented by co-owner Mark Bright’s wine selections and well-crafted cocktails cooled by hand-carved ice.
The daily menu includes a raw bar with oysters, a fine chop of tuna topped with a gelee of tomato water, and boldly seasoned antelope tartare served with lettuce cups misted with “citronette,” a blend of Angler sauce and citrus, and sprinkled with a chop of hyssop, mint and basil.
The one-page menu also features salads, a half-dozen vegetables — including artichokes singed by the fire — and six main courses “simply roasted over the embers.”
It’s clear that Skenes has embraced the call of the wild. Last year, he bought a roughly 100-acre parcel in Washington state surrounded by a national forest. The backyard is a river, the ocean is 20 minutes away and the property is filled with wild fruit and berries, trout, game birds and herds of elk.
At Angler, Skenes is embracing his passion.
“After earning three stars, what happens is that you might lose sight of exactly what you wanted to be,” he says. “I love the craft of cooking high-end food. It’s what got me to the dance. There’s a craft and rigor in learning to cook that way.
“It’s easy to trick a person that doesn’t know any better because you eat with your eyes first,” Skenes continues. “But with experience comes understanding, and you learn the ability to bring products to life is what makes the food.”
Michael Bauer has written about food for nearly four decades at the Kansas City Star, Dallas Times Herald and for more than 30 years as restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
• 132 The Embarcadero, San Francisco
• (415) 872-9442
Other San Francisco restaurants specializing in live-fire cooking
• Cotogna: When entering Cotogna, next door to its sister restaurant Quince, you’ll see flames dancing up the back of the grill and oven creating a perfect environment for producing smoky meats and exceptional pizza. 490 Pacific Ave., San Francisco, 415-775-8508, cotognasf.com
• Che Fico: This new Italian/California hybrid has become the hottest ticket in town thanks to the impressive decor, David Nayfeld’s pizza with a blackened crust, grilled and chopped duck liver, and chicken cooked in the wood oven. 838 Divisadero St. San Francisco, (415) 416-6959, chefico.com
• Birdsong: When Christopher Bleidorn took over AQ and opened his restaurant last year, he turned the wine cooler into a meat locker for his 10-course, $168 menu that uses centuries-old techniques of smoking, cooking over open flames, fermenting and dry aging. 1085 Mission St., San Francisco, (415) 369-9161, birdsongsf.com