Saison named ‘place to watch’ by Imbibe Magazine

The bar menu of this Jackson Ward restaurant is already turning heads at a national level.

Update #1 — January, 9 2013; 10:00AM

Saison was named one of the 75 “Places to Watch” in 2013 in the recent issue of Imbibe Magazine. The attention comes just nearly one month after the Jackson Ward restaurant opened.

“It was amazing,” owner Jay Bayer recalled upon hearing the recognition. “We try to set a very high standard for ourselves…this kind of makes us have to continue to execute at that level.”

Imbibe praised Saison’s bartender and certified Cicerone (see below), Chris Elford, writing “his menu gives equal weight to cocktails and beer, with an extensive, seasonally minded draft program, a focus on by-the-glass pours of large-format bottled beers and an elegant selection of cocktails designed to complement the inventive Southern-meets–Central American food.”

Not only are Imbibe editors praising Saison’s menu, but so are Richmonders. “We’ve been busier than we had planned for,” Bayer said about business. He added that the recent national praise will only drive the restaurant.

“The more appreciation you get, the harder you have to work.”

Saison is located at 23 W. Marshall Streeet.

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Original — November 27, 2012; 8:20 AM

  • Who: Friends Jay Bayer, Adam Hall, and Certified Cicerone Chris Elford
  • What: A restaurant melding Southern food and Central American influences, with a craft cocktail menu and 24 beers served by a Certified Cicerone
  • When: Soft opening tentatively scheduled for early December
  • Where: 23 W. Marshall Street, Jackson Ward
  • Why: To give RVA an evolution of Southern food guided by “attention to detail” all while retaining a fun atmosphere.
  • Dishes: Entrees will include lavender and black bean pork cassoulet, Guajillo-braised short ribs with Byrd Mill goat cheese grits and Bull’s Blood micro greens. Dessert items will feature: Sweet potato tart with salt brittle and cinnamon sabayon, Peanut pie with bourbon ice cream and Sorghum syrup, plus more.

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Even though the people behind Saison began scouting locations just one year ago (before finally settling on Jackson Ward) the idea for the restaurant dates back to 2007 when Jay Bayer met Adam Hall. “Both of us were home brewers, and that’s how we became friends,” Bayer said one afternoon inside their nearly complete restaurant. They soon realized that their shared passion for beer equaled their shared passion for food.

Not long after that, the pair “started kicking ideas around” for their own restaurant. In just a couple weeks, Richmond will get its first taste of what they ultimately kicked-up: a restaurant that blends traditional Southern cooking and Central American cuisine, paired with cocktails and beer by the hands of a certified Cicerone.

In certain ways, Saison goes back even further to the home cooked meals Chef Adam Hall ate every night while growing up in rural Virginia. Later, while traveling with Bayer to Central American countries like Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Hall tasted that region’s “exciting flavors,” and with it the “abundance of different things you can do with them.”

Bayer agreed, adding “there is an authenticity to [Central American] food” that enamored them during their trips to the region. Both he and Hall believe that the amalgam of traditional Southern foods and Central American cuisine are definitely not incompatible, but actually mix well (e.g. corn, beans, and pork are common ingredients of the two).

You hear the word fusion thrown around a lot in restaurant parlance. The Saison menu doesn’t do fusion, say the owners. Instead, Saison brings together food that its owners believe are ready to be culturally intertwined. “The natural shift is for a new expression of Southern food,” Bayer said. That’s where the influence of Central American food comes in: to give Southern cuisine that new expression. That’s what Saison hopes to do.

When it opens, the approximately 50 people that fit inside the restaurant (35 seated at tables, 15 at the bar) will choose from items like a small plate of bourbon chicken liver pate topped with smoked cranberry-port gelee, entrees like chili-roasted chicken with sweet potato hash and scallion sauce or a lavender and black bean pork cassoulet, among others.

Complimenting the food will be bartender Chris Elford.

In the summer of 2010, Elford left Richmond for New York City to jump start a bartending career. After two years of working in several pubs (and a whiskey distillery), Elford said he gained closer to five years of experience “by virtue of how many hours I worked and how many bars I worked in.”

While in New York City, Elford became a Certified Cicerone (pronounced sisuhrohn). “It’s very rigorous,” he said of the process, one that designates superior knowledge of all things beer (basically, the ale equivalent to a wine sommelier). “You have to be super geeky about beer,” to even attempt the certification, let alone complete it. He added that there’s only about a 30% pass rate.1

Bayer said that a Certified Cicerone is one who “understand[s] how the beer is handled from start to finish.” From proper carbonation to pouring, “it’s all about the service of the beer.”

Saison will carry approximately 24 beers in total: half on tap, the rest in bottles. Several will be seasonal. While the menu hasn’t been finalized, beers will rotate and likely be “the best and rarest that’s available,” Bayer said. Those may include the likes of Bruery Saison de Lente (California), L’enfant Terrible (Belgium), Devil’s Backbone Danzig Baltic Porter (Virginia), and others.

But Elford is not stopping with beer. Saison will also serve craft cocktails, a culinary accessory that Elford says has experienced a recent nationwide resurgence.

He said that bars in New York City, so often a city that heralds national trends, began dabbling in craft cocktails in the late 1990s. “That’s very recent,” Elford said. He said that many cocktails are “re-discoveries,”2 mixes once popular pre-Prohibition that have recently seen a resurgence. These classic cocktails will be available at Saison, but Elford will also offer customized concoctions.

Items on Saison’s cocktail menu will include the Jackson Ward, described as “a bitter Bourbon Manhattan subbing a portion of Sweet Vermouth out for bitter and minty Nardini Amaro, with wormwood and orange bitters.” There’s also the The Latin Square: Mezcal, Blanco Tequila, Ancho-Guajillo pepper blend, fresh lime, fresh pineapple, and Gusano chili salt. Elford said he’s also collaborating on a cocktail with bartenders at The Roosevelt and Heritage. This willingness to mix and collaborate represents not only Saison’s cocktail menu, but what the restaurant hopes to add to Jackson Ward.

Bayer said the district “seems to be teaming with young, entrepreneurial spirit.” Creative outlets like Gallery5 and Art 180 are a stone’s throw away from the restaurant,3 and there are the commercial and residential property developments that owners say have just popped up in recent months. “It’s a welling up of energy,” Bayer said. This development, he thinks, portends Jackson Ward’s cultural and economic growth. “My hope is it develops into a very artful, honest, and creative area.” He wants Saison to be a part of that for years to come. But Jackson Ward hasn’t always been favorable to restaurants.

Owners of Ettamae’s Cafe closed the former restaurant last summer, even after receiving favorable press in The New York Times. The decision came, in part, because of their 522 N. 2nd Street location, one, owners argued, was not conducive to sustainable business. That doesn’t seem to worry the people behind Saison, as other nearby restaurants like Comfort and The Magpie appear to be thriving.

“If you have a really cool location, and you can execute your concept…people will come,” Bayer said. “People will be there.”

The owners hope to open later this month. Initially, hours will likely be:

  • Tuesday – Thursday, and Sunday • 4:00 PM – 12:00 AM
  • Friday – Saturday • 4:00 PM – 2:00 AM

Chef Adam Hall said he hopes to offer lunch and brunch hours by the end of December.

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  1. Elford said he had to quit smoking, a habit known to dull taste buds, so he could complete tasting portions of the certification process. 
  2. Mixologist Bobby Krueger (who left RVA for NYC) relayed a similar thought
  3. Bayer said the restaurant is working on providing customers with off-street parking options in addition to the on-street spaces that are available. 

Photo: (from left to right) Chris Elford, Jay Bayer, and Adam Hall

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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