coi, San Francisco, California
In 2006, I asked David Kinch of Manresa which restaurants were moving and shaking in the Bay Area. He told me about a small, fledgling start-up that a former Manresa cook was opening that week. That restaurant was coi. The chef-patron, as you probably know, is Daniel Patterson.
Regrettably, I missed the opportunity to be one of the first people in the door.
So my dinner at coi in May of last year (2009) was a meal three years in the waiting. And in that spirit, I give you my review, a blog post nearly a year in the writing.
Once I decide to visit a restaurant, I try to avoid reading too much about it.
I enjoy the element of surprise. I find expectations distracting.
Since I decided to visit coi before it actually opened, I had read virtually nothing about it when I arrived.
The Michelin 2-starred restaurant is small. The dining room, more intimate than cozy, has less than a dozen tables. Coupled with the beautiful, otherworldly looking food, it could be the exclusive mess deck on the Starship Enterprise. From this padded jewel box, you’d never know that coi is tucked between less reputable establishments on a sketchier stretch of Broadway in North Beach.
Like most high-end restaurants in the Bay Area, coi is dedicated to local, sustainable, and seasonal products. Anchored by this ethos, Patterson embraces and incorporates modern cooking techniques, which is evident in his dishes; one foot on the farm, the other in the ocean, with both eyes turned toward molecular gastronomy.
My friends, The Queen of the Night, Dancer, and the Forager were my charming companions for the evening.
The dining room offers an 11-course tasting menu, which changes from day to day. In May of 2009, the menu was $120. At the time this post is written, the 11-course tasting is priced at $135. CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
“Milk & Honey“
Ginger, tarragon, black pepper.
“Earth and Sea”
New harvest potatoes, cucumber, borage, sea beans, ice plant flowers.
Domaine de la Fruitier Muscadet, France, 2006
Inverted Andante Dairy Fresh Goat Cheese Tart
Black olive, vadouvan, preserved lemon, wild arugula.
Gutzler Blac de Noir, Germany 2008
“Winter Into Spring”
Chilled English pea soup, buttermilk snow, mint.
Ostatu Rioja Blanco, Spain, 2007
Fried Chicken Consomme
Artichokes, fava beans, radish, green garlic.
Coenobium Blanco, Italy, 2007
Mushroom dashi, yuba, kelp, pickled daikon, and ginger.
Hitachino Nest White Ale
Sauteed Monterey Bay Abalone
Escarole, caper berry-sea lettuce vinaigrette.
Domaine Tariquet, France 2007
Burnt Rice, Ash, Smoke, Pine.
Louis Latour Marsannay, France 2006
Slow Cooked Farm Egg
Green farro, erbette chard, brown butter-Parmesan sauce.
Marin Sun Farms Goat in Different Forms
Sprouted seeds/nuts/beans, wheatgrass
(Braised Shank, Sous Vides Shoulder, Milk-Cooked Loin, Roasted Leg)
Chateau Rayas ‘La Pialade,’ France 2005
Comté (Marcel Petite)
Olive Oil Shortcake
Strawberry-rhubarb, lemon balm, long pepper.
Elvio Tintero Moscato d’Asti ‘Sori Gramella,’ Italy 2008
White Chocolate, Semi Frozen
Brook cherry, lime thyme.
Mas Amiel, France, 2006
Extra virgin olive oil.
Patterson’s cooking is precise. His plating is clean, artful, and, for the most part, colorful.
Rustic, yet elegant, the earthenware plates inject a touch of “I’m so twee and yuppie with my wool knits and garden clogs in Marin County” – designer, post-Martha ceramics, but more fashionable because they’re being used in a two Michelin-starred restaurant.
Our eleven courses covered an impressively wide spectrum of ingredients, cultures, and cooking styles and techniques. But what Patterson’s food boasted in breadth, it lack in depth. Most of the dishes could be summarized after the second, if not the first bite.
That’s not to say that the food here isn’t delicious. Most of it was.
The “Inverted Andante Dairy Fresh Goat Cheese Tart,” for example, was a brisk tug of war between salty, savory, and tangy – a piquant mix of goat cheese, olives, vadouvan, and preserved lemons. I especially appreciated the textural diversity in this dish – creamy, whipped goat cheese topped with a crisp kerchief made of black olives. But I didn’t learn anything new after the first forkful.
A few dishes were flattened by heavy-handed sauces.
The caper berry-sea lettuce vinaigrette, for example, was a one-dimensional, saline assault on the “Sauteed Monterey Bay Abalone.” That vinaigrette, however, was the least of the problems with the dish. The abalone, a beautiful creature the size of a small palm, was as tough as a rubber tire. I couldn’t cut through it, let alone chew it.*
The culinary potential in a mound of “Morels” was drowned in a salty, commercial-tasting cream of mushroom soup-like substance. The mushroom had been cooked until all of their wonderful bounce – what would have been the only textural variance in this otherwise mushy dish – had been been taken out. I had been anxious to see how Patterson might marry “burnt rice, ash, and pine” (recreating the scent of a forest?). But I got very little of those ingredients – only a faint woodsy scent far in the back, behind that thick curtain of cream of mushroom.
And a rich Parmesan-butter sauce stifled the simplicity of a quivering “Slow Cooked Farm Egg.” This dish leaned heavily on the wonderfully cooked green farro, which was mixed in with the sauce, for texture and personality.
I preferred Patterson’s simpler dishes, the ones devoted to showcasing a single component with little manipulation.
A plate of “Comté (Marcel Petite),” accompanied by not much more than a few lightly dressed baby lettuce leaves, was straightforward, balanced, and delicious.
Patterson’s “Vanilla Milkshake,” a sweet end-cap to our meal, was a creamy, cold shot of vanilla and olive oil, marvelously uncomplicated, yet intense.
Were the peas in the velvety, chilled pea soup supposed to be frozen? I don’t know. My friends thought it deadened their flavor. But I loved the texture they provided. The soup was flavorful enough on its own, a sweet, grassy awakening sharpened by a dome of tangy buttermilk “snow.” It was a beautiful embodiment of “Winter Into Spring.”
The wine pairings were more interesting than enjoyable. The best ones etched depth and dimension into the food that was otherwise missing.
The beer pairing with the “Tofu Mousseline,” for example, was unforgettable. The dashi, enriched with yuba, kelp, and pickled daikon, was quieting, good enough (the tofu mousseline was so delicate it almost dissolved into the broth). But together with the Hitachino Nest White Ale, it displayed an unexpectedly beautiful honey-almond-vanilla-floral sensation (that’s not quite right, but that’s as close as I can get to describing it).
Coenobium Blanco 2007 unleashed a woody, mushroom flavor from cubes of aspic-like “Fried Chicken Consomme.” This was not only a creative dish, but it was gorgeously plated too.
A couple of the wines, like the Domaine de la Fruitier Muscadet 2006, were spectacular on their own. But when coupled with the food, they lost their luster. This Muscadet was paired with “Earth and Sea,” a plate of squid ink exploding with cucumber flavor and given satisfying heft by wonderfully cooked waxy potatoes.
Then there was the Gutzler Blac de Noir 2008, which was far too acidic for me to enjoy by itself. But that acid helped cut a thin, sharp line through the creamy goat cheese in the inverted tart, catching the preserved lemon on its way through.
My favorite dish was the “Marin Sun Farms Goat in Different Forms,” a colorful spring collage of goat, nuts, and seeds. Each cut of goat was expertly cooked and distinct in flavor. The nuts, seeds, and legumes were all bright, fresh, and grassy. It was a refreshing romp through the fields, showcasing terroir in various shades of raw and cooked. Balanced and thoughtful, this dish had perspective.
The wine (Chateau Rayas ‘La Pialade,’ France 2005) served with the goat was large, generous, full of herbs, dark juice, and a touch of spice; I loved it. The wine pairing, however, was more complementary than showy, surprisingly subtle.
Neither of our desserts was as interesting as the rest of our meal. But they were delicious. The “Chocolate Truffle” however, served as a petit four, was a curious experience. Coated in cookie crumbs, the ball of ganache took on an uncanny Chinese pork floss flavor. It wasn’t bad, rather, surreal.
And perhaps that’s how I would describe my experience at coi. It walked a fine line between mistake and genius, always managing to stay one precarious step ahead of confusion.
While I welcome variety (indeed, I love variety), our dinner seemed to be all over the map, and not necessarily in a good way. There was little to no continuity – too many scene changes for a cohesive story.
I didn’t leave coi feeling changed, or even satisfied. There were splashes of excitement, and a number of fumbles. Very little stuck. There was no echo.
San Francisco, California
* This was especially disappointing given that (a) I love abalone, (b) it was the dish I was most looking forward to eating, and (c) my dining companions had said that Chef Patterson had twittered earlier in the day saying he had obtained fresh abalone.