Buzzy – Coi – San Francisco
Few restaurants have generated as loud a buzz – positive buzz – as Chef Daniel Patterson’s San Francisco restaurant Coi, located in the somewhat scruffy North Beach neighborhood. But unexpected or not, the California-inspired modern cuisine at Coi has received a lot of admiring attention: it as if a hive of foodie bees had descended on the Embarcadero.
The restaurant itself is something of an oasis; it is neither luxe nor loud (Coi means quiet or tranquil in French), but bright, modest, slyly elegant, and pleasing, and service is forthcoming. And it is an establishment whose honeyed food always satisfies, although on the night that I dined only a few dishes stunned. This is only a complaint given the chatter that Patterson’s place generated. And, in truth, a few dishes were remarkable. One of my dining partners felt that the restaurant had, on that night, pulled back a bit from its more adventurous efforts. The restaurant is one of the most significant dining destinations in the Bay Area, a necessary culinary visit. And only one dish was less than very successful.
That dish was the first offering: Childhood Memory of Harvest: Vegetable Leathers, Apple, Nuts, and Pear Cider. It has become de rigueur for chefs to trade in nostalgia, sometimes for the best, sometimes not. Here the memory was Patterson’s. For this diner, fruit leathers have never been that appealing. I come from a generation in which these “healthy” snacks were not widely available for afternoon television surfing. I give Chef Patterson a ribbon for the best vegetable leathers that I have tasted, but prize is perhaps not worth much in the larger culinary scheme.
Fortunately this memory was quickly replaced by a gracefully cool and fresh plate of Marin Miyagi Oysters with wheatgrass and lemon ice. This was an amuse for the ages, designed to awaken all of one’s senses. It was complexity and simplicity on a plate, and was among the star presentations of the evening. Oysters can be difficult partners, but when treated well, they are sexy and profound.
The inverted cherry tomato tart with a black olive basil wafer was an elegant architectural construction: precisely prepared. If it didn’t jangle or provoke, it was a very happy savory tart. Perhaps it was more an assertion of the builder’s art than the chef’s, but the tastes were Californian and right.
Chilled Piquillo Pepper Soup with fresh pole and shelling beans, preserved lemon, and cilantro was another highpoint. It was slightly gelatinized (is that a word?) and so vibrant in visual appeal that its hue could play off its tang. This soup was not Progresso, but Progressive.
Monterey Bay Abalone Grilled on the Plancha with Nettle-Dandelion Salsa Verde, Spicy Breadcrumbs and Wild Fennel Flowers might have nodded too deeply to the idea of the wild. Here I was particularly impressed by the textures which were challenging and exciting with each bite.
At this point, we were served an off-the-menu soup: Late Summer Squash with Borage. Patterson’s second soup was impressive if less exciting than the first soup of the evening.
Do diners dream of beet charcoal? I do. Our most memorable dish was Wild Black Cod Smoked over Beet Charcoal (beet charcoal?) with Creamed Leeks, Beet-red Flame Grape Sauce, and Horseradish Dill. Who knew that I would love a presentation that couldn’t be beet? Perhaps it was the smoked and rooted flavor of the cod that seduced, or perhaps it was a visually stunning plate or an amazingly moist aquatic protein. Everything worked in synergy, and I bang my head on my computer screen for lacking the photographic skills to show you my love in her deep red lipsticked grandeur.
Pan-Grilled Matsutake with Potato-Pine Needle Puree was a quiet contrast to the cod. I never have understood why Japanese gourmands count Matsutake as so favored a fungus: I will take King Bolete. The Matsutake and pine was well prepared, tasting like a walk among damp conifers.
The main protein was Poached and Seared Duck Breast with Foie Gras Ganache, Figs, Angelica Root, and Tarragon. I have tired of those dishes that are a little of this, a little of that. A smorgasbord rather than a symphony. Yet, it is the style. Each point of light on the plate was well-prepared, but the dish seemed more straight-forward than astonishing.
Our cheese – Tomme D’Ossau with Late Summer Greens – was the artistic presentation of a fine slab of curd.
The Cheesecake with Goat Cheese, Graham Cracker, and Niabell Grape was a powerful sweet. Both the goat cheese and the grape added muscle to the creamy cake. It was the more striking of the two desserts.
Cinnamon Smoked Apples with Iced Buttermilk, Hazelnut, and Sorrel was a worthy closing, although perhaps too accessible – more North Platte than North Beach. I could eat such a pleasure, but I would doubtless select a more challenging sweet.
So, Coi was a success: a four star restaurant for certain. Several dishes were wonderful, and the cod and the oysters were memorable. If it didn’t quite live up to the buzz, we should blame the buzz and not the chef. Chef Patterson is a man of enormous talent and creativity. With his left coast garden perhaps there is no stopping him.
373 Broadway (North Beach)
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