A Night of Sparkling Forage – Coi – San Francisco
I begin my sermon by reciting the eleven (plus two) course tasting menu at Coi in full, chef Daniel Patterson’s own record of a virtuoso meal: cracker, beet rose, clam, tart, crayfish, asparagus, allium, morel, duck, carrot/coffee, strawberry, unrefined sugar, chocolate paper. This is almost a haiku. Talk about letting your dishes do the talking!
In the fall I dined at Coi, and had a sterling meal. Some great courses, some just missing the mark. The evening made me wish to return, and I waited until shoots and leaves began to appear in the woods and fields and streams and tidal pools of Northern California. Along with Copenhagen’s Noma, Coi is labeled an outpost of the “New Naturalism” – the desire to create gastronomic wonders with found ingredients, foraged food. In practice it owes much to farm-to-table gastronomy. Chef Patterson likes to source his ingredients from within 300 miles. I don’t mind this conceit, which serves mostly to focus the mind of a chef who might otherwise have too many choices: placing limits on Culinary Future Shock.
We were informed that we would receive a list of dishes as we left (ahem!), and my notes were not as elaborate as they might have been, but I did jot here and there. But these dishes deserve perfection in description as well as perfection in composition. In the former case, the words will at times cry out for errata. I am abashed and you will be, at times, misguided. So it is.
The dinner was bookended with two crackers: a savory one and a chocolate one (described as chocolate paper). While neither was a remarkable contribution in itself, they did turn the evening into a gastronomic sandwich.
The first substantial course was deeply remarkable. One of the first garnishes that an aspiring cooking student is taught is to take a peeler and circle a tomato, skinning it. This slight slight-of-hand produces a tomato rose (even I can perform the task). Naïve diners are startled and impressed. Our first course, played on this naivety, as Chef Patterson created a beet rose with each petal separately carved. This floral sculpture was set upon a bit of yogurt, and surrounded by shaved/chopped ice infused with the delicate perfume of rose extract. The idea was cute, but had the flavors and textures and temperatures not matched, it would have been little more than a cook’s trick. But the marriage was for the years, and the dish one of the finest, most creative opening dishes I have had, an amalgam of root and petal.
The second course is titled “clam.” It might have been labeled “calm.” Coi’s label is true enough without doing full justice to the luscious take on pasta and clam sauce. With geoduck, Manila clams, and Squid Ink pasta, nudged to one side of a bowl (reprised subsequently with morels and popcorn), it provided a symphony of textures. The bivalves were lightly chewy without being gummi. Quick and fresh, it was Pacific found cuisine and excellent in all respects.
Although plate three is described as “tart,” this four-letter word misses its grandeur. Here the sauce transcends: a lime green wheatgrass sauce that was devilishly overpowering. The aroma wafted from across the room. Yes, there was fennel, a buckwheat biscuit, a balsamic sauce (I think), and fromage blanc to create a modern Napoleon, but it was the take-no-prisoners sauce that conquered.
Ah, how beautiful was bowl four with its foraged flowers and leaves. Chef Patterson insisted that we never forgot that the land – and then the sea – is magical. Here were crayfish, May peas, and seasonal Watsonville artichokes. Astonishment and delight. Beautifully composed, complex, and yet simple in its focus.
The next plate pays ironic tribute to those chefs now experimenting with paleo-cuisine. Ash as condiment. Two stalks of local spring asparagus, cooked in their own juice, were dusted with seaweed powder and fermented anchovy paste, and served on a bright, buttery, lemony sauce. If the dish was not brazen, its insight revealed a chef who was fully vegetating.
And then arrived Allium soup: a dish that bowed to alliums everywhere: chive, garlic, onion, leek – the band of brothers – with a cheesy base. It was lush, and a reminder of how close we are and how far we have come from French onion soup. That classic is grand; this new classic reminds us of how much the frontier of cuisine has advanced.
Morels and popcorn are not a typical match. Even I (whose book Morel Tales pays tribute to the cracked passions of fungal collectors) was startled. When we learned that the morels and popcorn were served in a popcorn reduction (!!!), what was there to say? Only that this dish, presented mirroring the placement of the clam dish, was poppin’ good and that a few surprises remain in a post-molecular age.
Our major protein was a duck consommé (not pictured), served with soft spring redwood shoots and followed closely by duck breast, redwood oil, duck leg confit, radish, and wheat berries. Many modernist chefs find big proteins challenging. Meat squats on a plate lumpishly. And this was a chuck o’ duck. But with the redwood oil (recapitulating the broth), the crispy top, and the pungent radish, the duck breathed life.
Carrots with coffee beans might not seem the most traditional combination (and I must assume – although I didn’t ask – that the beans were imported from afar). The combination with crème fraiche was among the most stirring wake-up-calls and palate cleansers that I have encountered. Chef Patterson demanded that I reconsider these ingredients.
Our first dessert was a lovely sorrel ice cream with ripe strawberries, nestled in foam (I neglected to note the foamy flavor). It was very fine in all regards, although perhaps less stunning than its predecessors.
Finally, a medley of unrefined sugar. The plate reflected the now-canonical modernist dessert – multiple movable parts - but tonight with a recognizable theme: molasses, sorghum, raw brown sugar, gingerbread. Each unrefined taste gave the dish a richness and suppleness that white sugar lacks. The sweet dessert was almost savory. Coi reasserted the philosophy of naturalism that had been thematic throughout the long and glorious evening.
This May dinner at Coi will be among my most treasured dinners. Nothing was wrong, everything was right; much was fantastic, some was staggering. When I first dined at Coi, I found an excellent restaurant; this night I discovered a shattering one.
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