Sunday, May 29, 2011

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Rose Beet, Rose Petal Ice, and Yogurt

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Pasta and Clams - Manila Clams, Geoduck, and Squid Ink Pasta

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Buckwheat Biscuit, Wheatgrass sauce, Fennel, and Fromage Blanc

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Crayfish, Artichoke, Peas

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 -Asparagus, Seaweed Powder, Fermented Anchovy Paste

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 0 Allium Soup (Ghive, Garlic, Onion, Leek), Cheese

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Morels, Popcorn and Popcorn Reduction

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Duck Breast with Redwood Oil, Radish, Wheat Berries, Duck Leg Confit (Duck Consomme Not Shown)

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Carrots, Coffee Beans, and Creme Fraiche

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Sorrell Ice Cream, Strawberry, Foam

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.

Coi - San Francisco - May 2011 - Unrefined Sugar Dessert, Molasses, Sorghum

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.

373 Broadway (North Beach)
San Francisco
(415) 393-9000

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Burden of Critique – Benu – San Francisco

A dispiriting requirement for any food critic is the responsibility to write critical notices of restaurants that shoulda, coulda been better. Even with a looming deadline, these are painful to write. For those of us without deadlines perhaps another week might make things easier. Few critics enjoy a sad review. Our task is something other than writerly sadism.

Very few restaurants are actively, in-your-face bad, and we need to treasure those. Often the failure is embodied in a few errors and fewer astonishments. When one writes about a restaurant based on a single evening, there must be much room for excuse.

I pen this in prologue to my dinner at Benu, a restaurant that has received genuine and enthusiastic praise from many in the Bay Area. Chef Corey Lee decamped from The French Laundry, and set up shop in the spritely, developing area South of Market. His goal, it has been claimed, to produce food of Kellerian perfection but with an Asian sensibility. Benu is sometimes called “The Chinese Laundry.”

I give Chef Lee high marks for intention (and for congeniality), but, based on one meal, not fully on execution. Neither the service nor the dishes were marked by perfection. I generally give the service a pass when it is good-natured, but this night there were enough minor errors of service and of molasses timing that made us realize that we were not in Napa. Thanks to my dining companions, the seven hours passed quickly. Many the dishes were thoughtful, but slippages dominate my memory. Chef Lee is a gifted Imperfectionist.

But I begin with one stunningly grand dish from a fifteen-course tasting menu. A dish from the blessed past: a tribute to Chrono-Cuisine. We ordered as a special addition to the tasting menu, Poularde Cuit en Vessie, the classic French preparation of Chicken poached in a Pig’s Bladder. What is not to adore? I found Chef Lee’s Breast, Celery, Black Trumpets, Green Almonds, and Dates to be splendid. While my dining companions found the dish over-celeried, I fully embraced the modesty of the celery, and treasured the celery glaze that covered the chicken. No thin sauces please. What was so special was how simple it seemed, even while being a fully complex dish. The green almonds and dates added their special sour, nutty, sweetness to the plate. It was among the greatest dishes that I have had in 2011, and I only wish that every dish that Chef Lee prepared had this power and vision. But alas.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Poularde Cuit en Vessie (display)

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Poularde Breast, Celery, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Green Almond, and Date

When one orders Vessie, the bird does double-duty. A second course was poularde leg with peas and spring onion bulb and a shrimp roe sauce. And once again the chicken was as moist and flavorful as heaven, but here the accompaniments were off. The shrimp roe sauce overpowered the bird, even though the English peas and onion were congenial. It was an effectively composed dish, a work of art in a black bowl, but missed greatness. Still, we were all gratified to be able to treasure such a wonderful chick, and through the interactive ability to shuffle my plate, I could minimize the sauce, while voiding the chef’s salty vision.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Poularde Leg, Shrimp Roe, English Peas, and Spring Onion

Our meal opened with Thousand Year Old Quail Egg, Ginger, Potage and a Ginger-Almond Foam. Lee’s dishes often read as braver than they taste. I loved the Ginger-Almond Foam, and the textures were sublime, but the dish lacked the kick than I expected from an egg of such antiquity. It launched the meal, but was not the glorious blowout of Tom Keller’s pearls.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Thousand Year Old Quail Egg, Ginger with Almond Foam

This starter was followed by an amusingly light dish of Caviar and Bone Marrow with a Lobster Crisp. Imagine a lobster pork rind. It was a two-bite wonder. Chips ahoy. We were having fun.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Caivar, Bone Marrow, Lobster Crisp

While my companions slurped a stunning homemade tofu, abalone, chrysanthemum soup, I was served sautéed abalone Grenobloise – floured and served with lemon and capers. I suspect that Chef Lee lacked a second stunning abalone dish in his quiver. This was a sturdy, if somewhat unremarkable, presentation. I was less enthused with my plate than my companions were with their bowls.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Sauteed Abalone Grenobloise

I soon returned to the main road: oyster, cabbage, pork belly, and fermented Korean pepper (gojuchang) gelee. On this small plate the gelee was the star. But we agreed that the balance was off. Not enough cabbage to contain the pork and oyster: here was Atkins Cuisine. Everything that the gelee touched was rosy, but such a tiny dish seemed heavy.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Oyster, Cabbage, Pork Belly, Fermented Pepper Gelee

The next dish altered my perceptions. We were served a pair of lovely-looking Xiao long bao (Chinese dumplings): one filled with foie gras, the second with shrimp and black truffle: A-list ingredients. But how could dumplings go so wrong. Gummy and starchy and not entirely cooked: if this is an indication, Benu needs a Chinese grandma at the stove. Perhaps this Saturday was the opening night for a newbie stage, but these lumps didn’t come close. With a perfect dinner, one error reminds us how perfect the dinner is, but that wasn’t the case at Benu. The inners were silky smooth, but Silk and Gum lacks the cachet of Oysters and Pearls. Fortunately no other dish was so down-and-dirty.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Foie Gras Xiao Long Bao

There followed a small plate of unagi (freshwater eel), crème fraiche, lime and a small stick of feuille de brick (phyllo). For a small serving it was a pleasant interlude, but the lime and unagi could have been more pronounced.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Eel, Feuille de Brick, Creme Fraische, and Lime

Lucky seven. Our seventh dish was a star turn, a subtle and savory classic: monkfish liver torchon, turnip, cucumber, salted plum, and a small slice of toasted brioche. Here was a dish worthy of calling Benu “The Asian Tiffany.” In its simple complexity, its confident play of flavors, and its willingness to combine musky liver, picked turnip, salty plum in an elegant presentation it revealed Chef Lee’s genius. I would love a reprise.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Monkfish Liver Torchon, Turnip, Cucumber, Salted Plum Brioche

White sausage, black bread, and XO sauce seems so modest, and in some way the presentation was. The fish sausage was rather spongy, lacking subtle notes, and, as my dining companion pointed out, the house-made XO sauce lacked the textural complexity of the store-bought version: only in America. I objected to the velvet sheen of the sauce less than an expert XO taster, but aside from the impressive crispy squid ink wafer, I found the dish rather pedestrian in composition and flavor.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Fish Sausage, Black Bread, XO Sauce

Finally Shark Fin Soup, or perhaps more prudently “Shark Fin” Soup. Fee Fie Faux Fumble. The soup was subtle, filled with delicious crab and rich truffle, which surely would have been sufficient without a Mad Man’s claim of shark’s fin. Perhaps the chewy consistency recapitulated shark fin, but why make the claim if you cannot carry it through.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - "Shark Fin" Soup, Dungeness Crab, Jinhua Ham, Black Truffle Custard

After two courses of Poularde Cuit en Vessie, we were solidly landed on land protein. We were served a loin of lamb stuffed with lamb mousse and fennel-scented lamb sausage. While the asparagus was as fresh as spring, the remainder of the dish, properly cooked in a bountiful broth, was somewhat old. The protein never sang. It was technically satisfying, but not a dish of any particular achievement.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Milk-Fed Baby Lamb, Mousse of Lamb, Spring Vegetables, Parmesan Bouillon

I am a sucker for lily bulbs, and so sprinkling lily buds on ketchup or Twinkies satisfies me. This beef braised in pear, lily bulb, celery, and shiitake was a far superior dish to the previous lamb. The celery proved a nice reprise of the Poularde breast. Here was a cut of cow that sparkled, and was one of the strongest creations of the evening. Pear and celery might seem in conflict, but the fruity, herbal mixture was a pleasure.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Beef Braised in Pear, Lily Bulb, Celery, Shiitake Mushroom

Then followed two desserts. Neither was really remarkable. Fennel sorbet with rhubarb, sesame, and meringue was saved from catastrophe by the wondrous fennel sorbet, an ice of genius, but the other contributions were textually challenged. Too gooey for an adult palate.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Fennel Sorbet, Rhubarb, Sesame

Banana ice cream, burnt acorn (custard, praline, and bread pudding), ginger gelee and foam was a typical modernist dessert: a bit of this, a bit of that, lacking a center: the kitchen sink approach. It was not a failure, but nothing really sang, and I learned that burnt acorn will not make my Baskin-Robbins list of 31. It was a brave effort, but an effort nonetheless.

Benu - San Francisco - April 2011 - Banana Ice Cream, Burnt Acorn Gelee, Burnt Acorn Bread Pudding, Ginger

And so the meal ended. The greatest problem with Benu is its buzz. Corey Lee does show moments of genius and of gastronomic power, but his menu has not fully developed and his cooking is not always assured. To compare this meal, filled with deadends and with inspiration to the French Laundry is to do this young chef a disservice. The poularde was memorable – and Chef Lee is to be commended for his attempt to retrieve and reconstruct the greatest culinary triumphs of the past. The monkfish torchon was astonishing, and the beef and lily bulbs inspiring. But these were matched my dishes that were bland, doughy, or gooey. Critics often end their remarks suggesting that they will or will not return. In my case, let time be my judge. Benu may become the Chinese Laundry, but tonight it was just too close to dry cleaning.

22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco CA 94105

Saturday, May 07, 2011

San Fran Hip - Flour + Water

As I think of my year in the Bay Area, I have discovered that San Francisco restaurants are adept at producing stylish, creative cuisine at prices that 20-somethings can afford. Yes, there are some extravagant restaurants and, frankly, some rotten ones, but SF has a mid-budget culinary swagger that few cities can match. Perhaps this is a function of the fact that SF is a youthful, vibrant city and a city where people dine out: seven meals at $150/per is more Silicon Valley than Noe Valley.

Several restaurants might be named as fitting this category: Delfina, Zuni Café, among others. But as I managed to snare a rare reservation at Flour + Water, a sophisticated modern Italian restaurant in the Mission District - a restaurant that is Pizza-plus – F+W is my text. Flour + Water charges $17 for pasta, $16 for pizza, and $21-24 for their secondi. The restaurant is well-priced and always filled. It is the Eternal Seating.

Flour + Water - San Francisco - May 2011

My companion and I ordered a pair of antipasti, two pasta, and a secondi, and were, in general, quite impressed: three of the five were distinguished. Pork belly with broccoli salsa gribiche, asparagus, sofritto, and fresh coriander was marred by a small and overly crispy pork belly. It was pretty, but not truly delicious. In contrast, the halibut crudo with strawberries, favas, and fennel blossoms was a cool tribute to spring. The fish was sweet and the accompaniments added layers of textures. The tasting notes were just right.

Flour + Water - San Francisco - May 2011 - Pork Belly with Broccoli Salsa Gribiche, Asparagus, Sofritto, and Fresh Coriander

Flour + Water - San Francisco - May 2011 - Halibut Crudo with Strawberries, Favas, and Fennel Blossoms

The path of pasta diverged. One was fabulous, the other sounded fabulous when read on the menu. Less successful (and not a choice that our server recommended when asked for pasta advice) was Aleppo Spaghetti with Ink Braised Squid, Mint and Chili Oil. Aleppo is a mild Syrian pepper. While the pasta was properly cooked, the plate with its black and brown tones was not inspiring and the flavors, presumably intended, seemed a bit off. Mint and chili did not match well. Braised squid was not as pleasing as the grilled version.

Flour + Water - San Francisco - May 2011 - Aleppo Spaghetti with Ink Braised Squid, Mint and Chili Oil

In contrast, the Taleggio Scarpinocc with Rosemary and Aceto Balsamico (which our server enthusiastically admired) was stunning in its simplicity. These oddly shaped raviolis (shaped like wooden shoes) were luscious, and were as fine a filled pasta as any I have had for months. The cheese was astonishingly tangy.

Flour + Water - San Francisco - May 2011 - Taleggio Scarpinocc with Rosemary and Aceto Balsamico

The secondi – slow cooked cod with artichokes, spring onion, asparagus, pounded herbs, and fennel – was lovingly prepared, elegantly presented, and carefree. If it was not as savory as some main courses, its subtlety carried the night. The lightness of the fish made it float away.

Flour + Water - San Francisco - May 2011 - Slow Cooked Cod with Artichokes, Spring Onion, Asparagus, Pounded Herbs and Fennel

With Flour + Water only a few blocks from Humphrey Slocombe Ice Cream, a post-modern ice-creamery (Brown Butter Ice Cream and Malted Dulce de Leche), we didn’t test the F+W desserts.

We left F + W with wallets only slightly lightened and hearts greatly so.

Flour + Water
2401 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94110