Monday, May 22, 2006

A Certain Je Ne Sais Coi

373 Broadway Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415)393-9000
Chef Daniel Patterson (formerly Elisabeth Daniel)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Last tried: January 2007

Coi on Urbanspoon

Previously tried: May 2006

Daniel Patterson caused quite a stir at the end of last year with his article in the New York Times about the perceived provinciality of San Francisco restaurants. Whether you agree with his opinion or not, many people viewed his article as throwing down the gauntlet. With Coi, Chef Patterson put his money where his pen is. While I am not sure that he has necessarily taken culinary innovation to the next level, the style of Coi is certainly more akin to Winterland and Manresa than Boulevard or Bistro Fill-in-the-blank. What I am sure of is that Coi is a delicious and welcome addition to the Bay Area food scene. Welcome back, Chef Patterson.

The decor is rather minimalist in both the spacious lounge area and the intimate rectangular interior dining room, with a color palette of grey, brown, and beige tones. The only bit of bright color is in the large flower arrangement at the far end of the windowless dining room. The overhead lighting is diffused by brown rice paper covering the ceiling, and votive candles floating in wood blocks are placed on each table, casting a flattering warm glow over each table. Creamy beige Frette linen and ceramic holloware imported from Japan complete the table ensemble. The framed black and white photographs on the wall are actually MRI's (magnetic resonance imaging) of corn, onion, and various fruit.

Coi's menu offers two options: a ten-course tasting menu at $105 per person or a four-course menu (with three or four selections for each course) at $75 per person, which includes an 18% service charge (basically equivalent to approximately $90 for tasting menu and $65 for the four-course menu before tip). The tasting menu is not required to be ordered by the entire table, and the kitchen is also flexible in substituting items between the tasting menu and the four-course menu. On my last visit, our dining party ended up ordering the entire menu, with only one person having the tasting menu. I was quite happy at how adaptable and accommodating the kitchen was, without sacrificing quality. I would note, however, that the tasting menu is more refined and better articulated in terms of conveying the delicate flavors of Patterson's offerings.

To start, the kitchen sent out an amuse of finely diced celery root and fennel doused in a champagne vinaigrette, presented in single-serving spoons whose circular handles created a support to allow the spoons to be free-standing. The tart, crunchy and cold vegetable mixture was almost sorbet-like and very refreshing. The second amuse was a chilled foamy carrot soup with a hint of lemongrass and cilantro, with bits of pickled mango and strands of glass noodles hidden at the bottom of the bowl. The sweet scent of the carrots intermingling with the Thai spices was as enchanting as the taste.

The first official course of the tasting menu was one of the most impressive flavor and texture combinations I have experienced. A forkful of bone marrow was sauteed and topped with a spoonful of pearly grey California osetra caviar, accompanied by a quenelle of cold pureed beets. The bone marrow was crisp and golden outside as though it had been tempura-fried and rich and buttery inside, highlighted by the salty caviar and the sweet beets. This well-articulated combination of hot, cold, sweet, savory, creamy, and crispy in a single dish was powerful.

The next course, raw scallops with shaved curls of ripe avocado, edible purple pansies, and razor thin radish disks, sprinkled with sel gris, was also quite a nice flavor combination, not to mention beautiful in appearance. The meyer lemon and olive oil on the bottom of the plate provided just enough seasoning without overpowering the delicate scallops. The only problem with this lovely dish was that the scallops were just slightly past their ideal stage of freshness. While freshness is critical for any crudo, scallops are particularly persnickety in that regard.

Patterson returned to batting a hundred with the asparagus salad. I was astounded by how fresh and perfectly cooked-- I mean exactly, perfectly, not a millisecond too soon or too late-- the thick asparagus spears were. With crumbled pieces of creamy hard-boiled egg and bits of crunchy, buttery levain croutons scattered on the top and a creamy swirl of pale green sauce ravigote (veloute with chives and tarragon) encircling the plate, this simple dish was breathtakingly good. The crispy pig's feet that followed was just as successful. The shredded pig's feet was meaty and chewy, almost like carnitas, inside a golden-brown panko-crusted exterior, placed on a bed of whipped yukon gold potatoes. The frisee lettuce dotted with bacon vinaigrette on the side was simultaneously rich and refreshing, with the bits of pancetta in the dressing echoing the bacony flavor of the pigs' feet.

As a thoughtful counterpoint to the richness of the previous dishes, the next course was a small bowl of chilled pea puree soup containing fresh peas and a scoop of ricotta sorbet. The sweet-sour flavor of the ricotta came through clearly in this refreshing soup like a soprano melody, and the spike of lime and mint flavors in the puree added to the sparkling freshness. Until I tasted the sweet and crunchy fresh peas interspersed in the soup, I never realized how much I love peas. (The tasting menu portion of the soup is perfect; in the larger serving size in the four-course menu, even these stunning flavors grew a bit weary.)

The last seafood dish was a rectangle of sauteed sea bream, with perfectly salty crisp skin and moist white fish underneath, resting on a slice of tender pork belly on top of a bed of braised lettuce in a saffron citrus sauce with cubeba oil. The sea bream and the pork belly worked well together, each complementing the flavors of the other meat, and the braised lettuce was surprisingly very flavorful and vibrant. I would have expected braised lettuce to simply wilt and die, or at the very least, be overpowered by the fish and the pork. I was wrong on all counts. This simple yet unexpectedly tasty fish dish transitioned to the final savory course, steamed lamb roll with braised artichoke hearts, charred cipollini onions, and lavender-lamb jus. Like Patterson's other dishes, this lamb dish combined different textures, flavors, and scents to create a multi-sense taste experience.

From the four-course menu, the roasted monkfish in a light yuzu sauce with Chinese broccoli was exceptional. Monkfish is notoriously difficult to prepare, and I usually refrain from ordering it because I dislike the overly chewy texture that often results. The monkfish preparation at Coi tasted like perfectly prepared sweetbread, with the yuzu providing a pleasant tangy, zesty accent as well as a citrus scent. The coriander-crusted duck breast with huckleberry-black olive emulsion was rich and satisfying, but I found the duck to be a bit too tough. The only dish that did not live up to the level of the rest of the menu offerings was the wild mushroom cracked wheat risotto topped with ramp foam. It seemed that because the cracked wheat is naturally tougher and more substantial than arborio rice, the risotto had to be cooked for longer, but instead of getting rid of the toughness, it merely became sort of mushy and chewy at the same time. Although the ramp foam and the mushrooms were both beautiful when tasted alone, these elegant flavors got lost when combined with the rest of the risotto.

Among the desserts, my favorites were the meyer lemon meringue pie with graham cracker crust and a side of celery sorbet, and the medjool date terrine with Vietnamese coffee ice cream. In keeping with the rest of the menu, these desserts were unique yet delicious. I could clearly taste celery in the sorbet but the strong flavor worked quite well in a sweet dessert formulation, and complemented the lemon meringue. The rich medjool date terrine almost tasted chocolately without the overwhelming heaviness that a chocolate dessert can sometimes leave behind. In fact, I preferred it to the actual chocolate tart, which I felt was incongruous with the tamarind gelee although the smoked yogurt sauce was certainly interesting.

The area where Coi could use improvement is service. There are not very many tables yet the servers seemed confused and lost. Although friendly and solicitous, their insecurity and nervousness were palpable as they tentatively served the courses, working to remember the components of the dishes being served, and seemed generally unable to strike a balance between being hovering or absent. The only person confident in his knowledge and expertise was the wine director, Paul Costigan. Yet, despite his casual demeanor, even he seemed overextended at times in trying to coordinate the front of the house and oversee the somewhat inexperienced staff.

Overall, my experiences at Coi were quite gratifying, even after just a couple of months of opening. The restaurant atmosphere and Patterson's cuisine are sophisticated, modern, and very appealing. I would not be at all surprised to see Coi join the ranks of destination restaurants in San Francisco where reservations are sadly difficult to obtain.

1 comment:

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