Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Flavors of place @ Coi

373 Broadway
San Francisco

An evening at Coi will expand your culinary vocabulary. At a recent visit, the 11-course tasting menu was a progression of fascinating flavors, textures and scents. Several times I had to quiz the obliging waiter about ingredients that I'd never encountered before.

Daniel Patterson, the chef at the helm of Coi (pronounced "kwah"), emphasizes "flavors of place" in his menu, which changes daily. Coi's Web site elaborates on this point, describing the chefs' use of "the best ingredients we can find in our area: cultivated plants grown from heirloom seeds; wild-harvested leaves, flowers, barks and roots; local fish, seaweeds and coastal grasses; pastured meat, poultry and eggs from small farmers"

When the server presented the first course, a salad of pink grapefruit, ginger, tarragon and black pepper, he pointed out a dot of oil at the side of the plate. This oil had been infused with the ingredients on the plate before us, and we were encouraged to enjoy the scent, even to dab it on our wrists if we wished. It made a pleasant spicy perfume, but it faded too quickly from my skin.

(The restaurant reviewer for the New York Times felt "a little absurd" when he was served the same dish during a visit to Coi. I guess I like playing with my food. He also explained the restaurant's name, derived from an archaic French word for tranquility.)

A dish described in the menu as "shiny beets" turned out to be thin slices of beet topped with a layer of citrus scented gel and seasoned with vadouvan, a roasted curry powder that is the French version of Indian masala.

Then we had a "tart" of goat cheese and paper-thin black olive crisps, decorated by a salad of chicories, green apple and mint (picture at left).

The course that followed may have been my favorite: young artichokes poached in olive oil, with fennel, puntarelle (a type of chicory, a leafy green with serrated leaves), slices of a very yellow-fleshed potato identified as "rose finn apple," and the zest of rangpur lime, an orange-colored hybrid of a mandarin orange and a lemon.

The next three courses each offered a choice of two dishes. First was an "abstraction of garden in winter," which turned out to be a salad of root vegetables. We couldn't decide why it was deemed an "abstraction." Perhaps this meant a reduction of the dish to its most basic, fundamental ingredients.)

Also served at this point in the menu was a crab melt, "California style." What made it Californian? Generous amounts of Dungeness crab meat, wheatgrass, sprouts? The other main ingredient, lardo, isn't particularly Californian.

The poetically named "earth and sea" was a small bowl of tofu-based soup with fresh seaweeds and mushroom dashi (Japanese stock commonly made from edible kelp). The yuba (tofu "skin") formed ribbons similar to pasta, only chewier.

The next course was lovely on the plate: vivid green cannelloni made from nettles and filled with ricotta cheese and wild mushrooms. Tiny oxalis (wood sorrel) flowers were scattered over the pasta.

I've eaten abalone before, but I never understood why it was considered a delicacy. This abalone was delicious, sauteed and served with escarole and "caper berry-sea lettuce vinaigrette." I'm still not sure what qualifies as sea lettuce -- "edible green algae" doesn't sound all that attractive -- but the tart and tangy dressing was plate-licking good.

The final entree course included a beef sirloin steak and an egg dish. I was startled by the accompaniment to the beef: the menu said only "marrow, cauliflower puree," and I was expecting something vegetal when I tried a forkful. But it was overwhelmingly rich and meaty, nearly pure marrow, much better when spread on bread. The slow-cooked egg was served with green farro (whole-grain wheat), chard, and brown-butter Parmesan sauce.

Our cheese course featured a two-year-aged cheddar, served with rye bread and a tangy little salad of cabbage and grainy mustard.

The picture at the top of this post shows one of the two desserts, quince and huckleberry parfait. I liked the almond brittle that showed up in every bite, and the hint of lemon thyme.

But I was really looking forward to the other dessert, trying to imagine "chocolate-mesquite cake, smoked pepitas praline, Kabocha squash sherbet." Vegetable ice cream, really? Believe it! It was only a little sweet, making me think for some reason of green tea ice cream.

We also enjoyed the drink pairings for this meal. With our appetizer, we were served a cocktail of sparkling Vouvray and hibiscus tea, seasoned with Indonesian long pepper, cassia, and Asian citrus. The combination was refreshing.

Other courses were paired with a Madeira, a nutty sherry, and a very tasty Japanese beer (Hitachino XH) that was new to us, in addition to several unusual wines.

This post probably reads as an interminable recital of bizarre dishes. But each plate held distinct but harmonious flavors that revealed themselves throughout the course, and each portion was exactly the right size. It was an excellent dining adventure.

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