Coi - San Francisco, CA

Dinner - Friday, February 8, 2013

This was supposed to be a meal at Saison's latest incarnation, but unexpected emergencies forced a weekend closure of their new space. Fortunately, their helpful front-of-house staff rebooked us at Coi for the evening - one can certainly think of worse contingencies.

We were seated in the dining area that occupies their (much-missed) former lounge, a strangely organic mix of dark wood and shag pillows. It is loud - the tables are spaced a little too closely for my linking, but c'est la vie. Choices were minimal - still or sparkling water, and would you like the wine pairing? We placed ourselves in their hands for the 11-course tasting menu. Sweet surrender.

Rice crackers, avocado cream
"Earth and Sea"
Tofu coagulated in seawater, geoduck, kale purée, oxalis flowers
Mouth-watering brininess defined this dish - from the seawater-hardened tofu, and from the raw mollusc. This salinity was offset by the mild bitterness of the kale and refreshing sour notes from the oxalis. A good starting course.

"Beets marinated with native spices"
Wild herbs, Meyer lemon curd
The rather un-beety beets were marinated in spices native to Northern California (angelica and cyprus were present, to name two). An interesting transition from the preceding dish, focusing on vegetal, medicinal notes.

Inverted fromage blanc tart
Fennel, wheatgrass
Delicious - the creamy fromage blanc was served over some raw fennel, in a dark pool of burnt fennel ash oil. Excellent textural contrast with the impossibly thin buckwheat crisp. The verdant wheatgrass sauce added a finely-tuned level of bitterness. Polished.

Dungeness crab
Roots, preserved blood lime
A savory broth of black tea and roasted crab shells was poured tableside. Surprisingly light, and the crab had a good amount of natural sweetness. Like the fromage blanc tart, very nicely balanced - a lot of thought went into this bowl.

New olive oil
Brassicas, charred onion broth
This plate, together with the abalone course (see below), were my favourites of the evening. A near-overwhelming amount of excellent olive oil (the source of which I have regretfully forgotten) purposefully dominated the dish, although it was lightened with a touch of champagne vinegar. The crunchy brassicas and a spot of dandelion green purée were almost supporting actors, their flavours transmitted (and transmuted) through the oil.

Young carrots roasted in hay
Radish, Pecorino
Monterey Bay abalone, garum with squid ink
Grains, fresh seaweed, turnip
A very umami-centric course. The grains (spelt, barley and Egyptian wheatberry) and seaweed were toothsome under the perfectly-grilled lemon-kissed abalone. Both played well with the strong garum sauce, but let's be clear - the garum was the star of the show for me. I found its flavour completely natural, comfort food for the Malaysian soul - it is almost exactly like hae ko (petis udang in Malay), the fermented shrimp product commonly used in Southeast Asia. I suspect their production methods are very similar and extract many of the same components (glutamate being a key product).

Oil-poached and grilled grass-fed veal
Chicories, caper berry, Seville orange
Frozen lime marshmallow, coal-toasted meringue
My favourite dessert - the smokiness imparted by the toasting was a beautiful contrast to the cold meringue. Underneath, the frozen lime marshmallow (more creamy than fluffy) was refreshingly sour, especially against its sugary counterpart.

Oro blanco, buttermilk-ginger sorbet, epazote
Spiced baba cake
Dates, sesame
Very good, especially with the sandwiched layer of buttermilk and the crunch from the sesame tuile. The syrupy date was especially satisfying with the yeasty spice-coated cakes. An earthy, warming (in taste if not in temperature) course.

The next day, when someone asked me to describe our meal, I struggled. He suggested "austere" - in retrospect, a very apt description. Flavours were clean, but there was a strong emphasis on acid (sometimes tending towards astringency) and powdery textures. Still, nearly every dish made me pause and ponder its ingredients, dissecting the combinations at length. Not lusty, but thoughtful and restrained - exactly how I've caricatured Daniel Patterson in my head. We shall look back fondly on this evening.

373 Broadway Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Phone: (415) 393-9000