Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Dish on Dining: Coi

The High Price of Eating With All Your Senses
373 Broadway, San Francisco
North Beach neighborhood
PH: 415.393.9000
Dinner, Tues.–Sat., 6–10 p.m.
Reservations recommended, major credit cards accepted

Daniel Patterson’s
Coi, which celebrates its two-year anniversary this month, has been mentioned by several reviewers as one of the top restaurants in the country, not just San Francisco. But it’s a fine-dining restaurant, which means it’s pricey and reserved mostly for San Francisco’s power diners or special-occasion eaters like me.

So that’s how I ended up at Coi (pronounced “kwa”) last week for a special splurge dinner in recognition of getting another year older. (You know, the older you get, the bigger the celebration!)

Patterson, who rose to fame with his previous restaurant Elisabeth Daniel that he owned with his then wife, has chosen a smaller location in an unusual strip of Broadway next door to one of those adult entertainment showcases. The entrance leads you right into the quiet lounge, with its brown interiors and shaggy white pillows.

As the Single Guy and a solo diner this evening, this is where I was relegated to for my meal, which was a bit of a disappointment because when I made my reservations I was told that there wouldn’t be a problem getting a table in the main dining room. The lounge was perfectly fine, and the tasting menu is available there as well. But I had heard the lighting in the main room was brighter than the lounge, so my apologies for the yellow-tinted photos to come. (If you want to get a peek at the restaurant’s interiors, including the main dining room, you should check out these photos on Coi’s Web site.)

Like I said, you can order Patterson’s 11-course tasting menu at the lounge for $120. Or you can order items from the tasting menu ala carte, with the pricing at about $9 for the starter items and $15 for what they consider the “entrée” items. Keep in mind, even though you order ala carte from the tasting menu, the portions don’t get any bigger. So you’re better off getting the tasting menu. There’s also a lounge menu with popular items like the udon noodles, but from what I could see from my neighbors, the portion size wasn’t much bigger. Overall, it’s a very French approach to plating.

I feel at this point I should address the pink elephant in the room, which I’ve never seen raised in the mainstream reviews I’ve read on Coi. No, there wasn’t really a pink elephant in the lounge, although that might have liven up the place. I’m talking about the cost of the tasting menu and the portion sizes.

What is a fair price for a tasting menu of 11 courses? Some may say $120 (which is a recent markup from the Web site’s stated $115) is a fair price to be tantalized by Patterson’s innovative cooking. But when courses come out the size of quarters (you’ll see below that one course was just a 1.5 inch-square piece of cheese), then I wonder if this borders on price gouging. Sure, the ingredients might be expensive, but really, $120 (not including tax and tip)?

I struggled with this issue after my dinner and I’m still conflicted as I write this review about whether I felt like I had a satisfying meal for the money. So I did want to bring this up because I don’t want people going to Coi on my recommendation and then feeling cheated if they felt like they overpaid.

I would say you should try the tasting menu at Coi if you fall under one of the following categories:

A) People have told you in the past that “you eat like a bird.”
B) You believe the Barbara Walters’ special that says you can live to 150 if you eat smaller portions.
C) You believe trying new tastes under the master hand of a great chef is priceless.
D) You write a food blog and you need to get the word out about what’s happening in one of the buzz restaurants in your city.

OK, so enough of the debate about pricing of tasting menus. Let’s focus on the food. So here’s a rundown of the evening’s parade of bites:

I started with this lovely aperitif. The lounge actually only serves wine and beer (which probably explains why few people were there just for drinks), but it does offer about six specialty drinks. The first one, simply known as the Coi Aperitif, caught my eye with its hibiscus tea and cassia with an accent of Southeast Asian long pepper. This bubbly drink was light and refreshing, and the pepper was something you could smell on the rim of the glass but luckily not taste in the drink itself. This drink was so pretty that a woman nearby pointed to my table and said “I’ll have what he’s having.” (I love it when they do that!)

My waiter brought out an amuse bouche from the chef, and it was a signal of the kind of dinner in store for me. It was a spoon with a milk-and-honey pearl encased in gelee served alongside a wild blossom from Napa Valley. I was supposed to sniff the blossom and then swallow the pearl in one bite. I loved the concept of pairing food with scents—adding another sensory element to the dining experience. Still, the flower didn’t have a strong fragrance and the pearl was just OK. But I applaud the effort.

The first course of the tasting menu is Patterson’s signature grapefruit starter. It was a grapefruit sorbet sitting on top of chunks of fresh pink grapefruit. But next to it on the plate was a tiny dab of Coi’s signature grapefruit perfume, which I was supposed to dab on my wrist before eating. The perfume oil was a lovely fragrance, but it seemed heavier than most citrus-based scents I’ve experienced in my life. While it smelled nice by itself, IMHO it did not enhance my eating of the grapefruit dish. The perfumed oil was almost jarring next to the natural fragrance of the grapefruit.

Here’s the house-made wheat rolls and butter. I typically don’t photograph the bread offerings, but I had to showcase Patterson’s hand-made butter because he wrote about this last year in the New York Times. The butter had an intense yellow color and was a bit dense in texture. It lacked any natural sweet flavor and was only enjoyable after I sprinkled some accompanying sea salt. I appreciated that this was hand-made, an indicator of how every element of the meal has been touched by Patterson.

In the tasting menus, there were four courses where you get to make a choice. This course was one of them, and I selected the Kampachi Sashimi. (Sorry, I was so busy taking notes on what I ate that I forgot to list the alternative I didn’t select.) Two slices of Kampachi was marinated in white soy and yuzu. The flesh was firm and tasty, but this dish didn’t offer any innovation. It was just a solid offering of raw fish.

This is the Andante Dairy Fresh Goat Cheese Tart served with two dime-size bits of roasted beets with dill. In earlier reviews, I had read that Patterson—like many chefs at the time—went overboard with the foam, so I was happy that my dinner didn’t have many foam-topped dishes since I’m not a foam fanatic either. However, this goat cheese tart had a filling that could have been a foam. It was fluffy and light and I felt like I was eating air, which was disappointing because I couldn’t detect any rich flavors of the goat cheese because of that. Still, it came in a very delicate and thin tart shell—which I loved—and it was nicely paired with the beet flavors.

This is the first dish that wowed me. It’s the Wild Nettle Soup with ricotta cheese enrobed in a lemon gelee topped with an oxalis flower. The presentation was dramatic, the color of the soup was brilliant and the balance in texture was amazing. It was a complex soup that had a perfect texture—not a wimpy light broth and not a heavily creamed soup. It was just perfectly light but substantial at the same time. The many flavors came with each spoon—a bit of curry, a hint of maple syrup, a bite of tartness from the flower stems. It was a symphony of flavors and I drank up every bit, eating even the flower.

Here’s another course that was an option. I selected this artichoke dish, which was a bit like risotto, but not. This was another winner for the evening and with back-to-back home runs in courses, I thought maybe Patterson was on a row. The thinly shaved seasonal artichokes were blended with fava beans and cereal rice that was cooked almost like risotto but not fully creamed. It was topped with a pretty wildflower. The taste and overall texture of this dish made me wanting more, which made me think that it would be great if tasting menus were just that: offering you a taste so you can decide what larger portion of a course you’d want to order later. I would so eat a large plate of this artichoke dish.

Side note: A wine tasting is also offered with the tasting menu, but I opted against multiple glasses of wine. It was already a bit of a production having the servers come to deliver and remove each place settings for every single course. Instead, after I finished my aperitif, I ordered a glass of Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands of California. It was perfect!

Patterson seems to be a fan of yuba, which is the soybean-based tofu skin used in many Asian dishes. His yuba pappardelle dish seems to be consistently offered on the tasting menu. I wish it wasn’t. The yuba “papparedelle” was served in a mushroom dashi broth with five spice and baby bok choy. The Asian flavors were too aggressive and not subtle like his previous offerings. It didn’t reflect the zen approach to Japanese cuisine that I’m accustomed to.

Another course with an option, I selected this Sauteed Madara served with manila clams and parsley. My waiter informed me that Madara is a Japanese cod, which was a nice white, flakey fish. But I was thrown off by the execution. The dish came with the typical “fishy” smell that I don’t like, almost like unclean fish. (I believe fish should smell like the sea, not the fish counter of your local supermarket.) The fish itself was a bit too salty, and the sauce barely had any semblance of manila clams. If they were there, they were probably those small brown bits I saw.

Getting to the grand entrée, which was also a course with an option, I opted for the Beck Farms Pheasant. What I got were these two medallions of pheasant meat that were tasty but not very satisfying. I felt I was a giant eating a tiny meal. On the plate were these itsy bitsy pieces of roasted cauliflower florets (you could barely call them florets as much as they were cauliflower crumbs). But I have to say I did like the fusing flavors of Japanese ingredients. There were bits of sea kelp and pickled daikon in the sauce—both flavors that I love so they made the dish a winner after all.

This is my cheese course. One tiny slice of a Swiss goat's milk cheese served with a tiny wild greens salad with champagne vinaigrette. I liked the cheese. I liked the salad. I wish I had a bit more. (If I were designing a tasting course, I would have served a fan of three slices of the cheese with the greens.)

Now for the sweets. First up was this spoon carrying a citrus sorbet on some powdered sugar with spearmint. I loved the color of the sorbet but it was just OK in taste and had a bit too much of the powdered sugar underneath.

This is a Carrot Ganache Cake with Celery Sorbet. It was delicate and moist and an interesting combination of the carrot and celery flavors. I enjoyed it but wasn’t really wowed.

My final dessert course was this Banana Confit with Thyme Ice Cream. This was a very playful plating and the banana confit had a perfect thin crunch to it. It was a bit like caramelized bananas you get at Southeast Asian restaurants. This was the best of the three dessert courses, but it wasn’t necessarily exceptional.

With my tasting menu done, my server brought me this tiny cup of house-made milkshake and truffle along with my bill. It was a nice touch, but such a poor last impression to the evening. The milkshake was partly frozen so I couldn’t drink it. I really needed a spoon, which ironically after several courses of utensil changes I didn’t have one to eat this thick milkshake with. The truffle was nice and light and basically melted in my mouth.

With so much talk about the food, you’d think I wouldn’t have anything else to say about my dining experience. Well, I am going to get my full $120 worth of venting (actually, my total bill including tax, tip and two drinks came out to be $188).

Coi is from an archaic French language, and the word means “quiet.” While the restaurant’s setting with its contemporary lines and warm brown finishes does impart a quietness to it, dining in the lounge was not. The lounge wasn’t very filled (it’s not your typical North Beach hangout) but I could hear the chattering of the dining guests in the main room and out in what I suspect is garden seating. It wasn’t deafening, but it was almost like a reminder of how I was on the outside unable to enjoy the festivities of the other diners. I was such the outsider looking in.

Service was efficient, almost perfunctory. I wished my servers were more engaging, especially since I was dining alone. I did notice this one server (who actually may have been the sommelier) who was chatting it up with guests at another table. He was very animated and fun, and I wished he was working my table.

Even though I was at the lounge, some regulars walked in and ate there and Chef Patterson came out to say hi to them. He seemed really relaxed and friendly and I had visual proof that he was behind all the dishes that came out this evening.

So my final analysis of Coi? You may be surprised at my final rating after all my venting, but it’s mostly high because of the inventive and interesting tastes of the highs that I experienced. The lows were not that low to drag the overall experience down. However, my rating would have been higher if the service was more friendly and the portion sizes were more satisfying for its price.

Daniel Patterson is a star chef in sustainable dining, but his tasting menu at Coi is best served when you’re someone else’s guest because a price tag should never really be attached to such talent.

Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (inventive but not filling)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Coi in San Francisco


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you ultimately liked this place given your descriptions. But when you're paying $120 plus tax and tip and drinks you're going to be very critical. At least I am. I've been to French Laundry and in a way nothing in that high-dining category can even touch that experience. -- David

Anonymous said...

Chef Ben, the meal sounds so interesting but in the end I am disappointed... especially the total cost including the drinks! Holy cow! I work so close to this place that I might stop by to see if I can get a bowl of that soup or the risotto though. oh and Happy Birthday!

agent713 said...

Wow. I'm sitting here eating my 1/2 cup of jello from my lunch bag and thinking I need to get out more. Not sure about the price tag though. I think you have a right to be critical.

Happy Birthday!

Single Guy Ben said...

David, didn't I say you'd be surprised by my rating? But in the end, I had to judge it on the quality of the food, not the quantity. Still, did take off some points because of the price point and value. I would have rated the place 4.5 stars but took off a quarter point because of the portion sizes.

Foodhoe, the menu does change frequently so you should grab the artichoke risotto while it's in season. I think the nettle soup is a consistent offering because I've seen it mentioned in a lot of other reviews. But like I said, when you go and just order items off the tasting menu, you still get those tiny tasting portions. I kind of think it's not worth the deal.

Agent713, thanks! There's always room for Jello. LOL.

And I also have some more thoughts that I didn't squeeze into this pretty long review:

1) The food portion was pretty small. Keep in mind I shot these photos pretty close up. So things may seem larger than they may seem.

2) The food was tasty and another thing I appreciated was that they were each brought out at the right temperature. Some places will let food sit at a station when they're busy. But I really felt the servers were diligent about really getting the food hot off the stove. So I did appreciate that professionalism.