final dinner at COI (San Francisco)
This was our final dinner in San Francisco. We'd been in San Francisco, then Napa, then Mendocino for a few relaxing days. This was the last night we'd be on the west coast.
I'd made reservations at Coi (pronounced "quaw" according to the woman who called me to confirm my reservation) and was looking forward to it quite a bit. My husband Tom was not so much in the mood for one more fancy dinner and I erroneously thought that one could get food a la carte in addition to the chef's tasting. Apparently, that's only in the front room and therefore he was not so pleased at the start of the meal.
I can't lie, the meal started off on a rocky note. The amuse bouche, a carmelized pear root beer as well as the first course, pink grapefruit with ginger, black pepper, and tarragon were super super salty. It was very weird. Also, the flavor combinations were so... I don't know. We weren't impressed. The Coi aperitif was what was served with the pink grapefruit. (I can't find the ingredients in the cocktail though). The cocktail was pretty tasty.
Second Course: Raw oysters over roasted beets, and glacier lettuce. This was... troublesome. Now, I eat raw oysters a lot. I like them. I have spent some lovely afternoons and evenings in Welfleet sucking down raw oysters on the half shell and drinking beer. Ah, good times. That said, these oysters hit my gag reflex like crazy. It happened with the first one, I kind of gagged. The oyster tasted fine, I just couldn't get it down without serious effort and gagging that I tried to do quietly. I was weirded out. There was no good reason for this to happen, so I figured I'd take the gelee off the second oyster (sort of lemon scented/flavored) and give it a go for the second one. Yeah, not so good. I didn't get sick or anything but my gagging was noticed by our server that came over to ask if there was a problem. So embarrassing. And afterward, I really didn't feel well. I was afraid that the entire meal was going to be a bust.
The wine pairing for the oysters was DOMAINE DE LA FRUITIERE MUSCADET, FRANCE 2008. Um, it was pretty good.
The next three courses continued to be sort of strange for us- we just weren't getting what the chef was trying to tell us with the food. It was confusing to our senses and palates. (speaking of the chef, it was around this time he started presenting some of our courses) They were:
3. Inverted cauliflower tart with bone marrow, rye, and dill (paired with Coenobium Bianco, Italy 2007)
4. Sunchoke-buttermilk soup, hot/cold with asian pear, cocoa nib and mint (paired with the E. Guigal Cote du Rhone Blanc, France 2007, which was wonderful.)
5. Young carrots roasted in hay, sprouts, pecorino (paired with Domaine des Baumard Savennieres, France 2005.)
I was afraid this meal was going to be a bust. On the positive, the sommelier was very nice and explained each wine as he poured it, and I felt very comfortable with him. All the service was really wonderful.
HOWEVER- then at the 6th course, things began to turn around.
6. Monterey Bay abalone grilled on the plancha with nettle salsa verde, spicy breadcrumbs, and lemon zest, paired with William Fevre Chablis, France 2007. At this point, we were wary of the odd ingredients and were kind of apprehensive about the nettle salsa verde. But the abalone was grilled perfectly and flavored and seasoned wonderfully, and the salsa verde was actually quite delicious. The breadcrumbs provided a really nice textural contrast. It was my first abalone and I loved it. Also, French Chablis is one of my favorite style of wines, so I was starting to perk up.
7. Pan-grilled matsutake mushrooms with potato-pineneedle puree, paired with Joseph Swan Pinot Noir "Saralee's Vineyard" California 2005. Again, we were wary about the pineneedle in the puree, it seemed so precious and daring to be daring (as we sort of thought of the first 5 courses). The dish was delicious. A side note, it was the third time Tom had been served these mushrooms (after Cyrus and The French Laundry). The pinot that accompanied the dish was just lovely.
8. Slow roasted lamb with chard leaves and stems, garum, and rosemary, paired with Bonny Doon "Le Cigare Volant" California 2004. OH MY GOD. Oh my god! So good. Oddly enough, the chard stems might have been my favorite ingredient of the night. The lamb was wonderful as well, but those chard stems just melted in your mouth and had the most amazing flavor.
9. Montgomery cheddar from Neil’s Yard in the UK, with sweet and spicy (raw) greens and little sourdough (??) crisps. An amazing cheese course, one of the best cheeses we'd had on our entire trip. (And we had a lot of great cheese) I had a break from the pairing for this course.
Onto the 2 dessert courses:
10. "PB&J" - Orange Blossom Cake, Niabel grape sorbet, pistachio butter, apple, sorrel, paired with Marenco Pineto Brachetto D'Acqui, Italy 2008. Wow- the Niabel grape sorbet was absolutely amazing. The grape flavor was so fruity and intense.
11. Caramelized white chocolate parfait, semi-frozen with huckleberries and anise, paired with Mas Amiel, France 2006. This was a nice way to end the meal. Though, I'd say that the parfait was actually frozen instead of semi-frozen. Heh.
So, certainly a mixed bag. I would go back though, to sample what was on the menu that night. The chef swung for the fences in every dish- and in our opinion, sometimes he struck out, but he hit it out of the park the rest of the time. While we didn't get what he was doing half the time, there were real strokes of brilliance which was... exciting. The lack of complete perfection maybe made the high points even higher, if that makes any sense. We felt like we interacted with our meals more, by discussing what worked and what didn't, instead of sitting back and appreciating an artistic food experience. I was glad it was at the end of the trip, because I think our food vocabulary was further along than it was when we arrived in San Francisco.
To witness an exciting talent (that IMHO is still finding its footing) I would certainly recommend Coi. (FYI, the location is in the North Beach area and be warned, it's on the next block over from all the nudie bars on Broadway Street, which made for an interesting walk.)
373 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133
My husband, upon reading, commented that I was nicer than he would have been. I don't think he was as forgiving of the first half of the meal as I was, which is entirely understandable- especially since he was not thrilled to be there in the first place.
But he did remind me about one aspect of the meal that we discussed on one of the better courses- the mushrooms with the potato-pineneedle puree. While I was relieved it didn't taste like a care freshener, we did agree that it didn't actually taste like much of anything else, including potato. It was still pretty delicious, in my opinion- but it was more a puree of butter, cream, and something tasteless that held it together. Seasoned nicely.
I would add that the potato/pine needle puree not only did not taste of pine needles, it did not taste of potatoes either. It was kind of tasteless and fatty, although that may have been because of the intense flavor of the mushrooms, in part. Course 7 was only half-successful, IMO.
The meal ended well, but overall I was disappointed with Coi. Especially when you consider that two of the final dishes were desserts and one was simply a case of letting the cheese speak for itself. The flavor and (in particular) the texture combinations of the first half of the meal were not pleasing to me. It may just be that the chef's approach is not a good fit for my tastes. There was a persistent brininess to the start of the meal that was off-putting (and I love salt!)
On the plus side, there is clearly imagination and some sound technique at work. The lamb was perfectly done and the abalone dish was amazing. The service was excellent. The beer list was short, but well thought out. I had the Moortgat 6 for the bulk of the meal and the Hitachino Next Espresso Stout at the end, and they were both very good.
I enjoyed reading your review! I was there last month and had a different first half of the menu, but courses 6-11 were the same as yours, but with an Andante cheese for course 9. This was my third visit to Coi, and each visit surpassed the previous excellent visit. I definitely don't think that Coi is a restaurant for everyone, however. I am a huge fan of Alinea in Chicago, so it's probably not surprising that I welcome the creativity at Coi. With that said, I have a few additional thoughts.
The abalone stood out for me mostly because of the texture - it was sliced thinly and reminded me of a meatier more flavorful version of geoduck clam.
The controversial potato-pine needle puree was delicious and still a mystery to me. I didn't taste any pine needle but could smell it. I didn't taste any cream or butter either, but the texture was heavenly. It was like an unsweet softened marshmallow. I am wondering if sap from the pine needle or maybe japanese mountain potato was used to produce that texture. Or perhaps it was some molecular gastronomy miracle.
The lamb was my favorite dish of the evening and finally laid to sleep my previous "favorite lamb" memory from New Zealand. Besides the fact that it was cooked perfectly, the flavor of the lamb was, for lack of a better word, lamby. As opposed to the beef flavored lamb that most other restaurants use.
I also thought the cheese was fantastic, and that serving it with the sweet and spicy greens made it even better. I think the chef deserves some credit here as well as the cheesemaker.
The PB&J was my least favorite dish of the evening because it was a fancified version of something that I prefer to be simple. However, the brachetto pairing saved the day - the two are not so great alone, but I was impressed with how they tasted together.
We had a group a five people drinking wine, which was plenty for a custom wine pairing that knocked our socks off. In particular, a 2008 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc brought out the minty and herbal scents in two of our earlier courses.
They were braised and tender and had all the chard flavor without the bitterness found in the leaves (which I like very much as well.)
We used chard stems a lot when cooking chard, we separate them from the leaves, chop them up, and then sautee them for a few minutes before adding the greens.
| "Oddly enough, the chard stems might have been my favorite ingredient
| of the night."
| Would love to know why you thought the chard stems were so
| wonderful.| When I buy chard, I toss the stems, only eating
| the leaves in a quick stir-fry.
The secret to this dish is that they use garum (the ancient Roman sauce) in the braise.
re: Paul H
I purchased red and green chard at the farmer's market this a.m. When I returned, I googled 'garum'. Wasn't surprised to find that it's a fish sauce, anchovy base. You can substitute Vietnamese fish sauce - nuoc-nam, unfortunately, I didn't have any so I chopped the stems and gave them a quick braise in olive oil, then added the leaves (used the red-save the green for when I get the fish sauce).
The stems were tender, but I felt the leaves had overcooked - I'll try again.
Here's an article from the NYTimes about COLATURA, which is made on the Amalfi Coast, and is today's version of garum.
I found that COLATURA is available in Oakland at the RockRidge Market Hall.