Coi review [San Francisco]
Coi. This is California cuisine, which to me means an emphasis on the seasonality and quality of ingredients, and a certain purity in presenting them. It’s like a small ensemble where you hear each individual instrument, as opposed to an orchestra, where the sounds become blended together. It’s also clear that this is a restaurant with vegetarian tendencies, not in the strictest we-don’t-wear-leather sense, but more at meat-is-a-flavoring-enhancer rather than the dominant centerpiece of the meal. (I ordered the menu, not the vegetarian option.)
First up was the “California Bowl,” aka chips and guac. This didn’t work for me. An amuse bouche should be the ultimate tease, an extremely small but intense burst that makes you overcome with longing for the meal to begin. This too closely resembled what your average Mexican restaurant throws on the table when you sit down.
Frozen mandarin sour was next. They should have just started here. An assertive citrus combo (notes of kumquat) nicely contrasted with a meringue. It was followed by two beautiful “oysters under glass.” Here the pure it-makes-you-feel-like-a-sea-anemone flavors came through, while the gel made it interesting. Good stuff.
The beet and goat cheese tart was a let down. Practically no goat cheese flavor, only the briefest hint of the promised dill, and all too unadulterated beet. They tried to give it a little kick with the rye cracker, but not a winner, and not worthy of the tart name. It was followed by the crab soup. My general impression: they stuck some crab in miso soup. My dining companion said I was missing some of the subtleties of the cilantro accented broth. I did miss them.
Then there was “new olive oil,” which turned out to be a tasty combo of winter vegetables in a complex, olive-oil infused broth. Here the broth did contain subtleties! The broth served almost as a salad dressing (in the best sense), highlighting the olive oil.
Young carrots roasted in hay were also an interesting vegetable take. I enjoyed sampling the varied carrots, but I think this is what some people fear in California cuisine - a plate with a few roasted carrots and a little cheese.
The two mains were abalone and veal. I had never had abalone before, and it was paired with grains in a brown butter sauce. It was a simple, complementary presentation, letting you experience the abalone itself. The veal was also simple, and tender. What struck me was that the veal was about as close to a vegetable as meat could get, very tender, light, and young.
Sometimes the desserts can be a let down, especially at the end of a multi-course menu. (They can be too much of an afterthought. It seems as if some chefs think, “Oh, I guess I have to throw in a dessert too.” And you can be too full to really do them justice.) Not at Coi! Instead of lulling you to sleep with the usual creme brulee-esque this, and apple-tart that, the desserts at Coi had woke you up, and demanded attention! It was clear that the chefs were still in creative flow right up to the end of the meal. Many restaurants peak at the start, but Coi is a come-from-behind horse.
First were the fruit leathers with cheese. I appreciate this innovative choice, and they were good for fruit leather, but it didn’t quite convince me that fruit leather can become a pillar of haute cuisine. Still, a nice try.
Ah, but as the frozen mandarin sour foreshadowed, citrus shines at Coi! The two citrus desserts really woke up your palate, satisfied your sugar craving, and showed you something new all at the same time. The frozen lime marshmallow took the essence of the lemon-meringue pie concept to a higher level. The bright, intensely tart lime sorbet was expertly paired with a burnt-topped marshmallow meringue. The lime needed the meringue to give for sweetness and softness, and the meringue needed the sorbet for an amazing punch. The burnt topping evoked memories of the pie and also smores from childhood, while being sophisticated at the same time. Next pink grapefruit was served with a cross between a meringue and panna cotta. Again, the tart grapefruit proved the perfect counterpoint to the sweet smooth panna cotta-esque substance. Yes, it was the third (after the frozen mandarin and the lime) variation on the citrus/meringuey theme. Instead of this being too much, it left me wanted more of citrus at Coi.
To appease choco-philes like myself, there was a chocolate chicory dessert. This was probably the most elaborate combination of flavors on the menu. In addition to the chocolate and chicory, there were tastes of salt, olive oil, malt, cream and others. Again, I would tell they had really thought through what to do with chocolate. A winner.
Quick disclaimer: I love food, but admit having an under-educated palate for wine. So I will not be able to do the wines justice. In any case, you should definitely order the wine pairing. It is genuinely a pairing, and enhances the dishes. Considering the menu, there were mainly whites. Particularly notable was the 2011 Brooks Sweet P Riesling, which tasted almost like apple cider. I have never had a wine like it. The next wine, the 1996 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia also had strong apple notes, though it was spicy rather than sweet. It was an interesting contrast to think about.
Maybe Coi needs a y instead of an i.