A tour of COI’s kitchen reveals the heart and soul of the restaurant. Twelve people crowded around a stainless steel island, busily preparing the intricate dinner dishes. They seem oblivious to the visible lack of space, constantly dodging each other with speed and grace. Chef Daniel Patterson leading the charge with focus and calm. He comes across as confident but humble, taking the time to ask me if everything was okay with my dinner when I meet him afterwards.
Like in most art fields, skills and technique you can learn; but talent, you either have it or not. Patterson is one of the most talented chefs I know. A perfectionist, meticulously devoted to creating inventive dishes that are not shy in flavors.
With the gained popularity of Ferran Adrià’s molecular gastronomy, it’s not uncommon to find restaurants experimenting with its techniques. In most cases though, flavor is second to fuss. Not at COI. Here, every ingredient has a purpose, every technique a reason. The 11-course menu is a fête for the mind and palate, complete with surprising flavors and presentations. Unforgettable from the first bite.
San Francisco is not known for the originality of its restaurant designs. But at COI (pronounced /KWA/, a French word for tranquil), the minimalist dining room plays an important role in creating a memorable dining experience. Accessible through narrow entrance, the 10-table dining room is decorated in muted shades of brown and beige, illuminated by the soft light of rice paper ceiling panels. Wall-to-wall banquettes frame the only 2 lineups of white linen covered tables. Simple, modern, clean. As if devoid of any distractions, so eyes and mind can better focus on the food. That’s the point.
Service is extremely professional and attentive. And unlike most restaurants where each section is assigned a waiter, the experienced wait staff rotates serving the tables. Promptly helpful, pleasantly invisible.
COI offers 2 menus. At the lounge, an à la carte selection includes appetizers, salads and a few entrées. But the main attraction–the immersive 11-course menu, is reserved for the main dining room. Although items can be ordered individually, the $120 prix fixe meal is highly recommended. In 4 out 11 courses, you can choose between 2 options. The menu changes daily based on the chef’s famous perusing of local markets and relationships with top purveyors. A full page describes all ingredients and where they come from. Daily selections are visible on the restaurant’s facade, behind the glass window.
Every detail is carefully planed and meticulously executed. The 11-course meal is a playful exploration of flavors, aromas, textures and presentations.
All plates and bowls were created exclusively for the restaurant by a Japanese ceramicist. They are clean but rustic, highlighting the complexity of the food. Fresh flatware is set before every dish, teasing your mind for what’s to come.
Water is carbonated in house, served in small glass pitchers. Bread is individually baked, accompanied by butter and fleur de sel.
The following dishes are presented in the order they were served, including an amuse bouche and a palate cleanser.
To start, a delicate spherification of milk and honey. A subtle amuse bouche that hints the creativity that is to follow.
First, PINK GRAPEFRUIT, ginger, tarragon, black pepper. An inventive preparation of grapefruit reinterpreted as a dual-layer foam that resembles a poached egg in appearance and a delicate airy sorbet in texture.
Presented with a drop of scented oil reproducing the same exact aromas found in the dish. You are instructed to rub the oil on your hand, pairing aroma and flavor in a harmonious sensorial experience.
Second, CHILLED SPICED YELLOW SQUASH SOUP, vadouvan, nasturtium. The silky, creamy soup resembles the texture of light custard. Vadouvan (a fermented Indian curry-based spice) adds a nice kick while the slightly peppery nasturtium flowers bring in color and texture.
Third, CHERRY AND EARLY GIRL TOMATO PARFAIT, mcevoy olive oil, spicy bush basil, fromage blanc finger sandwich. A surprisingly flavorful tomato dish prepared with blanched cherry tomatoes immersed in a lightly gelatinous chilled tomato consommé made with agar agar. Fresh, brisk, absolutely amazing.
Forth, GAZPACHO, SOLID FORM, Mediterranean cucumber, piquillo pepper almond, mint. An interesting reinterpretation of the classic Spanish soup. According to our waiter, introduced to the menu for the first time that night. Presented as a gelatin wrapped, squid-ink stained tube over a shallow tomato soup base.
Fifth, CHANTENAY CARROT AND ARTICHOKE BRAISED IN OUR BUTTER, green cardamom, cilantro. Delightfully tender and flavorful vegetables served over a velvety carrot puree.
Sixth, HODO SOY YUBA-SPINACH RAVIOLO turnip, purslane. “A raviolo with no pasta”, announced our waiter. Instead, delicate paper-thin tofu conceals a spiced tofu spinach filling.
Sixth–second option, MONTEREY ABALONE AND FRESH SEAWEEDS mushroom dashi noodles, lime zest. A warm, Japanese-inspired salad of mollusk and seaweed, both harvested from the Monterey bay. Delicate and tasty.
Seventh, BUTTER-STEAMED WILD BLACK COD, beet-red flame grape emulsion, wild anise flowers, sorrel. Impossibly moist and tender, the fish is served over a delicious beet and grape sauce. Another beautiful dish in which each ingredient complements each other bringing contrast and enhancing flavors.
Eighth, PRATHER RANCH PORK BELLY, fresh pole and shelling beans, cipollini onions, smoked paprika. Tender thick slices of pork belly from the chefs-coveted California meat purveyor. Served over jus.
Eighth–second option, SLOW COOKED FARM EGG, roasted farro, gold chard, brown butter-parmesan sauce. In this dish, an egg is cooked for 45 minutes at the low temperature of 145ºF. The result is a perfectly cooked egg. The sauce, topped with a delicate froth, is very flavorful. Even better than the pork belly.
Ninth, FIGARO (SOYOUNG SCANLAN) figs, peppercress, balsamico. Figaro is a delicate, creamy cheese made from half cow’s, half goat’s milk. It is wrapped in fig’s leaves, which gives it a fruity aroma. Due to its very small production, this cheese is really hard to find. One more reason COI’s cheese course is a really nice treat.
As a palate cleanser, pink apple sorbet with an aromatic rose geranium froth. A brisk intermission with perfect acidity and sweetness to set your senses for sweeter endings.
Tenth, SUMMER MELON SOUP citon, niabel grape, white chocolate. The first dessert is a refreshing, sweet surprise. A silky melon soup is poured over fresh summer fruits dusted with rich white chocolate.
Eleventh, MICHEL CLUIZEL "CONCEPCION" GANACHE seascape strawberries, cocoa nib, violet ice cream. Michel Cluizel is a chocolate purist. In the business since 1948, one of the last independent cocoa artisans creates in France some of the most sought-after chocolates in the world. His chocolate ganache is thick and creamy; glossy to the eye and absolutely luscious in taste. Paired with marinated strawberries and a delicate violet ice cream, this is a great way to end a meal.
To finish, a shot of vanilla milkshake with mcevoy olive oil, served with a warm strawberry financier.
For fine dining enthusiasts, this is an amusement park for taste buds. A temple for the epicure. The 11-course dinner is a great opportunity to experiment and appreciate the sophisticated combination of flavors, aromas and textures of Daniel Patterson’s inventive cuisine. And as in any multi-sensorial experience, it is better enjoyed without distractions. If you are looking for a lively social event, this may not be the place for it. Anything less than your full attention would be like going to a symphony and talking over the entire performance. Embrace the experience. Let yourself in the hands of the talented chef. This is one of San Francisco’s best restaurants after all.
COI is at 373 Broadway