Daniel Patterson’s Coi – Culinary Poetry

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Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's Coi is the chef in North America, who most reminds me of Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen's noma. It is not that Patterson is recreating Redzepi's food or vice versa. Although he sources the bulk of his ingredients locally from the cornucopia of the San Francisco Bay Area, much like Redzepi does from Scandinavia, it is not that that makes me equate the two. Sean Brock of Charleston's Husk and McCrady's, is probably closer to Redzepi in that way with his determination to find and resurrect the ancestral ingredients of the Old American South to build a new cuisine truly representative of the region, much like what Redzepi has done in Scandinavia. Nor is it the way Patterson highlights a single vegetable like Redzepi does with carrots and other vegetables. Blue Hill at Stone Barns' Dan Barber and his roasted parsnips, amongst other dishes, are more reminiscent of that. Both Patterson and Redzepi have become known for using local, wild foraged plants with a special emphasis on coastal products including seaweeds and beach plants, but it is more the sensibility with which they are used that unites the two chefs in my mind, how they make emphatic, personal culinary statements about their own terroir and about how each of them creates a very personal poetry with food. 

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I have been to Coi twice now. The first time was three years ago and now this time. The restaurant has evolved over that time. The decor, though not vastly different than it was then, has been upgraded and enhanced.  The room feels much lighter as a band of dark brown around the room just under the ceiling has been repainted a lighter beige. Contrasting that, the floor is now darker than it had previously been. The addition of two rectangular windows – one into the kitchen and the other opening onto the restaurant's entrance – provides an airy feeling as well as a little mystery with the peek into the kitchen's activities. The net effect is that the room remains warm and inviting, though a tad more elegant.

Patterson's cooking at Coi does not flagellate with flavor and extreme intensity. That is not to say that his food is not flavorful and delicious, because it is – very much. Patterson's cooking is one of subtlety and nuance more than explosiveness. It is a cooking in which all the senses and indeed the entire brain is engaged. Like many chefs of his generation, Patterson has embraced influences from Japan in his cooking with liberal use of ingredients such as dashi, yuzu, seaweed, sudachi and daikon amongst other elements. One might then ask, how does this represent the terroir of the Bay Area? The truth is that the cultural influence of Japan and the rest of Asia are quite prominent in the area as is the influence of the Mediterranean. Many products originally from those regions happen to grow well around the Bay Area and the rest of California. Patterson and others have taken them and mixed them to a point that is more reflective of what Northern California is today than it is reflective of either region's cuisines individually. While the ingredients have been utilized along side each other, I would not say that Patterson's cuisine is a "fusion" cuisine, though. Rather, it is a nuanced and superior blend of influences resulting in a culinary sensibility that is very reflective of its place and of him.

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I went to Coi with my friends the evening of my arrival in California. Though our reservation was at 6PM, the opening time of the restaurant, I was still on Eastern time, therefore, I was eating at a more fashionable virtual 9PM. We were the first ones to the restaurant and were treated to a glass of Michel Forget Brut Rose, a nice welcome. Our meal started with a refreshing dish, a Frozen Mandarin Sour with Angostura Bitters, Kumquat and Satsuma Ice. This was not particularly sweet and had nice acid tones from the citrus – very pleasant.

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The influence of Japanese and other Asian ingredients was apparent in the next dish, Oysters Under Glass, which featured Chelsea Gem oysters from the Eld Inlet of Puget Sound with yuzu and rau ram otherwise known as Vietnamese coriander. A pairing with a nice, crisp Albariño worked quite well with the briny seafood and the acid rich citrus elements.

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I am not crazy about vegetarian cuisine masquerading as meat in order to substitute for meat, however, when done cleverly and is delicious in its own right, that kind of dish can be particularly marvelous. Such was the case with Patterson's dish, Pasture, a composition meant to appear to be a dish of beef tartare. Composed of beets roasted in hay (certainly two of the ingredients of the year in 2010) with fresh cheese, wild sprouts and flowers, the dish was certainly not meant to taste like beef tartare. It was, however, quite fun, delicious and totally satisfying much as it was at Patterson's Alchemy of Taste and Smell Dinner in New York City earlier in November minus the added scent rubbed on the wrist. In this case, Patterson made an allusion to a meat dish that added playfulness without trying to be a substitute for the meat. These beets need not play substitute for anything. They stand perfectly well as themselves. The dry German Reisling paired with this dish played along nicely with the sugary beets.

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Anyone who has been following my blog recently knows that crab done well can make me weak in the knees, especially if the flavors work to elicit memories of my all-time favorite dish. While Coi's Crab Melt California Style was sufficiently different in flavor and texture from that favorite dish, it was still marvelous with great crab flavor from the California Dungeness crab, additional richness from Steffan's lardo, crispness from toasted bread and a bolt of tartness from a wheatgrass emulsion. A lovely mineral rich Chablis provided a perfect pairing. This was my favorite dish of the night and though it did not make my Top 5 Dishes of 2010, it was certainly in my top 25. 

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Eggs have become de rigeur, it seems, on contemporary menus and Coi was no exception and when done as well as Patterson's Farm Egg, a luscious runny, deep yellow yolk atop a cauliflower puree resembling beautifully cooked whites, in turn topping a nettle-dandelion salsa verde, I have absolutely no problem with it. When it is paired with as lovely a chardonnay as it was, I am even more delighted.

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Japanese influence was once again prominent in Patterson's next dish, Earth and Sea. Typically, as in Catalunya, mar y montaña dishes tend to mix some variety of meat with some variety of seafood. This dish, however, was vegetarian and mixed steamed tofu mousseline and yuba with mushroom dashi and fresh seaweed. Loaded with umami, this was a lovely dish. Paired with this was one of the more interesting and delicious wines I've had in a while, the 2004 Oslavje from Radikon, a white from Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia composed of chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc. Mineral rich and complex, this fascinating and unique white reminded me just a bit of the whites of Chateau Musar.

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I'm a sucker for mushrooms and Patterson's Savory Chanterelle Porridge provided a nice depth of wild mushrooms in a warm and comforting package. The addition of crisp root vegetables added textural interest cress added a little peppery spice and sherry a bit of warmth. The 2006 Marsannay from Philippe Roty was our segue into red. The pinot noir showed a nice Burgundian finesse that didn't overwhelm the savory porridge.

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For a while I wasn't seeing much beef (other than Wagyu) on tasting menus, but I think it is making a comeback of sorts. Based on Coi's Prather Ranch Beef with black garlic, carrot, sudachi, spinach and cilantro, it should. The real beef flavor was welcome and beautifully accented by the black garlic and the other accompaniments. A not over-oaked reasonable alcohol (13%) Beronia Gran Reserva Rioja 2001 complemented the beef nicely.

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It is not at all uncommon for a composed cheese course to facilitate the transition from savory to sweet. Patterson's Grilled Cheese with Beaufort with rye, onion and pickled daikon fulfilled that function, but with a nod to Scandinavia that was augmented by a pairing with 2004 Pripp's Carnegie Porter from Sweden. The insertion of a beer, let alone  a Scandinavian one, was a playful and tasty nod to the hot culinary turf of those northern climes. While this course was distinctly savory, it signaled a change that flowed easily into Pastry Chef Bill Corbett's fine desserts.

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The first dessert was Cheesecake. Corbett played with the concept, creating a dish using goat cheese, crumbled graham cracker (the crust of a traditional NY cheesecake), Niabell grape and nasturtium. This fun and tasty dessert, paired with a sparkling rose from Bugey Cerdon by Bernard Rondeau mixed the sweetness of the Concord like grape , the gamay of the wine, the tartness of the goat cheese and the textural crumb of the graham cracker to a satisfying conclusion.

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Corbett made a version of his Cinnamon Smoked Apples at the Alchemy of Taste and Smell dinner in NYC a few weeks before this dinner that totally knocked my socks off. At Coi, they were still serving an earlier iteration with iced buttermilk and hazelnuts that was good, but lacked the more pronounced smoked cinnamon flavor present in the later NYC version. Ironically, had I not had the later version first, I think I would have enjoyed this earlier version more than I did.The pairing with a 2006 5 Puttonyos Tokaji from The Royal Tokaji winery was superb, but then there are few dessert wines in the same league as a good Hungarian Tokaji of 5 puttonyos or above. The sweetness is just so well balanced by the nectar's acidity, that it is a nearly perfect dessert in and of itself.

Our lovely meal soon came to a close with a selection of Chef Corbett's outstanding mignardises. In the title of this piece, I called Chef Daniel Patterson's cooking at Coi "culinary poetry," a descriptive that may not be intuitive, but which I believe applies to his, Rene Redzepi's and other examples of technoemotional cooking. Poetry, as the following definition from About.com explains is a rather amorphous medium of literature that has typically taken either a written or verbal form:

 

"Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time. The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define."
Patterson's cooking does not use written or verbal language to evoke an emotional response. Rather, despite his rather impressive talents as a writer (he has written for the New York Times amongst others), Patterson's principal language for creative expression is the language of food, of what is on the plate. His use of the visual, olfactory and gustatorial senses do evoke an emotional response, at least in me. His poetry is not that of T.S. Eliot or e.e.cummings or Allen Ginsberg. Rather, with his sense of place, adventurous spirit and reverence for the natural world, I see the New England born Patterson as representing more of a culinary version of Robert Frost.

 

 


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5 Responses to Daniel Patterson’s Coi – Culinary Poetry

  1. Hi docsconz

    I found your wonderful review just now when I was checking on “what’s new with my son who doesn’t have time to chat.” Between redesigning the coi lounge, flying to London for the Top 100 chefs (du monde), parting ways with Lauren Kiino etc, he’s not had a second to spare.

    Daniel is a poet (as is his Mom). Because of an innate sense of metaphor (this is like that), he is able to visualize and actualize unique pairings of foods, their tastes, smells, etc. But he was writing amazing poetry as a young boy, as well.

    Just wanted to thank you again for appreciating my son who I admire, respect and adore. Your attention to detail and sensitivity to the nuances of food are striking and a gift to all who read your words.

    I hope we’ll meet again. Let me know next time you’re in CA.

    Best regards,
    Myrna

    • docsconz says:

      Thank you, Myrna, for such a lovely comment! I am indeed a great admirer of your son. I also very much enjoyed meeting you while I was out there. It’s easy to see why daniel is such a special person, when he has such a special mother! Speaking of which, I hope you have a wonderful Mother’s Day!

  2. Pingback: My Top 25 Restaurant Meals of 2010 | Docsconz

  3. uhockey says:

    First of all – great blog – just happened upon it the other day and have really enjoyed a multitude of your posts. Like my own blog I love the fact that you comment on family and outside interests in addition to the food or the restaurant – too many others seem to shy away from any significant detail making their reviews somewhat sterile, though still enjoyable.

    Secondly – thanks for this review. Heading out to The Bay in September and was on the fence about Coi, but this sells me on it hook, line, and sinker.

    Cheers,
    Mike

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