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My first taste of Daniel Patterson's cooking at Frisson was so exciting that I immediately regretted that I'd never had the chance to eat at his previous San Francisco venue, Elisabeth Daniel. Some of the amazing dishes at that initial visit to Frisson included fried bone marrow topped with caviar, corn-brioche pudding glazed with truffle butter, and sea bass on braised lettuce perfumed with an exotic essential oil called litsea cubeba that I'd never heard of.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Prix-fixe menu $75
Open for dinner from Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. (lounge opens at 5:30)
Parking: valet, $8
Muni: 12, 15, 41
Noise level: low
But in between my first and second meal at Frisson, the menu changed dramatically. Gone were the bone marrow, corn pudding, and litsea cubeba. The lively nightclub atmosphere of the place didn't quite mesh with Patterson's fine dining, it seems. And not too long after that, Patterson was gone from Frisson, too.
His philosophies were easily tracked in print, in Aroma: the Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance, co-written with Bay Area perfumer Mandy Aftel (where I learned that litsea cubeba was distilled from the fruit of the may chang tree). And there was a provocative piece published in the New York Times entitled "To the Moon, Alice?" in which Patterson expressed concern that the fresh and seasonal minimalist style so successfully practiced at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and widely followed locally had stifled Bay Area restaurant experimentation. Where were the innovative, daring creators like Spain's Ferran Adria and New York's Wylie Dufresne? (It was rumoured that the hue and cry occasioned by his criticism prompted Patterson to send Waters who never commented on the article flowers and an apology.)
He named his new place Coi (pronounced kwa, an uncommon French word meaning tranquil), just begging to be mispronounced. It seemed a coy move, as quixotic as writing a book that featured recipes for both bath oils and pastries and an article that attacked a beloved gastronomic icon. As well as choosing a location in a neighborhood more noted for strip bars than $100-a-person restaurants.
But Coi is indeed a calm and tranquil oasis on its block. There are big picture windows on Broadway, but they illuminate the lounge area, which features its own limited menu of about a dozen simple dishes. Dinner guests are led to an interior room, a golden-lit, windowless womb with about eight white-linened tables lined up on either side at plush banquettes upholstered with creamy, tweedy fabrics. Glowing light emanates from both above and behind the banquettes. I felt like I was in an especially refined spaceship.
You are offered a choice of two menus: a tasting menu with a lineup of 11 dishes, or another of four courses with several choices per course. This was the farewell dinner for my beloved colleague, food writer Jonathan Kauffman, who was leaving the East Bay Express that week to join our sister paper the Seattle Weekly. We went straight for the tasting menu, because it offered more examples of Patterson's kitchen philosophies and it felt festive and indulgent. (Also enjoying the tasting menu was the pair we recognized dining across the way, noted Manresa chef David Kinch and his girlfriend, who writes a high-life food blog called Chez Pim.)
It opened with a tiny chopped mix of vegetables and herbs, carefully formed into an oval and presented on a spoon curled like a baby's, more of a palate-cleanser and an announcement of the kitchen's intentions than a salad. Immediately following was a daring, airy pink grapefruit mousse atop mixed citrus sections threaded with tarragon. Alongside the dish, on a ceramic tray (most of the dinnerware is by Sausalito-based modernist potter Edith Heath), is a dab of grapefruit oil mixed with essences of ginger, tarragon, and black pepper, which is meant to be dabbed on your wrist and sniffed during the consumption of the starter. We felt game, interested, but a little foolish. As the introduction to Aroma states, "While taste has just a handful of sensations sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami aroma has an almost unlimited palate," but sniffing the oils didn't noticeably add to our enjoyment of the already layered and fragrant dish.
There was no comparable sniff test during the almost-overpowering succession of delicious food that arrived at our table. I was thrilled that the next course was a reappearance of the crispy sauteed bone marrow coins topped with ostera caviar and sided with a dab of bright beet puree (oddly misidentified as blackberry by a confused server). Almost everything that followed was as inventive and thrilling. An arrangement of pearly sea scallop sashimi was ideally mated with avocado, Meyer lemon, radish, olive oil, and crunchy grains of the artisanal salt called sel gris. Beet carpaccio was enticingly capped with surprisingly pungent summer truffles and slicked with nutty Moroccan argan oil. A minty chilled spiced ratatouille soup was presented as two separate purees in one bowl, summer squash and eggplant, with a knot of diced ratatouille vegetables in the center. The final fillip was a delicate pour of a roasted red pepper and tomato soup added at table.
Two of my favorites followed: a fat ravioli filled with sweetbreads buried under black truffle foam, and a grilled ayu, an oily smeltlike fish, atop brown mousseron beans, with tiny cauliflower buds, a swirl of silky cauliflower sauce, the whole touched with curry. We loved the different textures, the sharp flavor of the oily fish against the bland cauliflower, and the witty use of the cauliflower buds, unprocessed and transformed.
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