Coi: The Catbird’s New Nest

After winning its third Michelin star last year, Coi has effectively had three chefs in less than six months. Is it striking out in a new direction?

Squab with green garlic, mandarin, sauce bigarde, and pomme souffles. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

Before I even got seated at Coi, I’d been chided twice.

The first time was as I was chaining my bike up outside, when the host asked me to move it because it was blocking the sign that explains the no-parking regulations, and that would somehow interfere with Coi’s customers’ ability to get picked up. It didn’t make much sense, but I complied and my boyfriend put his down the block. We entered, and the same individual admonished us that she’d tried to confirm our reservation (via my boyfriend’s number) twice. She had not, as it turns out, which I knew because I’d only booked the table the afternoon before. We were a few minutes early, so I was caught off guard by how adamant she was. Since Coi only serves a 10-course tasting menu, I can understand how the kitchen plans every evening very carefully — but they also charge no-shows $250, so it’s not like we’d be taking a wrecking ball to the joint even if we’d bailed on a reservation made less than 30 hours before.

It’s one of those situations with no good outcome. I’m preternaturally disinclined to raise a fuss, and never more so than when professionalism requires it. But in all honesty: That’s not how a restaurant should treat people, and I can’t think of anybody who wouldn’t feel rattled and out of sorts sitting down after that. At this price point, you also can’t stop yourself from punctuating an anecdote like this with an “at this price point” — even though it makes you sound kind of like one of those assholes who goes out to eat hunting for some flimsy pretext to find fault, in the hopes of getting something comped for the table.

But that’s how the meal started. And while things only improved after that, I can’t say I got entirely what I hoped for out of Coi. But experiences at this lofty level demand heightened scrutiny.

Michelin’s priestly caste elevated Coi to three stars last October, nine years after it won its first. Chef Matthew Kirkley departed almost immediately thereafter, and Erik Anderson of Nashville’s beloved Catbird Seat (and, some time before that, The French Laundry) replaced him in January, with Daniel Patterson returning to what he’s referred to as his baby in between their respective tenures.

That’s a lot of transition to grapple with. It’s not that Coi somehow plummeted to mediocrity as a result of it; far from it. Rather, it’s afflicted with a devotion to precise plating at the expense of sensuousness. There’s fun here, but this is luxury with a flinty streak. Giving a sampling of flavors and geometric arrays precedence over the true enjoyment of eating is something other tasting menus of this caliber seem to be shifting away from. And the interior looks like the admiral’s lounge of a state-owned airline in some country that’s trying to punch above its weight on the world scene. You will get a hot towel.

I liked the sunchoke tartlet and citrus marshmallow amuse very much, more so with the intensely strawberry-forward Arteis & Co. Brut Rosé. Buried beneath edible flowers like a child in a leaf pile, the geoduck that followed was creamy and sharp at once, right up to the limit of saltiness. Salinity and strawberries characterized the next wine, a dry Clemensbusch Riesling served at a warmish temperature. Stripped of any context, it’s lovely, but that’s a narrow range of tasting notes.

The monolith of Dungeness crab terrine with spheres of pear and dabs of black sesame could have used more of the latter to draw out the crab’s essence, but the Marla Bakery bread that came next was a well-placed dose of rusticity to break up all the right angles. It’s where the meal truly felt like it started, which is perfectly acceptable in that bread is universally understood to be part of the beginning, but by that point we’d been there nearly an hour and that’s a lot of preamble.

After that, though, was the first moment of pure opulence, caviar over an egg yolk hidden beneath an airy, hazelnut-ty cream. Sturdy and incredibly rich, it was marvelous alongside a chalky, non-vintage Chardonnay that was born in the south of France and aged in the north, running afoul of E.U. regulations like a popular kid who smokes after shop class.

Sturgeon in a roast chicken sauce embodied technical excellence without much unity among its flavors. With only bay leaf and tarragon listed, it felt like it aimed low, although the chicken bridged the meal from seafood to fowl. A half-dome tourte combined foie gras, sweetbread, and black truffle with duck — the “four food groups,” our served said. (Good one.) Is it too much? Yes, of course, and no, not at all. It’s a Louis XIV sensation, but the duck was a little lost in all of that. The final savory course was squab with sauce bigarde, or bitter orange sauce — which left me wondering about the use of duck. Dusted with herbs and picking up some green garlic, the pommes soufflés were as fun to eat as the little bony bits of pigeon were to pick apart.

A ribbon of etrog, or citron fruit on ice, with a bit of anise-heavy Meletti amaro cleaned the palate, and then it was on to a Philip Togni sweet red with a toffee to land the plane. Well, you might think your palate had been cleansed, but the blood orange sorbet sheathed in little citrus discs keeps sweeping it out further. That was a pleasant surprise: It looked like it was going to the equivalent of a 12-tone Stravinsky composition, but it ended up being Mozart. And the three-tiered mint-and-coffee chocolate mille-feuille that wrapped it up was pure gratification, for which I’m thankful. With a little more warmth from the kitchen and from the front, this could have been an ethereal experience.

Coi, 373 Broadway, 415-393-9300 or coirestaurant.com

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