Patterson, soft-spoken and cerebral (he writes articles for the New York Times magazine), creates dishes that resemble environmental installations: a geoduck clam in a saline foam of cucumber; quivering chamomile gelée sprinkled with chamomile buds and paired with a poof of fresh ricotta; carrots smoked in foraged hay. The color palette is matcha green: Almost every dish contains it.
Several years ago, CHOW.com covered an amuse-bouche Patterson was doing in which the diner was given an eyedropper full of grapefruit perfume to put on his wrist and sniff while eating a pudding. It's interesting to see how things have changed: Patterson's food, though incredibly elegant, is far more elemental and, literally, down to earth than it was in those days when he flirted with chemistry sets.
Case in point: young potatoes shaped into tiny round stones, mingled with seaweed, resting on top of a smear of simple olive oil; or another of piquant dark squid ink and lemon juice that tasted like pickled plum. Patterson told us later that the dish was inspired by his sadness over the BP oil spill, the potatoes representing little islands engulfed in a black oil slick. (See him explain it—plus carrots in hay—in the video below.) "Without nature, I'm literally out of a job," he said of a chef's special connection to the environment.
The menu's single meat dish was a steak tartare flavored with essence of Douglas fir: a taste that you kind of had to experience to believe. The meat was chopped into centimeter-sized pieces, rather than ground, and topped with radish, wild radish flowers, fennel, and endive, all of it tasting like a savory, herbal tree.
It’s trendy these days for chefs, particularly those of the farm-to-table bent, to say they’re going for simple, "ingredient-focused" dishes. That is, you're supposed to notice the freshness of the vegetables, the pungency of the herbs, rather than focusing on intricate sauces or fancy plating. It’s hard to pull off, however, when you’re a high-end restaurant turning out tiny plates of foam and gelée. Could anything really be more removed from the natural world? But Patterson pulls it off. Part of it is that each dish is its own little environment in which the vegetables seem to tell him how they want to be rather than the other way around: A morel mushroom course at COI was just morels sautéed in butter, and was incredibly delicious. Because honestly, why mess with nature?
NB: Since COI was closed the week we were scheduled to eat through San Francisco, we dined there the last week in June. Just in case any eagle-eyed readers notice inconsistencies in what we ate and what was being served the first week in July.