California cuisine was always more of a feeling than a thing. The phrase is from the 1980s, when cooks were discovering new ingredients, and the very fact of goat cheese and baby vegetables on the same plate was thrilling. But it all got stale and clumsy fast, after mango salsa and beet and goat cheese salad showed up everywhere, in neighborhood bistros from Mendocino to suburban San Diego and beyond.
I thought about this over the weekend, after a dinner at Coi in San Francisco. The Spanish chef Josean Alija was in town, and he and Coi’s Daniel Patterson were collaborating. Alija cooks at Nerua, the restaurant at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. He and Patterson traded riffs, taking turns cooking what turned out to be 10 beautiful courses.
Alija’s included a clever version of Basque bacalao al pilpil, and desiccated tomatoes in a clear caper broth fragrant with burnt rosemary and other herbs. But it was Patterson’s dishes that made the bigger impression that night. There were silken shaved celtuce stems over tiny rounds of craggy new potatoes, above a sauce in which an infusion of burnt hay swirled like oil in a lava lamp. There was a so-called inverted beet and goat cheese tart: The rye “crust” preserved the gritty texture of coarse-ground grain in the thinnest, most delicate of wafers.
The meal opened with the California Bowl (pictured), a joke on West Coast hippie food of the 1970s: crisp crackers of whole wheat and flax, blistered like pork rinds, next to a wheat grass and tofu dip as unctuous as high-fat butter.
After an evening of surprises and unanticipated delights, I realized just how much Patterson’s cooking is in the tradition of California cuisine, and how far it transcends it—his beet and goat cheese tart, for instance, was a brilliant reworking of a 30-year-old marriage. Patterson takes the ingredients that animated California cuisine’s first wave, and revives them in a way you have to strain your eyes to recognize, with the skills of a modernist. Ingredients, meet technique; feeling, meet intelligence.
Photo of California Bowl courtesy of Tamara Palmer