I have a theory that the best time to visit a popular restaurant is just after it opens. True, you don't yet know if the restaurant is actually going to be popular, but on the other hand, you won't have any trouble getting a reservation. Whether my visit on Saturday to Daniel Patterson's new restaurant, COI ("kwa") falls into this category is something that is yet to be determined, but there are positive indications.
COI is in the corner of a building with the door protected by a small alcove. I didn't see a 'COI' sign but the Valet Parking stand was a pretty good indication I was at the right place. You enter into a lounge area where there are six or seven tables in front of a pillow-appointed banquet along the wall. While they are starting up you can get all three menus here (ala carte, 4-course tasting menu [$75], and the 10-course tasting menu [$108]), but I suspect plans are to limit these tables to the ala carte menu once things settle down. This lounge area is also the entry hall which leads to the small dining room holding about ten tables. The dining room looks like it can accommodate about 40 people. There is also a private room that can hold eight.
The decor is austere, sophisticated, and hip, with grays, browns and tans predominating; techno-jazz played unobtrusively in the background. It seemed the kind of place you would find in Manhattan.
I had a seat at one of the lounge-area tables and decided on a half-bottle of wine and the four-course prix fix menu. This menu has three choices for each course, but you must order all four courses and you must order one item from each group. The wine list is still small, but it is fairly priced and has some good value Spanish wines on it. There is also a small by-the-glass selection.
I decided on a 1/2-bottle of 1997 Raveneau Montee de Tenerre Chablis - perhaps the most interesting bottle on the wine list, and certainly the most interesting of the half-bottles (there were only two). I placed my food order and waited to see what would happen.
They started with an amuse served on a large presentation spoon: finely minced fresh fennel, green apple, and ginger, seasoned with champagne vinegar. Though it was an interesting idea, and set the tone for what was to come, the taste wasn't particularly memorable.
And what was to come? After all, this was Daniel Patterson who had penned the New York Times article "To the Moon Alice" chiding the Bay Area restaurant scene for being stuck in a Chez Panisse rut, implying that just having the best ingredients was Not Enough. Perhaps the storm that the article whipped up had an effect. The amuse was more like something from Roxanne's than something from El Buli, and the menu displayed a notice at the bottom that boldly proclaimed that all ingredients were locally sourced and impeccably fresh. Had Daniel Patterson joined the Alice Brigade?
The next dish made that possibility a bit more remote. I was given a bowl of chilled carrot soup as a starter. It was very light but also very flavorful. Made from carrot juice - foamed of course - but carrot juice non the less, meaning the kitchen must have a vegetable juicer (watch this space), it was supercharged with infusions of cilantro and lemon grass, and the bottom of the bowl contained a julienne of pickled mango. This was quite good, being refreshing, and interesting... the pickled mango being less sweet and firmer than you would expect from "un-transformed" mango.
The first course was next, listed on the menu as: "sea scallops meyer lemon avocado radish McEvoy olive oil sel gris" The scallops were raw and sliced about 3/8 inch thick. They were drizzled with oil and sprinkled with the coarse salt, and garnished with paper-thin slices of avocado and radish plus appealingly colorful pieces of peppery nasturtium. The scallops were top notch, as fresh as a sea breeze and very creamy. This is an excellent dish. So long as they can find scallops that taste like this, everyone should order them. Maybe the secret is shopping after all?
The second course was "roasted monkfish yuzu kosho chinese broccoli." For those who don't know (and I didn't) yuzu kosho is a spicy Japanese condiment which comes as a rough paste, made from yuzu zest, chili and salt. There were four impeccably-seasoned pieces of fish, in a dish with the Chinese broccoli and a pond of deeply flavorful broth. A spoon was provided to make certain that none of the broth escaped. Another good dish.
The third course was "baby lamb artichokes spring onions lavender." Served in a large covered bowl, the aromas jumped out when the lid was removed. It smelled so good, that I offered a whiff to the fellow sitting next to me at the next table (the upside - or downside - of sitting in the lounge area). There were three dainty cuts of lamb, from the loin, shoulder and leg, served with dandelion greens and artichoke. This dish also came with a light but extremely flavorful broth. I was told that one or two of the lamb cuts had been prepared sou vide, but -- alas, I cannot remember which they were. Nothing to complain about here, either; it was delicious.
I finished up with a selection of three cheeses, which were perfectly adequate, though not impressive enough for me to take specific notes to use to track them down later.
The wine director declared his pleasure at my having ordered the Raveneau ($$$), and offered me a complimentary taste of some 1968 Madeira which was absolutely delicious, having better integrated acidity that I am used to for vintage Madeira.
Servers are attired in black with white shirts/blouses showing that COI is aiming upscale professionalism. Another indication is the prospective employee questionnaire which includes such questions as "what are the seven Bordeaux varietals?" and "what is sou vide?"
The question of Chez Panisse vs. El Buli remains open. COI isn't taking sides. Patterson is clearly borrowing from both schools to deliver something which is simple but which has an added dash of playful intelligence. I liked COI and will return for further exploration, it is at 373 Broadway at Bartol, just east of Montgomery.