Sunday 3 June 2012

Coi: a game changer

So you read a review.  The person announces with due solemnity that the restaurant in question has changed (delete as appropriate) the game/food/their life/the world forever.  Things will never be the same again.  I have visions of people around the world standing in amazement, dumbfounded by the morsel of whatever it is they have just eaten.  And so you traipse along to whichever new place is making the waves.  Inevitably you stand in line for at least an hour as everyone else has read the same life-changing review.  You then eat what you have been told is the thing to have.  Invariably you say, "wow, this is incredible"  You have to.  You wouldn't want to be the plonker who has queued for an hour for something which is only moderately better than the version of the same dish you had last week from your local chippie.

Even knowing all this, when I read a review of Coi in which someone said that Daniel Patterson's cooking was different/nothing like other 2 Michelin Star chefs' food, I had to go.  So let's start with what's different - well DP's a forager.  But unlike others, he's been at it for quite some time.  In fact for over 18 years since he opened his first restaurant in Babette, Sonoma County - way before foraging was in vogue.  The menu, dominated by seafood and vegetables, is clean and fresh.  None of the heavy, creamy sauces you might expect in places of this calibre serving French food.  It also claims to have terroir - it is the food of "the place"- it tastes of California.

And so, turning to the evening in question.  Things did not start well.  Arriving for our table at eight forty five we were not led through to eat until nearer ten.  Now I don't mind waiting for places where there is no alternative.  I have been known to wait almost two hours to get into the Meat Wagon in its New Cross Gate days.  But when you are visiting a two-starred restaurant, with a reservation, that is not what you expect.  Apparently neither did the four other couples who were similarly delayed. Yes we were fed the usual free champagne, but an inauspicious start to say the least.

Things then improved. Fast.  Our waiter was friendly, not stuffy, knowledgeable.  To make up for the wait, we were offered matching wines for free.  That certainly helped.  And then the food started coming.  That helped even more, and the lengthy wait was soon forgotten as we were blown away by Daniel's cooking.  Given there were twelve courses, I will not go through them all in detail, instead I will just let the photos do the talking.

Grapefruit granita - fresh and cleansing.

Oyster, asparagus and oyster stock jelly - simple, but all the flavours were so distinct that it worked incredibly.

Bergamot beets with wild flowers and several types of mint - the earthy flavours were a great contrast to the fresh acidic flavours in the first couple of courses

Pea soup, buttermilk and nasturtium flowers - the very essence of pea, with tangy buttermilk and peppery nasturtium - these seemed to be a real favourite more generally in California, we were served them everywhere.

Artichoke cooked under a weight - nice, but not really memorable.

Abalone with a coriander sauce - grilled to enhance the meatiness of the abalone, this worked perfectly.

Fried egg, not fried - inside the crumb was a slow-cooked yolk, silken, rich and very tasty.

Poached and chilled duck breast with jasmine and endive - the breast was tender and incredibly moist, the jasmine flavours subtle.  On top were sprinkled pieces of crispy duck skin - unfortunately these were slightly oily and detracted from an otherwise nice plate of food.

Duck leg, fermented tofu and coriander puree

The cheese course - crisp beeswax tart filled with sheeps' milk cheese that was only a week old - tangy, crisp pastry and sweet from the apricot - one of my favourites!

Marshmallow - sweet and soft homemade marshmallow which had been coal charred on the top - underneath lurked frozen lime - hot and cold, sweet and tart, this was incredible.

Grapefruit 1996 - originally served a s a starter, this dish had been rejuvenated by a recently appointed dessert chef, we were encouraged to smear a strong smelling grapefruit reduction on our wrist while eating the dish - really worked to enhance the flavour.

Kiwi, white chocolate and soy - creamy, sweet but also tart - possibly the most beautiful plate of food I have ever been served and it did not disappoint in the flavour stakes - if soy tasted this good all the time, dairy might not get a look in!
 Now I know I said all those annoying people who right about places say "wow".  But here I am.  I am becoming one of these people.  So here goes: "wow, that was the best meal I have ever had". Hands down.  No debate.  Head and shoulders above anywhere else. Rather than being full to the brim, as is so often the case with tasting menus, I left feeling invigorated, healthy, raring-to-go. Did it change my life?  No.  Did it make me realise that there is a whole genre of cooking which I had previously been unaware of?  Yes.  If you are ever in San Francisco, go, you will not be disappointed.
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