It's a rare occasion when this food lover can get out of Los Angeles for a weekend, but when the opportunity arises, I usually find myself driving in the direction of San Francisco. There's something magical about the city's devotion to local produce and sustainable proteins served with a basket of hot, fermented sourdough. Is there anywhere else in the country that respects a perfectly-glazed carrot as much as Japanese-grade wagyu? Is there another city that captures the colors and flavors of each season quite so perfectly?
Daniel Patterson is a loyalist to this vegetable-centric California cuisine, and Coi, his four-star restaurant in the North Shore district of San Francisco, aptly demonstrates his devotion to greens. One may worry that this focus would result in underwhelming flavors, but there's no lack of boldness here. Wafting aromas will tell you what your next dish is before the waiter even reaches your table. The tastes are vibrant and intense, even in dishes usually marked by subtlety.
Meals may begin with the blood-red juice of a fermented carrot, lending a sushi-esque vinegar profile to two tenderly grilled spot prawns and gently pickling thimble-like cucumber curls. There will be a slow-cooked egg yolk with an unmistakle smokiness, served with seasonal greens and painted with a swirl of onion puree or black garlic reduction. A single vegetable, dressed to the nines, will be presented humbly by the waitstaff, who will then step back and smile knowingly at the moans of delicious surprise at first bite. Recently is was asparagus, cooked in its own juice and served with a wheatgrass puree, and it tasted nothing like any vegetable I've ever eaten before. Texture-wise, it felt like a single vegetal cell, without any wisps or sinews associated with the typical asparagus. Flavor-wise, it was crisp and almost sweet, making me realize for the first that every other stalk in my digestive history had been bitter. A new bar has been set for greens.
Craft, skill, and serious time go into the dishes here. A morel mousse, made by constantly boiling, straining, and whipping the mushrooms for over 24 hours, coats layers of scalloped potatoes in a trifle-like "dumpling." Individual morel florets have been painstakingly tweezed onto the moussey dome, creating a decorative lace not unlike what you'd expect to find on a buttercream-frosted wedding cake. But as impressive as the dumplings are, the accompanying sauce - a morel and brown butter broth with very light garlicky undertones - is even more of a masterpiece, bringing out each individual flavor of the dish with an earthy sweetness.
There are proteins here, with enough heft to constitute regular-sized entrees. Eight blood-rare ounces of Emigh Ranch lamb, tasty as they may be with a rosemary pepper crust, stick out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of two-bite veggie plates and fill diners enough to potentially spoil desserts. If the restaurant's format weren't tasting menu only, one would think that the lamb was an a la carte item brought to the wrong table. But it's no mistake, and there's not much to do besides picking up the steak knife and digging in.
There's a certain organic ease to be found in Coi's dining room: a zen that further enhances the grounded balance of the dishes before you. Framed x-rays of fruit line the wall, soups are served in earthen pottery, and muted colors create a sense of connection to the meal. The trick is in the details, and Patterson's intense study of aromatherapy enhances each individual course. There was a time in which diners were asked to rub an essential oil on their wrist before beginning the meal; scents have since been become more subliminal but maintain an undeniable influence with each dish.
Recently named by San Pelligrino as the 49th best restaurant in the world, Coi may be the most respected restaurant in San Francisco right now, and for good reason. Patterson's sound understanding of produce allows for natural but full-bodied flavors to shine from the top of the menu to its bottom. California needs more restaurants like Coi, but for now I'll let the restaurant's unique excellence tempt me like a lure from the familiar confines of Los Angeles.