Coi, San Francisco
London Financial Times
May 17, 2008
You may have heard of the Lunar Men, that outrageously high-achieving 18th-century group of friends that included potter Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus and the Joseph Priestley who discovered a little thing called oxygen. As their joint achievements reveal, peer pressure works.
I thought about them the other night at Coi (pictured) in San Francisco. Coi is as improbable as the steam engine (invented by another Lunar Man, James Watt). It’s a small place on an unsavoury stretch of Broadway and all the people working there – from chef Daniel Patterson to the sommelier to the front-of- house staff – are just a little loony themselves. I mean that not as a compliment but as a rave. These are people who give such a damn about what they do that it’s joyful to be among them. It alters how you hear, see, feel. And taste? I’ve eaten at most of the biggies, including the Fat Duck and Per Se, but now I’ve fallen for Coi and the others don’t matter anymore.
We arrived just after 7.30pm and left at 11pm. In between we had about 15 courses (in the main room is a set tasting menu which costs $120, but in the bar area everything is à la carte), starting with a hibiscus, pepper and champagne aperitif and ending with carrot cake and celery sherbet. We also had wines to match for an additional $95. The nettle soup – such a saturated green I wanted to have a dress made in it – came poured over yellow oxalis flowers, with a Weingart Reisling Kabinett 2000. The poached and seared pheasant with local seaweeds, cauliflower and borage came not with wine but with ale: Gouden Carolus Grand Cru of the Emperor 2007. Disheartened by every varietal he’d tried to match with the bird, the sommelier noticed a customer relishing a beer with the dish. He took the irreverence as inspiration and put it on the menu. What a relief: a place where taste matters, not propriety – and a place where the simplest-sounding edible is evocative. Patterson himself brought the slow-cooked farm egg to the table (a seemingly earnest man, he’s secretly side-splitting, judging from his articles on food), then backed away, leaving us to the chard, wheatberries and brown butter parmesan sauce. My dining companion took a bite and smiled sideways: “This really feels like a trip to the farmhouse.”
I could tell you about the cheese course – a single square next to a mess of miner’s lettuce, order and chaos pacified on one plate. I could tell you about the pig’s head several ways and the “brainase” that comes with it. Also, about the warm salad of shaved artichokes or the banana confit.
But instead let me tell you just this: the Lunar Men peer-pressured each other into prompting the Industrial Revolution. I don’t know precisely who pressured Daniel Patterson into creating this coup of a place, this laboratory for inventing thrilling food. Was it his Bay Area culinary peers? His colleagues at Coi? An old mentor? Who cares? Post-Alice Waters, and pre-everything else, he’s invented it. There’s something fresh and prescient about all that happens inside Coi.