Finally, I get to spend a day with Cass.
The day actually starts in Outer Sunset. We have huge, rustic open-faced sandwiches at Outerlands. Asparagus and portobello, oregano and garlic pistou, and fried eggs. Cass has one with thick-cut, glazed ham.
An espresso close by at Trouble Coffee. Juniper, sorrel; sourness and astringency. They have nice maps.
Then, Cass takes me to Sutro Baths. An urban decay-lover’s paradise.
There are ruins throughout the sheltered basin and even a cave that leads to a small rock beach. Wildflowers have taken over the ground.
Up to Land’s End.
We walk for hours, stopping where we like: a precipice, a hill of gravel over the strait, a path down to some small beach among many. We get off the path and into the overgrown slopes. Small trails of different ages start and fade and go off in unpredictable directions.
Later in the afternoon, we drive east back into town. I’ve had a reservation for Coi for two, without a dining partner. Cass agrees to come and I couldn’t be luckier.
The restaurant is in an unassuming building downtown. It is sleek and still. The name (said like “quoi”) is a 13th-century French word for ‘serenity’.
The chef, Daniel Patterson, has a clear idea of what it means to cook in California, and it is different than most others I know. There is a gentleness and a rigour that comes through in these dishes; they are conceived in harmony and executed with deep thought.
[nb. in keeping with the serenity theme, the dining room is ambiently lit, which makes photography something of a lost cause. bear with me]
Things I like already: the x-ray images of cross-sectioned vegetables lining the walls, like abstracted fossils; the soundtrack of trip-hop, swedish minimalism, and radiohead; and the weight of the water glasses.
The amuse arrives almost as soon as we are seated. Like, swiftly.
“California bowl”: Puffed brown rice, espelette pepper, charred avocado, lime
This is a dish about texture. It makes fun of what you think you know about particular textures like crisped rice and avocado, and what you think you know about texture in general.
We get down to business as we crisp. There are two menus, mostly similar though one interprets a couple dishes for meats and seafood and the other only for vegetables. So really, there is one menu, and some characters have two portraits. It is an elegant idea. We decide to play the team-sport version: Cass will get the meat, I will get the veg, and then we will tour the whole gallery.
“Mandarin sour”: frozen mandarin granita, vodka sorbet, mandarin gelée, kumquat
Another study in texture, though now in relation to salt/sour and coldness; a sort of matrix with three axes. The gel is salted and the perfect texture to both hold up and yield to the granita and sorbet as they melt, at different rates, on the tongue. So it’s a study in how things melt and talk to each other while they do. Then there’s a new question: is it a ‘sour’, or is it actually a sour? Perhaps it is, in fact, a cocktail, but takes the form of one only in the mouth.
The sour comes with a sake, and Cass and I agree it is one of the most remarkable drinks either of us have ever encountered. It is a sparkling sake, and it tastes like café au lait and chocolate; then yoghurt, then grapefruit, and pickled watermelon rind. The flavours develop and change dramatically over time, though never getting ‘better’ or ‘worse’, like wines can. Eventually it even takes on notes of kombucha and sweet miso. It is always consistently complex, direct, and delicious. It is called Harushika Happo Junmai, from Nara. I need to find this again.
“Cucumber”: with sea grass, radish flowers, and laurel
Cass’ version is built with Virginica oysters. There is an underlying blanket of rice vinegar that ties all the herbs together, and with the cucumber proves there is newness in every old relationship.
I prefer the one with oysters, for the extra dimension of minerality and texture that the vegetable one misses.
A Grüner Veltliner for this course and the next two: Jurtschitsch Sonnhof ‘Stien’ 2010 from Kamptal, Austria. Moss, earth, iron, wet wood, green grape and sorrel tartness; wondrous and light.
“Beet”: with bergamot, mints, and wildflowers
Beautiful and intense. The flowers have flavour and this dish is about them. Somehow, the beets have been coerced into a supporting role, and everything sings for it. He achieves this mainly, again, through keen attention to texture – the roots are softly roasted, uniform; some are turned into jelly, some mandolined to paper. The dish is floral, bitter, herbaceous.
“Chilled English Pea Soup”: cultured buttermilk, nasturtium, Meyer lemon
Explosively good from something at first glance so innocent. Perfectly sweet/savoury, creamy and tart and spicy. Surprise of whole peas under the island of cream.
The wine is somehow the best complement for each of the three dishes.
“Artichoke Grilled Under a Weight”: crayfish, spicy sesame, fava leaves, crayfish vinaigrette, artichoke aioli
Such an intensity of flavour. This is a transition dish, the pressed textures of the flower and fish deferring to the sauce – light and clear, but bold, spiced, and almost cheesely potent.
The Burgundy doubles up the sesame, with smooth wax, minerals and beurre blanc. Deux Montilles Pernand Vegelesses 2009. I like Burgundy.
A surprise that smacks your own forehead for you:
“Morel”: popcorn, new potatoes, popcorn purée
Crunch sponge smoothness. Sponge smooth spongeness. Chew crunch sponge.
Simple, unlikely, brilliant, and the herb is necessary.
“Fried Egg, Not Fried”: brassicas, smoked breadcrumbs, herb egg white emulsion, pickled cabbage
Fat and acid hold the herb and smoke. The yolk is the texture of butter. This works.
“Tofu in Two Servings”:
1. cold-grilled, red endive braised in orange, jasmine, cilantro mousse
Cass’ version is with duck, with the aromatics slightly shifted. I like both but the duck works better. The tofu needs something a bit more to hold up to the strong bitter, sweet, herbal flavours. I also wish it were cut more decisively – layered, pressed, sliced in sheets, balled, or better yet a combination. Something like tofu, in this context, could use more of an opinion I think.
2. warm tofu mousse, yuba, fresh seaweed, mushroom dashi
No photo but (or perhaps because) this one works well. Classic Japanese umami synergy of seaweed and mushroom. The mousse has an opinion and the yuba offers an alternative angle. A tight dish. And the wine – Erste + Neue ‘Grobnerhof’, St. Magdalaner, Alto Adige, Italy 2012 sends it soaring with tart red fruits and a soft tannic structure.
The height of the curve, and the fall into desserts.
Cass loves desserts. I’m also pretty partial. The Maître d’ offers to bring us different desserts so we can try all five that night. Um, yes, you can do that.
“Frozen Lime Marshmallow”: cold marshmallow, toasted
As far as we’re concerned, lime and char should always go together. The marshmallow itself sits somewhere in between that and a mousse. There is an impressive temperature gradient, still warm at the top and still cool at the bottom. This perfect, simple thing is the result of mastery.
A Moscato (La Montecchia Fior d’Arancia 2010) doesn’t hurt either. Perfect minuscule bubbles.
Then we diverge.
“Preserved Lemon 7:13″: chrysanthemum milk
Almost like a lemon meringue pudding, but with a different ratio of tart and creamy. I wish the chrysanthemum and the ‘preserved’ part were more prominent, that would make it more interesting to me. But still, hardly not delicious.
The wine, though, is interesting. Geil Rieslaner Beerenauslesem, Rheinhessen 2010 – the typical tropical fruit and honey, but then it goes into lemon balm, tarragon, and old musk and bracing tartness. It has some good acidity. Very keepable.
“Rhubarb”: poached in strawberry, celery, nasturtium
Interesting for the range of supple and crunchy textures; flavour-wise it is quite muted, but that is likely how it is meant to be. A nice in-between dessert course. But I do like astringency and bitterness; Cass takes over the lemon and I happily finish this one.
“Blueberry”: cocoa nibs, pine, baguette
Baguette soaked in blueberry coulis reminds me immediately of one morning two summers ago, watching the sunrise at the top of the New Haven water treatment plant with Brandon. He brought breakfast of baguette and blueberry jam he made himself. Though the best part might just be the sound of the pine foam subsiding, the two juices mixing in.
Again, the wine really shines. Picquemal Rivesaltes Ambre, Languedoc – hazelnut, candied salmon, built with the smack of a spirit. Made with grenache gris and fortified from its own pomace. Like nothing else I’ve had.
“White Chocolate”: foie gras, walnut butter, apricot
I can’t remember exactly but I believe the foie and white chocolate are aerated into a mousse, with a white chocolate croquante/tuile. I probably can’t remember because at this point my brain shut out all else to prevent sensory over-saturation. This may be my favourite thing I ate all week. Why? Textural contrast, sweet-savoury, nut butter, stone fruit – all at once.
A pot of frankincense oolong. Cedar, floral, perfume.
And thank god, an actually interesting petit-four.
A tile of nougaty toffee. Served cold. A bite with a mouth of hot tea is heaven.
At a few moments, the pacing falters; some dishes come just a tad too slowly. But ultimately, it is fine, because Cass and I have a lot to discuss – like anime-con culture, acid jazz, samurai shamploo, and the desire to be precise and articulate about what one likes.
What is outstanding is the fortification of flavours, a recurring theme in the supporting voices.
There is a richness in these ingredients. What Californian cooking needs, I think, is constraints. There is room for research here.