COI was one of those restaurants that I heard some people talk about, mentioned in passing as a “nice restaurant” that you might try if passing through the Bay Area. It never struck me as a place that seemed very enticing, but when all of the other restaurants we wanted to try (recommended by our esteemed FTC’ers like @robert @ipsedixit @PorkyBelly @beefnoguy @BradFord and others) were booked (over a month in advance), we decided to give COI a try.
COI is the flagship of Chef Daniel Patterson (who has most recently been in the news for his collaboration with Chef Roy Choi (Kogi) in opening up the healthy fast-food alternative, Locol). It just earned a 3 Michelin Star ranking for 2018, which raised our expectations and curiosity on how it might compare with other 3 Michelin Star restaurants like Saison. Just as we were flying in, I read the news on Eater about COI losing its Executive Chef Matthew Kirkley, who left to focus on the Bocuse d’Or competition for Team USA. However, their Chef de Cuisine, Justin Mauz, was still there along with the rest of the staff, so we had hopes things would be fine regardless.
Upon walking in, COI has a very clean, quiet, elegant look. I could barely remember any music (if there was any it was quiet instrumental type stuff in the background), and the ambience felt austere, which would affect the rest of the evening.
Sitting down, the server appears to ask if we were interested in any pairings this evening. The “regular” wine pairing was $180 per person, with a special “Golden State of Mind” pairing offered for the stunning price of “merely” $550 per person. They also offered a Tea pairing for $75.
2012 Wenzlau Vineyard Cuvée L’Inconnu Estate Blanc de Blanc:
They offered a complimentary pour of the 2012 Wenzlau Vineyard Cuvée L’Inconnu Estate Blanc de Blanc. It was a clean, easy drinking sparkling wine, but nothing too memorable.
Golden Oscetra Caviar (Sturgeon Chicharron, Creme Fraiche, Chive):
The opening course set the tone visually for what the rest of the evening would be like: A small, precisely plated dish is put in front of us. The Golden Oscetra Caviar on top of a crispy Sturgeon Chicharron with a dab of Creme Fraiche was lightly briny, tasty, but feeling a bit restrained and tame. The Golden Oscetra Caviar we had at Atelier Crenn a couple nights earlier was more memorable and delicious.
Sea Urchin (Fennel Mousseline, Grapefruit Caramel):
This was the best dish of the evening, featuring Sea Urchin from Half Moon Bay that tasted very fresh, lightly sweet, with a touch of the ocean, nicely paired with the Fennel Mousseline and Grapefruit Caramel (a touch of light bitter, sweet and citrus).
Little Skookum Oyster (Shallot, Green Goddess):
The Little Skookum Oyster was from Puget Sound, Washington and might’ve been more enjoyable if it wasn’t overwhelmed by the Shallot Granite, which just overwhelmed your mouth with essentially chilly crushed Ice. The Watermelon Gherkin felt like a random throwaway item in this bite, not really adding anything except a bit of crunchiness (which might’ve been interesting with the slippery, silky Oyster, if it wasn’t for the mouthful of crushed Ice served along with it).
Loup de Mer (Honeydew, Lime):
The plating is beautiful and clean, but at this point, things are starting to feel a bit clinical in the dining experience: There is no warmth so far, so I’m hoping things get better with the later dishes.
The Loup de Mer (or Mediterranean Seabass) is prepared Tartare style, and it is very delicate and clean, but that’s pretty much the extent of it.
Abalone (Bartlett Pear, Sea Lettuce, Celery):
Another stunning-looking plating, local Abalone slices from Santa Cruz, California are interestingly prepared swirled on the outside edges, as if it was decoration to the center of the dish, which was the mound of Pickled Sea Lettuce and Celery.
Each tiny bite of Abalone with the thin slice of Bartlett Pear worked, giving you a little bit of lightly chew brininess and some sweetness, with the Sea Lettuce providing the salinity.
Bread Service - Rye Sourdough Bread infused with Sea Lettuce, Strauss Creamery Butter:
This was the 2nd best dish this evening, with some nice toasty-hot Bread. It’s hard to go wrong with freshly-baked Bread and some quality Butter, and that’s precisely what you get here.
The Strauss Creamery Butter was gorgeously presented, like a Flower.
Sea Bass (Black Olive, Zucchini, Sea Bean):
This tasted like Poached Atlantic Sea Bass, in a salty, basic Vegetable Broth with the Olives overwhelming the taste of everything else.
Octopus (Foie Gras, Red Cabbage, Almond):
This was seared Spanish Octopus served with Pickled Red Cabbage, some Honey Almond Tuile and apparently Foie Gras was somewhere in this dish, but it got lost with the rest of the ingredients. This tasted OK, but it didn’t really coalesce together.
Skate Wing (Sweetbreads, Green Apple, Chive):
While the presentation again was impeccable and very clean, the Pan-Seared Skate Wing tasted like… generic store-bought Chikuwa (Japanese Pressed Fish Paste / Cake)! This was pretty disappointing, and the bit of sliced Green Apple and the Sweetbreads dab on top didn’t help. 2nd worst dish of the evening.
(Supplement) White Truffle Risotto:
As it is White Truffle season right now, just like at Atelier Crenn, it seems COI is also offering a supplemental course featuring White Truffle. COI’s dish was a White Truffle Risotto, which sounded wonderful, so we ordered it despite the high cost ($140 additional cost(!)).
The White Truffles were from Alba, Italy, and it smelled amazing (but I’d have to say the White Truffles in whole form at Atelier Crenn smelled even more fragrant).
While the portion of White Truffles felt a bit precious (these were thin slices), we were still excited to enjoy it with some quality Risotto.
Taking a bite: The Acquerello Rice had a good toothsome quality and then all we could taste was Lemon Zest! The kitchen staff added so much Lemon and Lemon Zest into the Risotto that we couldn’t taste any White Truffles at all!
I have never seen a White Truffle dish ruined as badly as this, it was shocking and really upsetting. All we could taste was tart, lemony, creamy Risotto and we couldn’t even smell the White Truffles after a few bites either.
It was even more disappointing considering this dish was almost the price of an entire Omakase experience at Shunji.
Mulled Pear Sorbet (Chevre, Brown Butter):
The Chevre Creme by itself was too much: Intense, funky Goat Cheese was overwhelming, but when you mixed it with a bite of the Mulled Pear Sorbet, it balanced things out nicely.
Chocolate Mille-Feuille (Passion Fruit, Coconut):
This didn’t really taste like a traditional Mille-Feuille, but instead it was mainly a few layers of quality Valrhona Chocolate, some Coconut Creme and a bit of tart-sweet from the Passion Fruit Tuile.
The presentation of the final parting sweets was gorgeous again, presented originally in a box container which the server proceeded to open up section by section until it was presented as you see in the picture.
These were tasty, and I liked the Mandarin Orange Powder on top that helped to offset the taste a bit.
Lemon Curd Tart:
These tasted OK. Like straightforward Lemon Curd in Tart form.
Lemon Cucumber Pate de Fruit:
Tart-sweet and chewy, this tasted like those Dried Mango snacks you see at Asian supermarkets.
Caramel Ganache Bonbons:
These were the best Desserts of the evening (and sadly 3rd best item of the entire tasting menu). Delicious, with a delicate outer shell of Dark Chocolate giving way to a creamy Caramel center.
Service was professional and very good throughout the evening.
Thinking back on my visit to COI, the only thing that I could think of was how precise and “clinical” it felt. The plating is beautiful to look at, but there’s a distinct lack of any mirth or warmth or true culinary excellence in terms of taste. There wasn’t a single dish that “Wow’d” us.
But technically prepared and plated? It was nice to look at (at times), I suppose.
Add in the fact that they completely ruined the White Truffle Risotto supplement and had the audacity to charge $140 for a few sparse shavings, and COI has the distinction of having the Most Disappointing Dish we’ve had this year (and last year).
COI feels like one of those examples that people point to when showing how the Michelin Guide gets it wrong: There was nothing outside of the visual plating that made this feel like something worthy of a “Michelin 3 Star” restaurant. Every course this evening ranged from average / straightforward to “nice” at best. I can see why @BradFord said that Saison was truly a Michelin 3 Star but the others weren’t.
The gap between Saison’s excellence and COI is so far apart, it feels like COI should be a Michelin 1 Star at best based on taste and quality and culinary excellence. We’ve had better meals at Spago and Providence, and the meal at Atelier Crenn a few nights earlier was more enjoyable than COI.
Ultimately COI feels empty, without heart. It has visuals, but little else, and has become our most disappointing meal of 2017.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Tel: (415) 393-9000