Expectation is the root of all heartache, said Shakespeare.
And truly, for with a history of dining at Michelin stars myself, I came with surmounted expectations to my favorite culinary American city, San Francisco. Where having eaten at sumptuous Michelin stars before, I was quite thrilled at the prospect of a new one, up from 2 to 3 Michelin stars. Coi, an odd name that perhaps inherited itself from its seafood legacy or from its neighborhood (perched under Coit Tower, you see), was a hop scotch away from North Beach, with only tasting menus by Chef Erik Anderson. However, of all the Michelins I had tried, this had to be the one that perhaps deflated the most under its sheer weight of expectation. Not that the food was terrible, and it was in fact quite contemporary in its plating, but perhaps it was the mood, the time of day, the fairly vanilla tastes compared to the jolts of surprises I had been used to in the past. Or maybe, it was in the 13, and counting, of courses I inhaled.
It started with a puffed rice wafer with avocado, an almost identical replica of one that I had in Chicago earlier. This one was crunchy, yummy, pretty and included a dollop of Californian avocado to cut the fattiness.
As a palette cleanser already was a powder foam of powdery red substances: orange ice shavings, pink peppercorn, black lime. These were perhaps my favorite morsels of the day, owing to their sheer creativity and gastronomy. However, they came too early in the meal, and would have sufficed pre-dessert. Nonetheless, with a recent penchant for pink peppercorn, I was satisfied with the tangy wake up call.
A chilled yellow squash soup arrived with rose petals and saffron and cucumber. The soup was perfectly creamy and temperate, but the ratio of petals to soup felt like I was forcing myself to eat a plant based diet! And with a love for floral foods, having eaten them many times, this came as a remarkable jolt of surprise. Beauty was nonetheless the best element of this lovely, radiant, sunset hued dish.
The concept of caffeinated vegetables was fascinating: carrot roasted in coffee beans with Roman mint. This was another beautiful dish, plated in a coffee stone plate with carrot puree and dollops of multi-colored carrots with artfully placed mint leaves, once again reminiscent of a recent Chicago carrot experience. Deja vu too much? It was also succulent to taste, with a smooth texture to the fibrous carrot. The combination with coffee was inventive, albeit not over-the-top, making it a fun bite.
Asparagus was clearly the next superfood, having been presented at many Michelin stars in many forms. This time, it was cooked in its own jue with radish and fennel. The jue itself was designed with olive oil specks that made it look like an alien was staring back at me from the plate! While the jue was tasty, the sheer rawness of the vegetables and the overwhelming use of fennel gave this an aromatic, albeit bland taste. It was once again a ratio disparity, for the crunchy and raw vegetables would have been much better at a vegan hotspot (in larger quantities) or served with more jue or a creamy soup side of sorts. The alien, however, was delightful.
As a self proclaimed fan of cheese, I was thrilled to see that the buffalo cheese was the star of this dish, seated plainly in a crown of beet, endives, florets and honey. Reminding me of another Michelin meal of crowns in San Francisco, this one was also flavorful, with the tangy beets contrasting well with the sweet honey and salty cheese. Flavorfully, it worked well, but felt more a first course than a sixth one.
For announcing that soup was not my favorite, I was sure in some luck to once again receive a soup. This one was a spring pea soup with lemongrass, ginger and cilantro. Pretty to look at with green peas floating in broth, it had the aromatic scent of ginger and cilantro. Texturally, it was a broth of vegetables, almost like ramen sans noodles. The leafy greens were once again poured in generous doses, and a mild hand on garnish would have helped relish the fair taste better (and prevented me from scraping leaves out of my teeth).
One particular dish that I did truly enjoy was the mushroom potato dumplings, for they arrived looking like chocolate marzipan cake! Food art and illusions are my favorite, and this one combined the hearty potato with a salty mushroom in what seemed like leftover soup base from the previous course. However, this time it worked well for a hearty and flavorful bite that I relished immediately.
Things got more hearty with a spelt wheat cauliflower and dandelion puree, an even prettier dish owing to the bright colors of yellow and purple cauliflower, juxtaposed against a bed of wheat and yellow dandelion puree. This was another score, since the well cooked vegetables had an apt textural contrast to the juices and wheats, making for a playground in my mouth. However, much to my surprise, this was the last of savory courses!
While usually excited about 4 dessert items, I was a bit alarmed, once again, at the proportion and ratio of the previous dishes, having felt that I had barely begun my meal. Nonetheless, the cutesy presentation of the Asian inspired coconut mochi bun with kiwi and shiso was playful enough for me to devour like a taco. Like a nod to California’s mixed heritage culture, the sweet Asian flavors were pronounced in the spongy texture, while the Mexican style pose was a salute to whimsy.
When I heard that I was going to nibble on glazed strawberries with black sesame licorice and wild fennel sorbet, I was thrilled. Licorice is my favorite flavor, and with a recent penchant for fennel, I felt this would be an unbeatable aromatic experience. However, I was sorely disappointed with the understated flavors of both of these, and the overwhelming quantity of plain, mushy and fairly un-juicy strawberries that accompanied. A loss of proportions and a fairly vanilla sorbet was truly a heartache to my soaring expectation.
The vanilla cake arrived in an architectural composition with rhubarb and hibiscus, with hibiscus dust all over it, making it food art that mandated scenography. However, the vanilla cake flavor overpowered the subtle notes of rhubarb and hibiscus, and while the plate was beautiful, a sauce or dollop of a fruity concentrate would have amplified the flavor even further.
The meal closed with yuzu marshmallows, disguised as chocolate truffles and dusted with dark cacao. Fairly decadent on the chocolate quotient, I would have liked a more distinct and pronounced yuzu flavor.
Perhaps, by the end of the lucky 13th bite, I had realized that this spot catered to subtle flavors, unlike the explosions of whimsy and grace that had combined so effortlessly in my previous Michelin experiences. Nonetheless, with a romantic, dark and stylistic interior, it was good to find a few beautifully plated elements that redeemed this heartbreak!