Coi chef Daniel Patterson is often referred to as “cerebral” and as “the thinking man’s chef” in San Francisco’s food scene. He’s certainly articulate and thoughtful about food, but he’s as much a connoisseur of flavors as his less technically inclined peers. And as he tells Grub Street in an interview this week, his upcoming casual concept, Plum, wouldn’t be possible without Coi as a technical training ground.
Monikers like “cerebral” probably stem from Patterson’s style in the kitchen, which like contemporaries David Kinch, Jeremy Fox, and James Syhabout is artful, modern, and more avant garde than one tends to find in these parts. But we wanted to discuss with Patterson what his vision is for Plum (2214 Broadway), which will open in Oakland around late summer, and which will be his second non-fine-dining venture to hit the market after Il Cane Rosso.
First off, what’s going on with your first Oakland project, Bracina?
The entire project got pushed back a little bit. We think we’re going to “break ground” so to speak later this summer. So hopefully we’ll be open by the end of this year. We’re ready to go, plans are all done, permits are in place. But the developer wanted to make sure he had enough people all going in together to create some synergy.
The décor is very open, bright, airy. There’s concrete, wood, iron. The railroad goes by, and we wanted it to be evocative of the history of the area and the railroad. When you walk into the restaurant you’ll see the oven, a great big open hearth. There”ll be a nice bar and lounge area with a reclaimed wood counter. The cooking style is Northern California, more toward the rustic, open hearth style of cooking, but with some personality. And that will be more Lauren [Kiino]’s restaurant, and her voice.
Plum I’ll be more involved in. So because Bracina got pushed back, we decided to open Plum.
That’s a great location you’ve got there, on the block with Bakesale Betty, and now that whole intersection [Broadway and West Grand] is such a food nexus.
I think it’s one of the best locations in the city. Bakesale Betty, when they opened just for their trial run, they sold 650 sandwiches. These people just materialized out of, where? There’s definitely a lot of office workers around there and a lot of new residents. There’s an amazing amount of interest in the area. Flora just got a new chef, a guy from Meadowood [Chris Dettmer]. And there’s a lot of 25- to 40-year-old people moving over there because they can afford to buy a place, and they want amenities like they had in San Francisco. So the population’s changing, new businesses are opening up.
So tell us about your plans for Plum.
The concept is a lot different from Bracina. We’re opening two spaces, starting with the restaurant this summer and followed by the bar next door, probably by late fall. The space is tiny, 1500 square feet, with an open kitchen and counter. A total of 45 seats. The interior’s going to be very dark, painted black, with light-colored reclaimed wood, and this huge artwork on two walls by Catherine Wagner who did our artwork here [at Coi]. She’s a very good friend. It’s a lot of smaller pieces, like 120 8”x8” pieces on each wall. And we’re doing this really cool chandelier with copper tubing soldered together — with a little bit found art quality.
The food is going to be more modern than Bracina. It’s going to have Coi lineage, but it will be Coi as neighborhood restaurant. Not quite as composed, and we won’t be doing 11-course menus so the portions will be a little bigger, but not enormous. It’s not going to be very expensive: $9 to $19. A pretty tight menu. Sixteen items separated into four categories, including dessert. There’ll be sandwiches on the daytime menu, along the lines of Cane Rosso, for the office workers. And the same focus on organic, foraged, farmers’ market, intensely local food as Bracina, but run through a more modern sensibility. I’m going to be very involved in the menu. Lauren and I have been talking about it. Lauren’s going to have to move very fast between Plum and Bracina, but she’ll start in the kitchen at Plum and be involved in all aspects of the operation. We’ll probably hire a chef — we’re already talking to some people. I’ll also be in the kitchen some of the time. And things that we’re working on over here at Coi, sometimes may work over at Plum in a different context, so this kitchen is definitely going to be informing that one. As far as specific dishes, I haven’t got anything I’m ready to share just yet. But I feel like Coi will give Plum energy, and it in turn will give Coi energy. I’m really excited about it.
What are you thinking of in terms of wine?
A focused list. Not too expensive. Wines that go with food, that have integrity, that are produced on a smaller scale and express their place. Lighter, brighter flavor profiles. We’ll open with some beers, sake, some wines, and once the bar is open we’ll have the cocktail list from Scott Beattie as well, and I feel like that will be a really good match because his cocktails are really culinary in nature.
Do you have any strong feelings when it comes to cocktail pairings and food?
I have no objections to anything that tastes good. I have strong objections to things that don’t taste good. But all that stuff about ‘They’re ruining the food because they’re drinking cocktails,’ it’s like whatever. People need to get over themselves sometimes. We’re going in there already with a point of view, not doing the same stuff everyone else does. No pasta, no pizza.
Very unlikely. It’s the kind of place people will be able to go a couple times a week. We’ll be open from 11 to 11, and on Fridays and Saturdays until 1 a.m. So the question is do we do something in the late night for the people who’ve been drinking and just want something meaty and fatty like a burger. But we might be able to find some other way to assuage that need. But it’s not the kind of place where we tell people you shouldn’t drink that with that.
What is your favorite food wine?
Riesling. But I make food that goes really well with Riesling. It’s probably my favorite grape. My food has a lot of sweet-sour balance, it’s more dynamic, and it goes less well with white Burgundy for example. We have a lot of acidity in our food, it’s very bright. Also, I was in Friuli in Italy in January, and I love the wines from that area. They’re just so expressive of the region. Just dynamite wines.
What do you think about all the talk of the trend toward casual concepts? Do you think higher end restaurants have to change, make dining rooms smaller?
Yes, so we’re going to remove one table a year until we have just one table left, and then we’ll be booked all the time. No, but seriously, every time there’s an economic downturn people declare the end of fine dining.
But what we’re seeing at Coi is great demand from around the world from people who are seeking a certain type of experience, the kind of people who go to Noma and L’Astrance, who go to Co. and Jean-Georges in New York. For the younger generation of cooks there’s still a desire to do work at a high level, and there’s a broad interest in food that spans the gamut from sandwiches to great, ingredient-based, technical cooking. But that being said, I think what’s shifting is the environment in which people want to enjoy that kind of food.
I think kitchens have changed over the years. They’ve become more collaborative. But when people go out to eat they want an experience that’s a little lighter a little livelier. We have diners who would rather eat in the lounge, and some who would rather eat in the dining room.
Do I think that a day will come when no one wants to eat at a place like the French Laundry anymore? No. I love to go to places like that. It’s pampering, it’s very old world, it speaks to the way things were traditionally done. But if I were to open a new place right now, would I choose to open a very formal one? No. I think it’s riskier, but it’s also just not my taste. I always thought of Coi as an over-achieving neighborhood restaurant, in terms of the warmth and the atmosphere. People want good cooking, they want a certain experience, they don’t necessarily want that formality. But I don’t think the Bay Area was ever the sort of place where fine dining was where it was at. That was just never the thing. New York is the center of banking, and commerce, and you have this huge population of potential customers with expense accounts and money that you’ll just never have here. It’s always been like that and it always will be.
Where have you had a really great or exciting meal recently?
Well, in terms of the Bay Area, I haven’t been getting out as much I’d like. I have a nineteen-month-old kid. My most exciting experiences have been outside the area in the last few years, when I travel. I had a thrilling meal at Osteria Francesca [in Modena, Italy]. I had a great meal at Noma [in Copenhagen]. I’ve had great meals at Momofuku Noodle Bar. We live in Oakland so we eat a lot at Pizzaiolo and Boot & Shoe, and Camino too, which is fantastic.
Have you had any offers to do TV, like Top Chef Masters or anything?
Yes. And they involved not being in my restaurant for extended periods so I turned them down. I told them I’d agree to be a judge as long as I didn’t have to speak and I could wear a mask.
So, no TV. But I am working on a book. People still care about those, right?
Earlier: Coi Branches Out with Plum in Oakland [Chron]