While girls around me wanted to be Nancy Drew or Barbie, the seven-year-old me would have none of that.
Instead, I wanted to be one of The Three Investigators, a group of plucky teenage boys who lived in a fictional Southern California town, solving crimes that flummoxed even awfully smart adults. After voraciously plowing through this American mystery book series, my two first-grade best friends, Jill and Joyce, and I huddled at recess in our French convent school in Singapore, whispering to one another about suspicious happenings we had witnessed, vowing to use our powers of deduction to get to the bottom of things.
Last year, the Hubbs and I ventured to Coi in San Francisco — New York Times dining critic Frank Bruni had just named it one of the top 10 restaurants in the country that had opened the year before and our expectations were high. (Coi’s chef Daniel Patterson was just nominated for a James Beard award a few weeks ago.)
Although we rolled our eyes a little at the waitress’s instruction to sniff a dot of perfume oil in order to enhance the flavor of a dish, we concurred that it worked, when we put cynicism aside and actually did it. It was also Coi that served up a dish that I still think about regularly and with great longing more than a year after my visit to the restaurant. It was a simple bowl filled with chard and wheatberries, swimming in a brown
butter-parmesan sauce and topped with a slow-cooked farm egg. The sauce was unforgettable, as were the textures — I adored feeling the juxtaposition of the crisp foam with the gooey egg yolk on my tongue.
But the dish that truly captured our attention was a plate featuring the tiniest sliver of Mimolette cheese, the smallest sprinkling of greens and a sprig of something that resembled a Barbie-sized bouquet of daisies. The waitress instructed us to take a deep whiff of the miniature bouquet and then sip our wine and eat the cheese. The plant’s honeyed fragrance was meant to enhance the taste of our wine and the sharp Mimolette.
We, and the food-loving friends we were with, became instantly obsessed. We could not stop sniffing the tiny blooms, long after the bite-sized Mimolette had disappeared. And when the blooms we’d been given had, sadly, disintegrated from apparent over-sniffing, we implored our waitress for more.
We begged her to to ask the chef, the kitchen staff, what was this plant exactly? We wanted to buy it, grow it in our homes, fill our office cubicles with tiny honeyed bunches. No one, however, had an answer.
Disappointed, we requested a few more sprigs. We sniffed at the blooms madly as we walked to our car, the tiny flowers practically in our nostrils as we tried to take the scent in for as long as we could. And then suddenly, a construction zone in a desolate stretch caught our eyes.
There was something familiar about the massive bunches of weeds that filled the area…
And there it was. The answer we’d been looking for. The flowers we loved, that had just been in our noses, were growing with wild abandon in an empty, grimy lot.
A quick call to Coi this week yielded more answers — the “bouquet” was Alyssum, a popular ground cover flowering plant. “It grows everywhere,” explained Coi host Gibbie Whelehan. “We forage within the city limits of San Francisco for them.” Gibbie explained that the Mimolette dish isn’t on the menu any more. But Daniel Patterson must like the plant quite a bit as it figures prominently in an amuse bouche that Coi is doing right now — “Milk & Honey,” which features a nickel-sized dollop of a milk and honey mixture that’s topped with Welsh sea salt and a small blossom of Alyssum, added to intensify the honey flavor.
When we and our friends had discovered the mysterious plant that we coveted growing in a jungle of weeds along the side of a road, we’d felt deflated, cheated almost. Dinner at Coi — $115 for the tasting menu at the time — had not been inexpensive. And, we’d just spent the better part of the last hour swooning over a common roadside plant?
Looking back on that night, however, I realize the larger lesson to be learned. Sure, there’s the message that beauty can be found in everything yadda yadda yadda. But there’s also the fact that perhaps you don’t have to go out to the country to find the little locavore treats that we’ve all come to seek on restaurant tables everywhere.
Farm Schmarm. Even in the most densely populated concrete jungles, nature may have some neat surprises up its sleeve. I wonder what the streets of Brooklyn could offer for dinner tonight.