New restaurant has the sweet smell of success.
Every once in a while a chef comes along who redefines restaurant cooking, allowing us to see, smell and taste food in a new way. Daniel Patterson, who has worked at pushing the boundaries of cuisine for almost a decade, is one such chef. He’s a self-taught culinary eccentric who only uses the purest ingredients but doesn’t believe in letting them “speak for themselves,” as we say in California parlance. He manipulates them to create the unexpected.
I have followed Patterson’s cooking since he opened Babette, a small bistro off the main plaza in Sonoma, and then ElizabethDaniel in San Francisco. Along the way, his technique became less naïve and more intellectual. He was influenced by three-star Parisian chef Alain Passard at Arpege, who several years ago banished meat from his kitchen to concentrate on vegetables, a revolutionary act. The foams, essences and culinary jokes of Catalan chef Ferran Adria, the reigning king of deconstructed cuisine, also made an impression. In fact Patterson just published a book, Aroma, in which he explores the use of essential oils and fragrances in cooking in collaboration with natural perfumer Mandy Aftel.
So I was astounded when Patterson set up a late-night lounge and club with retro decor, a DJ and a menu of small plates at his new restaurant, Frisson. The idea sounded so improbable, I could hardly bring myself to go.
But I did, and brought a chef friend, Catherine Pantsios, along. As we were led to an orange banquette under a circular dropped ceiling decorated with illuminated pink polka dots, she told me that Patterson had worked for her at Zola’s years ago when he was just starting. “I think he was a little too slow,” she said. “I may have fired him.” As I glanced around the full dining room and the roaring bar, I prayed that Daniel Patterson had sped up.
He has. Plus, he has transformed the stately prix fixe experience of his former restaurant into something insouciant, witty and immediate.
When a Grand Sazerac ($12) hit the table with a long ribbon of lemon peel spiraling down the tall glass, the fragrance of citrus and anise perfumed the air. Twelve bucks for a cocktail? Believe me, this double was worth it. I have never tasted one as smooth and balanced.
I thought I got the best Txakoli, a spritzy white wine, in the Basque country, but the Talai-Berri Txakoli ($8) at Frisson, was even fruitier and livelier.
The kitchen sent out treats. A haunting cilantro-and-ginger-scented carrot soup textured with threads of pickled green mango hid beneath an aromatic froth. Delicate toasts buttered with bone marrow and topped with caviar proved that these ingredients were made for each other. I adored Patterson’s Japanese cuttlefish, cut into strands and sauteed in green olive oil ($13) with chives, salt and pepper. Buttery — though made without butter — tender and rich in flavor, this four-ingredient dish captured Patterson’s genius. A bright green olive emulsion melted into a cauliflower puree on skate wing ($21), a stunning flavor pastiche heightened by pickled cauliflorettes and parsley leaves. A miraculously full-flavored mountain gruyere ($7) imported by local cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlon made me rethink my favorite cheese.
Invention did not stop with dessert. A creamy banana souffle was scented with curry, topped with a layer of bitter cocoa powder and sweetened with a little bowl of toasted fresh coconut and a scoop of light chocolate gelato on the side ($10). It worked. When I was done with the meal, I longed to come back for more.
Patterson has done it. Practically everything that touched my lips — cocktails, wines, small plates, large plates, cheeses, desserts, sweets — induced a shiver of excitement, an emotional thrill. Frisson makes good on its name. Patterson has fulfilled his destiny as a revelatory chef.
244 Jackson (at Battery), San Francisco. (415) 956-3004. Open Sunday through Wednesday from 6 p.m. to midnight, Thursday through Saturday from 6 p.m. until 1 a.m.