San Francisco’s Coqueta — A Tantalizing Triumph
If I knew the Spanish word for that enraptured feeling, I’d be saying it.
Because that’s exactly how the new Coqueta restaurant on Pier 5 makes you feel with its Spanish flair. It’s not only the first restaurant in San Francisco by celeb Chef Michael Chiarello, but it’s also his first foray into something other than his Italian heritage.
Chiarello is no stranger to Spain, though. He’s traveled to that country for years. His eldest daughter also lives there, having married a Catalan man.
Like his smash-hit Bottega in Yountville, Coqueta (“flirt” in Spanish) is all about bold flavors with modern takes on traditional dishes done with whimsy. The former Lafitte restaurant is still recognizable. But it’s been given a major face-lift. The once temporary patio now has permanent walls, as well as a bar, where you can enjoy noshes sans reservations. Inside, the soaring, rustic-chic space is warm with lots of reclaimed wood, oak table tops made from barrel staves, and branded hides on the floors (from casualties from actual bull fights in Spain).
The restaurant imports the melt-in-your-mouth Iberico ham, as well as cures its own ham. In fact, you’ll find the Iberico even infused in gin that’s served in the “Tariff” ($12) cocktail with housemade acorn & apricot tonic, orange and cava. It’s one of the many creative libations by Joe Cleveland, a former mixologist for Jose Andres’ restaurants.
You know a restaurant has got it going, if it’s strong right out of the gate. Coqueta has set exactly that pace, as evidenced by my visit a mere three days after it had opened in April, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant.
With Chiarello’s track-record of opening hit restaurants, it’s no surprise just how wonderful the food is at Coqueta.
Quail egg “Diablo” ($2.50 each) puts mere deviled eggs to shame. These tiny hard-boiled eggs are spreared with lovely, sweet Serrano ham and a dollop of sharp pickled mustard seeds. The compact little morsel sure rocks the palate.
Pan con tomate ($5) is the traditional grilled bread smeared with fresh tomato, but made with extra care, by using light airy Cristal, the famous bread of Barcelona, as its base. It gets super crisp on the grill, giving way to the smooth, sweet, jammy tomato sofrito.
Clam and mussel escabeche ($8) is way too cute. The pickled shellfish arrive in its own sardine-like can, a playful nod to the Spanish tradition of preserving seafood in tins. A feathery fennel salad tops it, lending a subtle anise note to the plump, vinegary shellfish.
“Tattas” Bravas are so different than the traditional big chunks of crisp potato. Here, they’re like tater tots, with some of the nuggets hiding bits of jamon, too. Pick one up with your fingers, dip it into the creamy romesco-like aioli, then bite into the crisp exterior that gives way to soft, almost oozy goodness.
Octopus ($12) is grilled over wood, its tender, succulent flesh getting even more smokiness from a dusting of pimenton.
“Sunny side-up egg” ($12) gets smooshed into a sizzling platter of shrimp, potato and house-made chorizo, along with its rendered oil in the dressing that’s incorporated into all of it. It’s fluffy, custardy comfort food with a kick of heat.
Crispy shrimp and chickpea flour pancake ($10) is the size of a small saucer with a golden, crisp exterior. It reminded me of Japanese croquettes. But might have needed a final flourish of salt to really make it special.
It’s a good bet that unless you’ve been to Spain, you haven’t had a cut of pork like the “Pluma” ($38). From the renowned Iberico pigs, it’s a cut from the shoulder section of the loin, little seen in this country, and infused with a buttery, nutty flavor from the acorns these pigs eat exclusively. Arrayed on a wooden board, the slices are red and juicy, in fact, far redder than you’ve ever seen pork looking. The meat is tender, yet with bite, almost like a fine steak, yet with a natural sweetness that you just don’t get with beef.
Because the kitchen doesn’t have space for a dedicated paella station, the famous rice dish is made on the hour, with waiter announcing when it’s ready to diners who wish to partake. And you WILL want to order it. You can smell the piney rosemary the minute the dish is put on the table. It was heaped with large shrimp and razor clams. The toasty rice was properly al dente. Dig to the bottom and you’ll find the expected mother lode — the crisp layer of rice that you’ll be fighting your dining companions for.
Desserts are all about fun. There are sangria Poprocksicles that come to the table in their own push-up containers. The deeply fruity popsicle is indeed crowned with house-made pop rocks that explode on the roof of your mouth.
There are cheesecakes on a stick, but they are made with manchego, giving them a decidedly savory quality that meshes well with the sweetness of their white chocolate-caramel coating.
Tiny rounds of pain au chocolate are almost like a toasted, deep dark chocolate bread that’s mounded with olive oil ice cream and a touch of gray salt. Again, it’s sweet, yet also savory.
An individual, rectangular apple tart goes a la mode — not with just any ice cream, but one made with Cabrales, the pungent blue cheese from northern Spain. It’s a mouthful of sweet, tart and sharp.
Finally, a frozen fruit gazpacho made with liquid nitrogen with a silky fruit sauce poured over. The consistency is almost like a snow cone but with more distinct crystals. It virtually shatters as you poke your spoon into it. The flavors are deeply wine-y like a good sangria, too.
After all these dishes, I think you get the picture. Get yourself to Coqueta — pronto. You’ll be swooning, too.
And: A Visit to Bottega