Highly anticipated since it was announced several months ago, Napa Valley’s Celebrity Chef and entrepreneur Michael Chiarello opened Coqueta in the former Lafitte space on the waterfront in Pier 5. Chiarello was the opening chef at Tra Vigne in Napa Valley in the late 1980’s, then eventually left to head up other restaurants before concentrating his career on becoming a cookbook author and an Emmy-winning TV personality for the Food Network’s Easy Entertaining program. He has also appeared as a judge in Top Chef and as a participant in Top Chef Masters, Next Iron Chef and Iron Chef America. Late in 2008, he returned to the restaurant world with Yountville’s excellent Bottega, where he easily proved that he could still helm a kitchen. His extensive biography also includes being a vintner for his Chiarello winery and owner of the NapaStyle stores whose wares are prominently used at his restaurants.
As explained on their website, Coqueta means “flirt” in Spanish, and it represents Chiarello’s “exploration of a new style of cuisine.” In one of his InsideScoopSF articles, he explains that his love affair for all things Spanish started in 2000, that his oldest daughter now lives in Barcelona and his goal for Coqueta “is to bring the taste of Spain, presented in a way you would never expect to San Franciscans.” He further explains that San Francisco was first founded (and named) by Spaniards, so it’s only natural that more Spanish food should be part of the City’s culture. He and his team researched Spanish restaurants in Spain and here in the US. Coqueta Chef de Cuisine Ryan McIlwraith (from Bottega) also spent time in Spanish kitchens, including those of Chef José Andrés.
Open for only a week, the 56 seat restaurant (with room for about 30 more in the bustling covered terrace bar) was in full swing and fully operational. Due to its newness, Chef Chiarello was on site expediting service. At some point, he came out from behind the counter to greet diners and graciously pose for photographs. We did not detect any glitches in service at all and received great service from our waitress. The difficult choice is paring down what to actually order since there are so many selections on the menu categorized in Cured Meats, Cheeses, Pintxos, Bocadillos (sandwiches), Tapas and Larger Plates served family style. The servers seem to be very well trained and offer assistance to navigate the menu if required.
As we perused the menu, we ordered some excellent cocktails created by Bar Manager Joe Cleveland, who previously worked for José Andrés. There are some very unique combinations with house-made tonics and gin infusions. Despite juices and ingredients that sound sweet, both of these cocktails were perfectly balanced with just a hint of sweetness. The Tariff (Jamón ibérico infused Gin, Acorn & Apricot Tonic, Cava, orange juice, pineapple garnish) and the slightly smokey Revolution (St. George Dry Rye Gin, Anise Tonic, Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, Pedro Ximenez Sherry, passion fruit juice, garnished with lime, cinnamon and cilantro) were earthy and deliciously served in stemless tumblers:
We decided to order one of each of the five Pintxos available on the menu. The server returned with a tray of the pre-made skewered bites. The intention is to have servers walk around with the Pintxos display and have diners opt to take a skewer or two. In addition, an hourly Paella platter will also be “peddled” the same way, although we did not see one come around when we were there. This is a great idea which Chiarello said he had in mind to do a long time ago, but State Bird Provisions beat him to it:
The Pintxos are indeed bite-sized and smaller than those we have seen served in Spain, but each one was packed with flavor. The five skewers from left to right are: House-cured Boquerones (anchovy, olive, pearl onion, guindilla pepper), Baby Beets (chioggia and golden beets, Caña de Cabra goat cheese, spring onion), Jamón Serrano (ham, Manchego cheese, apricot-sherry conserve) and our personal favorite, the soft-boiled Quail Egg “Diablo” (Jamón Serrano, pickled mustard seeds). Each one formed the perfect bite (or two in our case since we somehow managed to split them all):
From the Tapas Frias (Cold) section, we selected the Tortilla “Andres” named after the famed Spanish chef. It was a very refined version of a Spanish omelette made with sweet onion, organic potato, asparagus and drizzled with a piquillo pepper aioli. The frisée and parsley salad was a nice touch:
The wine list is extensive and offered a great selection of Spanish plus a few domestic wines. In addition, they also offer “Porrons,” the traditional Spanish party pitcher, filled with sherry-, wine- or cider-based libations. We like our Tempranillo, so we opted to order this very tasty bottle of 2006 Finca Allende Rioja to pair with the rest of our meal:
From the Tapas Calientes (Hot) section, the Chicken and English Pea Croquetas were traditional in looks only. Once bitten into, we found whole chunks of chicken contained in the rich and creamy filling. It was truly delicious, and not sure if it was intentional, but we thought that the flavor was reminiscent of a chicken pot pie. The cured cara cara orange supremes between bites helped cut the richness of the croqueta (click on different parts of the picture to check out the Lytro living picture refocusing capability):
During our travels to Barcelona, one of our favorite tapas there is French Fries studded with Jamón, Chorizo or Foie Gras with fried eggs mixed in. We have never been able to find that dish here, but this Sunny-side Up Egg with Shrimp, Crispy Potato and Chorizo Dressing comes pretty close. Hidden underneath the stack of potato strings and eggs were several shrimp and lots of chorizo bits:
We wanted to order the Sea Urchin and Lardo Bocadillo, only to have the server tell us they had just run out. This gives us an excuse to return (as if we needed one), but we decided to try the House-cured Chorizo with Manchego cheese and aioli version instead. The small baguette-like bread was very crispy and held the tasty sandwich together:
To accompany the sandwich, we ordered the “Tattas” Bravas which were unlike any patatas bravas we have tried before. These tasty bites served with bravas salsa were more like tater tots than the typical fried potato wedges (click on different parts of the picture to check out the Lytro living picture refocusing capability):
We ended with the Crispy Shrimp and Chickpea Flour Pancake served with saffron aoili. Chunks of shrimp were embedded in the pancake, which served as our last savory bite for the evening:
We usually do not order dessert, but they offer bite-size portions in addition to full-size pastries. We’ll have to come back and try their Churros and Chocolate one day, but all we had room for was this Pan Chocolate topped with Olive Oil ice cream. It was a perfect ending to a great meal:
From our table, we were able to view the Bay Lights in action through the window. As we left the restaurant, we took a picture of Coqueta bar terrace with the bridge in the background:
Another attempt at catching the Bay Lights in action on this very warm San Francisco evening:
Chiarello has stated that all great chefs should always be students and continue to learn new things. He could have easily opened a branch of Bottega in the City to great success, but his take on regional Spanish food is definitely a welcome change and a good one for the City. Between La Mar Cebiceria, Hard Water (where we stopped for a whiskey nightcap on the way home) and Coqueta, this part of the Embarcadero is now a great gourmet destination.