When it comes to the restaurant scene, San Francisco is a well-oiled machine. It is a mecca for receiving culinary awards such as Michelin stars and James beard nominations. As a result, there is unity among eateries in this posh destination. For example, seemingly every restaurant website in the city has an sf on the end of the restaurant name on their website domain. It’s a badge which lets the world know that “we are in San Francisco and you’re not”. Take http://www.coquetasf.com for example. It’s the brain child of celebrity chef Michael Chiarello and aims to bring trendy Spanish tapas to the tourist-ridden piers of the city by the bay. This effort was awarded with a nomination for a James Beard award for best new restaurant in 2014 although in the end it was edged out by Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans. I anxiously awaited the one month window to arrive so I could vigilantly get online and make a reservation. Since the lunch and dinner menus are similar, I booked at noon to take full advantage of a sunny San Francisco day by the pier. The decor follows the mold of many other San Francisco eateries in that it’s well decorated in a rustic yet modern fashion. In the kitchen area, shelves of jars and bottles sit beside pots that I’m not sure are ever used. Place settings are available along a long marble bar while the rest of the restaurant consists of nice, high hardwood tables. There is also area outside as well which provides protection from the sun but a nice view of the bustling pier and sparkling water.
Like most tapas menus, temptation is plenty. There are hot and cold plates with an array and meets, cheeses and vegetables. What immediately caught my eyes were the pintxos; bite-size skewers carried around by the staff in an effort to challenge will power. The platter was an attractive mix (from left to right) of quail egg, asparagus, boquerones, chorizo and Serrano ham. AT $2.50 a pop, they were well constructed with a nice combination of salt, sweet and acid. To my surprise, the quail egg was the least enjoyable, while the Serrano ham with Manchego cheese and the apricot conserva was fantastic, offering fundamental spanish flavours and textures all in one bite.
It’s a daunting task taking four people with very different tastes to agree on a tapas spread, especially with a menu as complex as Coqueta’s. Anybody who has dined with me knows I’ll go for the eggs every time, especially with memories of the Huevos Cabreados I had in Barcelona a few years back. I went for the “Sunny side-up” Huevo With Shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing ($13). The egg was cooked nicely and shrimp, despite the size and skimpy portion, were seasoned and cooked well. The potatoes were white and a bit flaccid and literally paled in comparison to their Barcelona counterparts. I think if you’re going to mash an egg into matchstick potatoes, they need to be able to hold their integrity to a degree.
A tapas meal is not complete without some Spanish poutine, also known as patatas bravas $8. Although in some ways I’m a conservative when it comes to adherence to traditional dishes. It’s rare that I make any food the first time without adhering to the traditional way of doing things. So, I’m a little skeptical when I get a haute cuisine version of a very traditional dish. Hand dug potatoes replaced the wedges I’m accustomed to. The normally messy presentation of a piquant sauce and creamy alioli was subbed for a tomato base in a side dish and a white dollop atop a freshly dug potato.
The Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon (crusted Chicken and English pea croquetas with cured cara-cara orange) for $9 were ok. Keep in mind I’m impartial to croquetas to begin with and these were no exception. Decent taste. The cara cara orange tried to cut into the creamy fried mix but it’s still a croqutea.
The Ensalada de Remolacha (Roasted baby beets with Sausalito watercress, beet vinaigreta, tierra and cabrales blue cheese snow $9) was a pretty dish which combined purple and gold beets with the green and white of watercress and cheese respectively. It tasted pretty too.
The Calamares a la Plancha (Whole Monterey calamari on the plancha with onion jam and squid ink alioli) $10 was a creative yet authentic dish. The calamari was tender and the ink allowed for a little fun and tasty play time. The jam was a surprising but delicious addition to the mix.
I love deviled eggs, so my vote was for the Huevos Nacional (deviled eggs ﬁlled with spring pea, smoked pimentón alioli, on pickled saffron potatos and olive oil poached Bonito $7). Beautifully presented, it was easily the most complex deviled egg I have eaten. It was almost confusing although using a pickled potato as a pedestal is a tasty and practical idea I not might use myself the next time I make the picnic favorites myself.
The generous use of delicious fish highlighted the salmon ahumado (Smoked salmon queso fresco and trufﬂe honey-$8). Piled on top of fluffy cheese and sweetened ever so slightly, it was an interesting spin on bagel and lox. Thankfully, the truffle was subtle and didn’t overpower the star of the dish and I found the sweetness from the honey instead of the normal use of salt from something like a caper worked well.
Another pretty dish was the Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco (Wood grilled green and purple Delta asparagus with coal roasted romesco salsa, raw Manchego and Marcona almonds $14). There was a smokiness to it that was tamed by the colourful accents. The salsa was delicious.
The most carnivorous tapas order was the Albondigas a la Feria (Grilled duck and pork meatballs with tart cherry and tempranillo salsa and crispy shallots $12). I really enjoyed the flavour of the duck and pork together although a little greasier than I would have liked. The chefs were stingy on the shallots which was a bit disappointing because it would have added a crunch to the meatball.
Eating at a restaurant is like watching a movie. First, you need a plot. Coqueta entered the already bustling San Francisco dining scene by offering Spanish fare with a Californian twist. Second, you need a director, preferably a big name. Michael Chiarello certainly fits the bill. Next, you need to enhance the plot with a combination of a great setting and cast. Coqueta’s decor and service were excellent. The waitress, for example, modified the size of the standard order to accommodate the four us (so we had enough but didn’t need to order two servings) with no issues at all Since the James Beard awards are like the Academy Awards of all things food, I was excited to dine in a restaurant who was shortlisted for best new restaurant nationally. However, sometimes when I watch a Oscar-nominated movie, I get lost in the complex plot and end up missing the point. A few dishes at Coqueta were like that; it was a good experience but a few dishes were confusing and overly complex. The experience was helped by great service and a good location. Like the movies that don’t quite win an Oscar, I was curious to experience those who were just honored to be nominated.