Tuesday, March 25, 2014

TAPAS PLUS MICHAEL CHIARELLO EQUALS COQUETA

Restaurant life along the Embarcadero has been a hit or miss affair over the years, though recently it seems places have been able to make more of a foothold and garner both good reviews and paying clientele. See Epic Roasthouse, Waterbar, La Mar and the latest addition Coqueta a mostly tapas style  place utilizing local ingredients to create Spanish style dishes. They've taken over the old Lafitte space after Chef Russell Jackson decided he wanted to be more celebrity than chef and headed to New York and the Food Network. And in a strange quirk the person who heads up Coqueta is Michael Chiarello, who's already done the celebrity thing and is now throwing himself back into the actual food. It's always been a small space but they've managed to make it feel bigger even with all the dark wood, the high ceilings really help.




I'd been wanting to try the place since it first opened but decided to give them time to find their way as it were, which from starred reviews I'd seen, they'd settled into a nice routine. Time finally came when my friend Cheryl and I were able to mesh our schedules and decided to hit the place up for lunch on a recent bright sunny day. We didn't have reservations but it was late lunch and we got a great seat at the bar where we could see them cook up the food and surprise--Chef Chiarello was there being very hands on and helpful around the kitchen--it was nice to see. It's a decent menu of mostly small plates showcasing local and in-season foods. It took us a few minutes to sort through and figure out what we wanted, but we eventually chose to start with the chicken and English pea croquets and the crispy shrimp and chickpea flour pancake. 


The croquetas with their creamy filling of chicken and peas tasted like little fried logs of pot pie which isn't a bad thing, they were quite tasty. I just wished there'd been maybe 2 more instead of the cured cara-cara orange pieces with red pepper. I'm not sure about these, they didn't add much for me. Maybe they were there as a citrus brightness to offset the creamy croquetas? Seemed odd choice as accompaniment and not my favorite. Next was a chickpea flour pancake with shrimp deep fried then drizzled with a saffron alioli and topped with fresh pea shoot leaves and scallions. I have to say this was larger then we thought it would be, I think we envisioned it would be more crab cake like but it was a very crispy pancake. In fact I'll say it was a bit over fried as the edges were dark and brittle crispy. The center of this was better as it was crispy outside and slightly soft inside with large chunks of shrimp that seemed to have migrated to the middle. The saffron sauce I missed any flavor of saffron in and it tasted more like a mild mustard. I wanted to like the taste of this as much as the idea of it but ultimately due to the over cooking and lack of flavor in the alioli it was just okay. A little less cooking, a little more shrimp and another sauce I'd be all over this. Next we moved on to the red kale ensalada and the grilled albondigas. 


It was a warm red kale salad with roasted squash, apricot, roasted pumpkin seeds and a Rancho Gordo chickpea dressing. We both really enjoyed this take on the standard kale salad. The squash gave it a pleasant sweetness to offset the slight bitterness of the kale and the pumpkin seeds added the needed texture. It was like a comforting warm winter dish that made us feel healthy eating it. The grilled albondigas were duck and pork meatballs with a tart cherry and tempranillo puree topped with crispy shallots. The meatballs themselves were juicy little balls of flavor I like for the most part, maybe a little crisper on the outside, but that's a minor quibble. The puree, however, was a little too sweet for me. I tasted cherry but not tartness, only sweet and it overwhelmed the meatball and the crispy shallots. I have a sweet tooth and all that but for me the puree and meatballs together weren't my favorite. Separately I appreciated their flavors though which is why I scraped off the puree and just had the meatballs and shallots, which I liked. Since we skipped one sweet, we decided to give the official desserts a look and went with the house made churros. 


Deep fried ovals of dough dusted with sugar and served with a semi-sweet dark chocolate dipping sauce and a powder made of dried then ground raspberries and strawberries. Made to order they were served hot and crispy on the outside and light puffy dough inside. The chocolate wasn't really sweet which was a perfect compliment to the sugary churro and match for dipping or just pouring over it. The berry powder was very molecular gastronomy and a pleasantly surprising burst of flavor. I dipped in chocolate then sprinkled on powder and was like a chocolate berry donut. I could taste all the flavors clearly and they mixed wonderfully. This was a cool, fun treat and great way to end the meal.

Overall Coqueta was a mix of hits and misses for us but I'd say for the most part me and Cheryl would probably recommend giving the place a try. Things to know--service was a bit spotty at times and the plates we ordered came out slowly, which was surprising since it wasn't particularly busy and there seemed to be a fair number of folks working. Plates range from $3 to $40 with a handful of larger dishes that are specifically listed as family style sharing things. It can get pricey as small plates add up and when you add in drinks for two our bill was just over $80. Not exactly something one can do on a regular basis but special occasions or business lunch write off would work. Coqueta is Spanish for flirt and a good name for the place as the food seems to "flirt" with the edge of  greatness and so-so-ness, but the basic flavors are still enough to draw you in and hopefully find something that you just might fall in love with--or not--that's the chance you take. 



Coqueta on Urbanspoon

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