Chiarello flirts with Spanish cuisine at Coqueta 

click to enlarge Coqueta’s attractive ensalada resorte — English pea puree with jamón serrano — exemplifies how chef Michael Chiarello playfully mixes Californian and Spanish influences. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Coqueta’s attractive ensalada resorte — English pea puree with jamón serrano — exemplifies how chef Michael Chiarello playfully mixes Californian and Spanish influences.

Coqueta knows it’s on The Embarcadero, but it’s not about to let on. The main space soars high and grand, hammering home a rustic vibe with racks of sherries and oils, with sketches of pigs chalked on the walls.

A glistening, cured porcine leg sits on the bar, as if to suggest the mellow eddy outside the window is not in fact the San Francisco Bay but the Iberian coast, and you’re probably going to spend a lot of money here. Somehow, the gesture still feels subtle.

There’s a glassed-in appendage from the main room housing a silvery bar, Spanish tiles and couples sharing bits of cured meat — like a terrarium of fancy carnivores.

Bar seats overlooking the open kitchen are a danger. Here, if you’re a couple of sherries in, and in possession of a working credit card, you might find yourself targeting dishes from the ongoing plating display like a trigger-happy hunter during boar season.

Coqueta’s name evokes chef Michael Chiarello’s “flirtation” with Spanish cuisine. It’s apt, but coy.

The menu’s pan-Spanish flavors are dotted with a Californian concept, and sometimes the other way around. Even when the marriage is forced, it tastes good.

The “ensalada resorte” could be called a “pot de pea,” a sweet, vibrant English pea puree in a glass. It’s fresh and mellow, but the jamón serrano shooting out the top is confusing in the way of finding a black Iberian hog nesting inside a New England country club.

The seafood is restrained and deft. The razor clams are a simple breath of brine softly brightened by lemon. The wood-grilled octopus and fingerling potatoes are tender and smokey.

“Pintxos,” or one-bite skewers, are reliable samples of the menu’s themes. The anchovies are sharply marine, balanced by sweet pearl onions, and the jamón serrano with manchego cheese dissolves into a panoply of nutty, woodsy and creamy sensations, the kind of bite that leaves you wondering what magical diet the pig was on. Try as you might to escape the jamon, it will chase you around the menu. And that’s fine.

Both the chickpea-flour pancake and sunnyside-up egg counted among the few disappointments, both sallow and oily with underwhelming shrimp.

Indescribably better was the Monterey calamari — the whole creature silken and tender with a strong whisper of smoke and wood, sweetened by sweet onion jam and a salty drizzle of squid ink aioli that held secrets I’ll never understand.

Of desserts, the molten chocolate cake wasn’t rich enough to warrant the wait, but apple pie with blue cheese ice cream was ebullient.

The wine list is didactic and charming, and the sherry-based cocktails are best. While the Andalucia was as forward on flavor as a black Twizzler marinated in marzipan, the Nome — amontillado, gin and yellow chartreuse — was warm and sweet with a light cream body.

The Revolution, a smokey mezcal and gin number rounded out with anise and passionfruit, was delightful. On the other hand, Death to the Summer of Love was hilarious and perplexing, a mix of house-made hemp milk, dandelions, absinthe, brandy and cava. If you get past the eggy froth and the psychedelic pink swirl on top, you get a world of ephemeral aromatics with a cava buzz.

Chiarello is as much a part of the ambiance as the wine racks. When he swoops in, it feels like he’s delighted to find a party in his own living room. He tightens his apron, asks about your octopus and circulates smoothly, stopping occasionally for photos.

He’s very good at smiling and charmingly irreverent when he suggests my oily egg dish and potato dish are best with an “epic hangover.” And he was probably right, but I’m not sure how much better that would make it. But like the rest of Coqueta, it’s best when you relax into it.

Coqueta

Location: Pier 5, The Embarcadero, S.F.
Price range: $30 to $50
Contact: (415) 704-8866, www.coquetasf.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily for lunch, 3:30 to 5 p.m. daily bar menu, 5 to 10 p.m. daily dinner
Recommended dishes: Monterey calamari on the plancha ($10), wood-grilled octopus ($12), house-cured boquerones ($2.50), Nome cocktail ($9)
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Credit cards: All major

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Molly Gore

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