Actually, there are quite a few good reasons why this San Francisco newbie made it onto the list of the five best eateries to open their doors last year. (Winner will be announced at the annual Beard Awards in New York City on May 5.
Reason #1: Pintxos, dozens of them, Spain's traditional skewered snacks lined up on wooden platters like a glamorous Rockettes chorus line. Pronounced peen-chos, these are one- or two-bite offerings that pair perfectly with the house’s cocktails and wines, and that give diners a tantalizing hint of what’s to come. I loved the hopscotch game played by the pintxo of Spanish chorizo, roasted artichoke and piquillo peppers, as well as the skewer of Serrano ham with Manchego cheese and an apricot-Sherry chutney. (Photo by San Francisco Chronicle.)
Reason #2: Luscious duck and pork meatballs, with crisply grilled edges, a tart cherry puree and crackly fried shallot rings on the side.
Reason #10 (Don’t worry, we’ll get to 3 through 9 in a minute.) Coqueta has one of the the coolest vibes in town, thanks to a packed house of attractive, animated guests and a dramatic décor complete with cowhide rugs, handsome wood floors, rough-hewn columns holding the ceiling high overhead and a bustling open kitchen. Woven leather chairs encircle rustic wood tables set with hammered copper water cups. There’s also an inviting “patio” (enclosed in cold weather) that was abuzz with party-hearty diners on the January night I visited.
Chef Michael Chiarello, famed for his Napa Valley restaurants Bottega and Tra Vigne, captures the sexy, vivacious vibe of Barcelona restaurants with this, his first real departure from Italian fare. He deftly marries the Spanish menu to the local, seasonal and organic ingredients at his fingertips. The result is one of the buzziest and most delicious scenes in town.
OK. Back to the litany of lovable dishes.
Reason #3. New potatoes with crisp, lightly smoked skins and dreamy, creamy insides. Salsa brava and a spot of garlicky alioli (Catalan’s version of aioli) doubled the eating pleasure.
#4. A pintxo of quails eggs “Diablo” with pickled mustard seed and Serrano ham.
#5: Brilliant baby beets on a toothpick with Cana de Cabra (soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese), grilled spring onions and a spritz of citrus.
#6: A chickpea flour pancake with juicy nuggets of shrimp inside and a drizzle of saffron alioli on top. (Photo from Yelp.)
#7 Grilled beef shortribs, fork-tender and slick with a lip-smacking fino sherry-chocolate glaze.
#8 Beet salad dressed up with just-picked watercress from Sausalito and the Spanish blue-veined cheese called Cabrales.
#9 Rice, rice and more rice. Though Chiarello’s glamorous paella is a specialty of the house, our merry band of tapas tasters opted for the simpler Arros con Setas and loved the comforting fusion of caramelized mushrooms, slightly smoky Idiazabal cheese, braised kumquats and Bomba rice. (Photo by San Francisco Chronicle.)
By the way, Coqueta’s liquid offerings are as exciting as the food. Would you believe seven racy riffs on the classic Gin ‘n Tonic? And a by-the-glass list of some 25 interesting wines? With tantalizing cocktails like the "Castro" (tequila, fino sherry, Fresno pepper, lime and pickled carrot) and homemade sangria (red wine and sherry, plus ginger, berries and chamomile), it takes some self discipline to move on to the eating portion of the menu. (There are creative non-alcoholic refrescos too.)
The James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the food world. Coqueta’s competition in the award for Best New Restaurant: Betony, Carbone and Estela in New York City, and Peche Seafood Grill in New Orleans. For a complete list of the awards and the nominees, see the James Beard Website.