“Oh. My. God.” S exhaled, pushing her plate away from her at the end of our meal. “I want to stand up and applaud right now.”
Judging by the looks of utter satisfaction around the table, I’d say we were all one bite away from a standing ovation. That, or passing out from the most incredible food coma ever.
It was the day before my brunch club’s group venture into the world of Whole30 — so, obviously, we were going all out. Why ease ourselves into a cleanse when we could have one last desperate binge-fest of heretofore-unseen proportions? As soon as we decided on diet’s start date, I booked us reservations at celeb chef Michael Chiarello’s popular new restaurant, Coqueta. Having wined and dined there before, I knew what to expect: earthy, luxurious ambiance; intensely flavorful Basque bites and Spanish tapas; addictive, creative cocktails. Coqueta came through with all that and more, delivering us one phenomenal Last Supper.
Coqueta is housed within Pier 5 off San Francisco’s Embarcadero, offering patio seating, an outer bar/lounge area, and an impressive, dramatic dining room. One step into the lofty main space and you know you’re in for a treat — stretched cowhides, plush curtains, and burnished leather adorn exposed wood, cast iron, and hammered copper. I hate using the word, but I’m left with no choice: the place is sexy.
Even better than the darkly romantic atmosphere, however, are the menus. We wanted one of everything, but, being only five girls, had to display some (just barely any) modicum of restraint. We have priorities, and so began with drinks, sharing a porron, traditional Spanish party pitcher, of the bright, deceptively strong agua de Valencia: gin, vodka, cava, and orange juice. Some of my girlfriends also tacked on cocktails, all top-notch and tasty, particularly the one below (which we maturely likened to a jacuzzi due to its salted foam).
Yes, I am the person who takes pictures of the complimentary bread. And yes, it was worth it, at least in this case. The accompanying Arbequina olive oil was delicious — so much so that we asked to see the bottle for future reference. Thinking ahead, we also strategically ordered the ensalada de kale: lacinato kale with fresh garbanzos, grilled strawberries, Cana de Cabra cheese, cocoa croutons, and warm sherry vinegar dressing. It was a much-needed, well-executed platter of greens in an otherwise super-indulgent meal.
First up: El Gran Plat Cap, or the chef’s grand selection of cured meats and cheeses. Alongside the wonderland of delicious charcuterie were membrillo, Marcona almonds, extra virgin olive oil tortas, and pan de cristal con tomate. My favorite of the selection: some powerfully spiced chorizo.
There was no way we were leaving without trying Coqueta’s seafood. The pulpo a la parilla, wood-grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and pimenton olive oil, was tender and charred, but barely edged out in flavor by the gambas al negro. These olive-oil-poached head-on gulf prawns were perhaps our favorite dish of the day. So incredibly succulent — and that black garlic and chili sauce! We asked for more bread just to sop up all of that savory goodness.
Pictured in the lead is the “sunny side-up” huevo, with shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing; above is the dish post-tableside mixing. Going off of our server’s recommendation, we gamely ordered two plates, though that might’ve been a bit more than we could’ve handled. That’s not to say it wasn’t great– it’s just so intensely umami and salty that a few forkfuls of this would’ve sufficed.
It was, perhaps, a sense of impending diet-induced doom that drove us to order more deep-fried dishes — but it worked out in our favor. Our server tacked on a few extra croquetas de pollo to make sure each of us got our own. I’m glad she did; the chicharon-crusted chicken and English pea croquetas, served with cured Cara Cara orange, were delicious bites of Spanish chicken pot pie. Also great were the patatas bravas: freshly dug, lightly smoked, crispy new potatoes with bravas salsa and garlic aioli.
Stepping away from the seafood, we tried the albondigas a la Feria: grilled duck and pork meatballs with tart cherry and tempranillo salsa and crispy shallots. Gamey, decadent, and intense, these were solid but not as alluring as the other items on the table. The single larger racione we ordered, however, swept us off our feet — wood-grilled pluma, or acorn-fed Spanish Iberico de Bellota pork shoulder loin with honey-chili glaze. I wasn’t joking when I said we went all out; this is some highly-coveted, artisanally grown and prepared meat. Was it worth its steep cost? We were skeptical until we took a bite. It was close-your-eyes, melt-in-your-mouth sublime.
We ended our meal with a classic: churros with drinking chocolate and crushed berry powder. Freshly fried with a custardy interior, the treats were a perfect close to our brunch. I may have shed a tear of happiness.
My only regret is that I didn’t get to try more — including the pintxos, or toothpick-skewered appetizers, that are offered by servers circulating around the room. Unfortunately, none of those trays even got to our table, but I’ll be sure to flag one down next time. Each of us, I’m sure, were making plans for our “next times” — including even asking our (charmingly spunky, incredibly helpful) server about rentals. Under normal circumstances, we’d balk at the lounge area’s four-digit price tag… but, so enamored were we, that we conspired to find an event special enough to justify it. Any excuse to return! Perhaps our upcoming cleanse caused us to cling onto Coqueta like a lifeline, but the restaurant is worthy of worship any day. Cheers to you, Michael Chiarello!
Pier 5, The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94111