Pub date April 23, 2013

DINING When you name your restaurant Coqueta, Spanish for “flirt,” you’re really putting it all out there in terms of your food and atmosphere — playful yet unwavering, open but with a hint of mystery, and definitely attentive. After visiting Coqueta during its opening week, I’m confident celebrity chef Michael Chiarello’s new venture will score.

Opened April 13th, Coqueta is seductive on every level. Located on Pier 5, the restaurant is intimate: 60 leather seats in the buzzing main room, wooden tables, stone walls, flickering candles. Nearly every seat has a view of the kitchen — nothing to hide here. On the left side of the restaurant is Bar 5, a glass-enclosed terrace that seats an additional 30 people in rows of long, wooden, family-style tables.

Chiarello’s garnered an exciting following from his days running Napa’s Tra Vigne restaurant and stints on TV, so it was no surprise that there was a wait to get seated. Just a 15-minute delay past our reservation time, though — my friend and I were kindly invited by staff onto the terrace for a drink. (In fact service all round was abundantly attentive; I was even lead to the restroom.)

Immediately, the drink menu swept me off my feet. Created by bar director Joe Cleveland, it ranges from modern classics to San Francisco-inspired creations, solid Spanish gin and tonics to sherry cocktails (all $9–$14 each), plus pitchers of sangria and other Spanish party classics for groups. My friend started out the evening with the El Cazador, a bright sherry cocktail with lime, honey, and Campari. My first choice was the San Francisco-inspired Engine Co #5, a bourbon drink with tobacco-infused cream sherry, lemon, and zurracapote (red wine mixed with fruit, sangria-like but steeped for several days). By the time our drinks were finished, we were seated.

The menu consists of lovely, rustic-looking tapas-sized dishes ($9–$14 each), both hot and cold, along with cheese plates, bite-sized skewers, cured meats, mini open-faced sandwiches, and larger family style dishes. After being offered some sparkling water in beautiful hammered brass tumblers, we decided to start our night with a couple of bite-sized skewers, Chiarello’s light-hearted take on Basque-country pintxos, at $2.50 each. Quail egg with mustard seed and serrano? Why not. Jamon serrano with manchego cheese and apricot? Oh, I couldn’t possibly. Chorizo with artichokes and peppers? Two, please. All tiny bits of deliciousness. Enamored, we ended up ordering two more, the baby beets with spring onions and citrus fruit with more spicy chorizo.

Narrowing down our main dishes was a challenge. We settled on four plates: three hot tapas and one cold one. We first dug into the cold tapa, a cured cod crudo with tomato fresco, hearts of palm, arugula, and citrus dressing. It was a refreshing way to begin our foray. Our next dish was Gambas de Negro, whole prawns grilled with chili and black garlic. The most savory and comforting dish, though, was a sunny side up egg presented with shrimp, crispy potatoes, and a chorizo dressing. Finally came the “Tattas” Bravas, a spin on tater tots — and that classic Spanish bar standard, patatas bravas — with an array of jambon and potato nuggets served with salsa and aioli. Those popped right into our mouths.

While eating, we also ordered a couple tequila drinks. The first was the Castro, a unique tipple consisting of tequila blanco, fruity curaçao liqueur, pepper and lime. The second was The Sun Never Sets, creamy and scrumptious with tequila anejo, Licor 43, lime, fresh pineapple juice, and pineapple espuma brulee. As he made it, Cleveland told me this was his personal favorite.

Although we passed on the desserts, two of them were generously given to us by a guest at the next table — was this flirting? We were definitely beguiled by the sangria pop-rocksicles, tasty and mischievous adult treats, and the cool berry gazpacho, which floated us into the night.

I left the restaurant nearly vowing to Chiarello, who introduced himself to our table (there’s that attentiveness again), that I would return. I probably should have teased it out a little.

Pier 5, Embarcadero, SF. (415) 704-8866,