Two Spanish meals in SF, both wildly different, both transporting… one a chic restaurant from Esquire Magazine’s just named chef of the year, one an ideal neighborhood outpost.
CANELA, Castro (2272 Market St. at Noe, 415-552.3000)
Canela is an ideal neighborhood Spanish restaurant, a welcoming haven for Spanish wine or olive oil flights, platters of jamon Iberico and manchego cheese. Proprietors Francisco Cifuentes and Chef Mat Schuster ensure a warm reception in their classy-but-casual space of warm browns and oranges, illuminated by evening films of Flamenco dancing on the walls. The restaurant has come into its own since it first opened in 2011, both in decor and quality of the dishes.
A thoughtful wine list highlights varying regions of Spain, from Rioja to Rias Baixas, while the sherry selections are likewise interesting, whether a dry, clean Gutierrez Colosia Fino ($6/22), ideal as an aperitif, or a complex, nutty 15 year Maestro Sierra Oloroso ($8/30). Similarly, an olive oil flight ($15), with evolving selections, is a journey through Spanish oils, like a vibrant (tasting of almonds, apples, artichokes) Masia El Altet from Valencia, or a grassy, tomato-sweet Castillo De Canena from Andalusia.
After a few visits in recent months, my favorite dishes are garlic-heavy gambas/shrimp ($9/16) in a smoky, red paprika, sherry, lemon sauce, and especially savory, stuffed piquillo peppers ($11/19) bursting with soft, braised wild boar, boar sausage and mushrooms. Blood sausage fans (like myself) will take to the mildly spiced morilla blood sausage ($11/20) over a root-potato puree.
Comfort comes in the form of perfectly crunchy-soft jamon croquettes ($10) oozing bechamel sauce – or in paper thin Spanish flatbread/coca ($15-16), each laden with farmer’s sheep cheese and sofrito (a sauteed mix of onions, garlic, sweet peppers). You can’t go wrong with any of the coca, but I love the sweet-meaty combo of Spanish serrano ham and peaches in a sherry vinegar reduction.
During mellow brunches set to classic Spanish tunes, seated by open, sunny windows gazing out over Market Street, bocadillos (mini Spanish sandwiches; $6 each or 3 for $16) feel appropriate with sangria. They are on crusty, dry baguettes soaking up white anchovies and roasted peppers, or shredded pork with pickled onions and green beans. Sugar-dusted churros dipped in a chocolate mousse are a lovely finish to any meal here and even retain taste and texture heated up the next morning.
Where Coqueta is dramatic and buzz-worthy, Canela is more consistent, the neighborhood restaurant where one can linger over Spanish wines, olive oils, tapas and conversation – almost like being back in Spain.
COQUETA, Embarcadero (The Embarcadero – Pier 5, 415-704-8866)
Coqueta, from TV star/Napa Chef Michael Chiarello, is the celebrity of the two restaurants, garnering plenty of local and national attention in recent weeks. The sexy space along the Embarcadero at Pier 5 gazes out at the Bay Bridge, as if a hip restaurant from Spain with Nor Cal sensibilities landed on the Bay. Cowhide rugs, leather, rough-hewn wood, shiny marble counter (lined with uncomfortable stools), sketches of pigs on the wall, a glass-walled bar, and a 20-seat patio… it’s that happy marriage of visual and edible drama.
Not to say all is exciting from the open kitchen helmed by Ryan McIlwraith of Chiarello’s Bottega in Napa. Tiny pintxos ($2.50), like mini-skewers of house-cured boquerones, olives, pearl onions, guindilla peppers, stand erect on toothpicks from a wood slab. Though artfully displayed, after trying all miniscule pinxtos, none “popped” in terms of flavor. Better to snack on platters of beloved Iberico ham ($29; or $38 with cheese) and Spanish cheeses ($6 each).
While every plate I’ve ordered (in multiple visits since opening week) is beautiful to behold, that doesn’t always translate to vibrancy, as with sticky, bland fideua ($24), a traditional vermicelli pasta cooked like paella, mixed with shrimp, lomo Iberico, asparagus (thankfully, I no longer see this dish on the menu). Alternately, olive oil-poached Delta asparagus ($8) is clean and crisp. A soft, red sangria salsa hollandaise enhances the asparagus, as does Spanish Idiazabel cheese and jamon serrano.
The one dish I’ve re-ordered each visit (a rarity for me, as I work my way through entire menus) is a shrimp and chickpea flour pancake ($10). So crispy it nearly dissolves, saffron aioli crisscrosses the fried cake, laden with plump shrimp. It’s the bar food of my dreams (and far more gratifying than the bocadillos). Typically bocadillos are mini-Spanish sandwiches – here they are small, open-faced toasts, like the pricey ($14) mar y montana (sea & mountain) with Iberico lardo (blessed pork fat) gently melted over sea urchin. It sounds exquisite but was oddly bland. Iberico de bellota savory clams ($11) were more interesting, cooked in Albarino wine and an herbal broth, substantial with white beans and chorizo.
As common as Spanish duck and pork albondigas/meatballs ($11) are, Coqueta’s are among the best in town: tender, meaty, perfected with a tart cherry-Tempranillo wine puree.
During brunch at Coqueta, a sunny side-up egg ($13) is a delicate breakfast dish over juicy shrimp, texturally contrasted by crunchy strips of potato, perfected with a savory chorizo dressing. Chicken and English pea croquettes ($9) could be just another fried food, but oozing with a creamy sauce, they taste like chicken pot pie in a croquette, playfully accented by pickled, skinned tomatoes.
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Then there’s the cocktails. Bar Manager Joe Cleveland hails from my favorite Spanish chef in the US, José Andrés’ DC restaurant, Jaleo (I adore his LA restaurant, The Bazaar). For someone who travels the world in search of a great cocktail, I was thrilled first reading this menu.
Sophisticated gin and tonics ($12) harken to Spain, among the world’s biggest gin consumers, drinking copious volumes of G&Ts. I appreciate Cleveland’s forward-thinking menu utilizing Spanish ingredients, like jamon Iberico in the Tarrif cocktail, infusing gin with the ham, mixing it with house acorn and apricot tonic, a bit of fresh orange and topping it with Cava, Spain’s sparkling wine.
Another unusual turn: liquid nitrogen Pyreness Snowball ($6), a snowcone-esque yogurt-gin meringue accented with pine, anise, honey punctuated by Pop Rocks and micro flowers.
There’s pitchers of Kalimotxo ($17), mixing red sangria with Mexican Coca Cola and cinnamon (a Basque favorite), or aperitif cocktails like the hilariously-named Death to the Summer of Love ($10) – aka “Hippie Juice” – a bubbly melange of hemp milk, fresh dandelions, absinthe, Spanish brandy and Cava.
Somehow the vision doesn’t always translate. Often the G&Ts are soft, lacking flavor intensity. In the Tariff cocktail, I longed for oil and texture from the jamon or to taste the nuttiness of the acorn. A brighter absinthe kick would have made Death to the Summer of Love. Spanish Conquistador seemed to more wholly coalesce: floral Nolet’s Gin partners well with anise tonic, apple celery juice and lemon ice, enlivened by a spiced fennel salt rim.
Overall, I admire the scope of the cocktail menu – thankfully not just another list of “well-crafted classics.” As with the food menu, there’s much to love at Coqueta, with a healthy dose of sex appeal more common in LA. I may be in the minority who are raving (good luck getting a reservation since Chiarello was named Chef of the Year by Esquire), but my summary in initial months is that greater consistency and more realized flavors in some dishes and cocktails could make Coqueta a truly “whole package” experience.