Michael Chiarello stands in the middle of his new Embarcadero restaurant, Coqueta, pouring liquid nitrogen into the eager hands of a group of well-dressed women at a round corner table. He's as handsome in person as he is on the Food Network, tanned and trim with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and is certainly acting the part of the showman celebrity chef as he makes his flashy version of frozen sangria.
I'm sitting two feet away at a table behind him, but my view of the extravagant display is limited to Chiarello's (admittedly well-toned) backside. All through the meal, the chef returns to the same two or three tables several times — drinking punch with them out of a traditional Spanish pitcher, bringing them little treats from the kitchen, generally having what appears to be a great time — and ignores everyone else. If I'd come to bask in the glow of Chiarello's celebrity, I would have been left out in the cold. And his food here isn't much of a consolation prize.
Chiarello has built his brand as the laid-back Napa guy making simple Cal-Italian cuisine. His Food Network show, Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello, is shot at a winery and focuses on recipes like chicken with roasted lemon and rosemary sauce. Chiarello's wine country persona extends to NapaStyle, a tony kitchen and lifestyle store he owns which sells things like $400 chandeliers made from wine glasses and barrel staves. He's the proprietor of Italian restaurant Bottega in Yountville, but Coqueta is the chef's first restaurant in San Francisco and his first foray into Spanish cuisine ("coqueta" means "flirt" in Spanish, because he's flirting with the cuisine).
I went in ready to be seduced. I've always liked Michael Chiarello. He's part of the old guard of Food Network stars with legit restaurant experience, and I was excited to experience his take on Spanish tapas and sherry drinks, which had been the recipient of breathless media hype for months. But the affair fizzled soon into my first visit as the food revealed itself to be a lot of show without much substance.
The sprawling menu divides courses into hot tapas, cold tapas, entrées, salads, pinxos, meats, and cheeses — an overwhelming variety at first glance, and seemingly too many to do well at once. Coqueta's version of patatas bravas, the classic Spanish potato tapas, came out the first time looking like wan tater tots; on another occasion they were at least crisped on the outside, but far too oily on the inside. Wood-grilled octopus was perfectly cooked — pliant and not rubbery, not an easy thing to achieve in a wood-fired oven — but topped with so much Spanish paprika it tasted gritty and acrid. I also crunched down on a mouthful of grit in the grilled razor clams with ramps. And duck-and-pork meatballs were so salty they were inedible.
Cold tapas fared a little better. The salad, Ensalada Rosorte, wasn't so much a salad as it was a cold soup: A base of fresh, verdant English pea puree in a highball glass, topped with some poached vegetables and a slivered egg, with a crispy ham "crouton" sticking out the top. It was conceptually confusing but nice to eat; more than I can say for the white gazpacho, made with Marcona almonds, which had a texture and astringent flavor that brought paint primer to mind.
Not all of the food was a disappointment. The paella main course, $40 for enough to serve two or three people, was fine: There wasn't a crust on the bottom as a proper paella should have, but the large Gulf prawns were succulent and meaty, the rice just the right texture, and the saffron bright enough to be noticeable without overpowering the palate. And there was a lovely and decadent open-faced sandwich called "mar y montana" (sea and mountain), with lardo and jambon iberico melted over a buttery slice of sea urchin, all on a buttery, crispy brioche bun.
It's also a pleasant room to spend a few hours in, thanks to interior design work by Eileen Gordon Chiarello, Michael's wife. It's a gorgeous space with wood floors, a marble bar overlooking the buzzing open kitchen, metal chairs covered in leather, and exposed wood beams and Venetian plaster walls. The heavy, Spanish flatware and metal water cups are conversation pieces in themselves. There are views of the bay, too: Chairs and benches were raised in the restaurant so diners can look out of the large windows.
One of the restaurant's best elements is the adjacent bar, a glass-walled jewel box of a room with an ambitious cocktail program led by bar manager Joe Cleveland, who formerly worked at Jose Andres' restaurants in D.C. It focuses heavily on sherries and "gintonics" — light, refreshing beverages popular in Spain — but here showed some of the same lack of editing as the kitchen. The Spanish Golden Ale, a gintonic made with Old Tom gin, Fever Tree tonic, amontillado sherry, chocolate bitters, lemon, and gold was one of the best things I had at Coqueta, well-balanced and layered and complex. Not so much for the Tariff, made with gin infused with jambon iberico. Not even acorn and apricot tonic, orange, and cava could tame the taste of the pork. It was like drinking a cold glass of prosciutto.
The restaurant's biggest flaw came into focus at dessert. I ordered "pop rocksicles," a push-pop of rock-hard frozen sangria topped with house-made pop rocks; fun to say, less fun to eat. The loud crunching of the pop rocks drew an embarrassing amount of attention from other tables, and the melting sangria left my hand a sticky mess. It was at least better than the smoked crème brulee, whose heavy liquid smoke flavor lingered long after I took a bite. I wanted flan. I wanted simple pleasure. Flash and style might be enough to fuel a first attraction, but there needs to be more behind the initial excitement or a flirtation will inevitably fizzle.