Coquette Bucks a Trend

Coquette has proved that location does not always determine a restaurant’s fate. The address at 2800 Magazine St. has seen two restaurants that seemed likely to succeed come and go –– Takumi and Table One –– before Coquette reversed the trend.
Takumi was a member of the Little Tokyo family, an operation run by folks with multiple successful restaurants in the New Orleans area. It was, unfortunately, an ambitious failure. Table One was the brainchild of Gerard Maras, a talented, experienced chef who was ahead of the game where local sourcing of ingredients is concerned. 
Neither restaurant succeeded to the extent that Michael Stoltzfus and Lillian Hubbard have with Coquette. That’s more remarkable given that Coquette is their first restaurant. Hubbard is an alumna of Commander’s Palace, which also was the case with some of the servers when the restaurant first opened. Stoltzfus hails from Maryland and worked at his family’s bakery and at a fine-dining restaurant there before moving to New Orleans in 2007.
I first had a meal at Coquette in February of last year, shortly after the restaurant opened. I knew then that the restaurant was something special, but I wasn’t sure it would last. I’m very glad it has because my most recent meals at Coquette have demonstrated that my initial experiences weren’t an aberration.
Coquette flirts with you from the moment you step into the restaurant. The long, classic New Orleans bar that lines the back wall of the downstairs dining room is inviting, but it’s not necessarily a great place to sit and have a drink. There’s a narrow, winding staircase at the rear of the dining room that leads to a larger and somewhat more accommodating room. Volume is less of an issue upstairs, but it’s not a quiet restaurant. There’s a lot of wood in the dining rooms, and the high ceilings don’t absorb the sound so much as reflect it from the pressed tin lining them.
Service is good in both rooms, as is the food. On a recent visit for lunch, the restaurant sent out a half-dozen roasted oysters with a fennel cream and horseradish before we ordered. Naturally, I assumed it was because I am such an important person, but we weren’t the only table to receive the free bivalves. I think it was more likely because our seats, near the front entrance, were exceedingly cold every time the front door opened. Regardless, the oysters were excellent. They were just barely cooked, a neat trick given that the golden-brown crust indicated some time beneath the salamander. They’ll run you $10 if you order them from the lunch menu.
I ordered the fried shrimp with citrus and olives ($9) for an appetizer. There was a light tempura batter on the shrimp, and they were served over supremes of grapefruit with arbequina olive halves and an arugula salad. I hate to compare one chef to another, but honestly it reminded me of something from the kitchen at John Besh’s August. And given that chef Stoltzfus was a sous chef at August before opening Coquette, it’s entirely possible he picked up a thing or two. What reminded me of Besh’s food was the precise execution of the dish and the plating. The elements were all perfectly prepared, and the narrow rectangular plate with a line of grapefruit, olives and shrimp topped in the center with the arugula was exactly as I’d expect to find it at August –– all of which is a compliment, from my perspective.
That’s not to say that Stoltzfus is copying anyone. Besh would likely have grilled or salt-baked the shrimp and garnished the dish with micro-herbs. Stoltzfus’ take is more substantial, and it works just as well. The batter, again, is very light, and there was a sweet-spicy sambal vinaigrette to balance the acidity of the grapefruit.
I sometimes use “perfectly cooked” as shorthand when writing about food. I suppose I should be more descriptive; when it comes to shrimp, overcooking leaves you with a rubbery product that’s edible but not all that appetizing. Fried shrimp are particularly prone to this problem because if you don’t have the temperature of the oil right, you’ll overcook the shrimp before you get that nice golden color you’re looking for in the crust. One of the hallmarks of an excellent restaurant is the ability to cook everything consistently well. I’ve only had a half-dozen meals at Coquette, and with the exception of a steak on my first visit right after they opened, the kitchen has been spot-on. That was certainly true of the shrimp in that appetizer.
I’m a fan of pork belly, and I’m also a fan of Korean food. The lunch menu when I last dined included an entree of pork belly with house-made kimchi and pickled carrots ($14). In a typically Korean touch, the dish was served with lettuce leaves in which to wrap the other ingredients. I’m sometimes leery of eating “ethnic” food at fine-dining restaurants, but Stoltzfus pulled it off again. The kimchi was suitably pungent, and combined with the rich, slightly spicy pork belly, it was pretty damn good. It was full of beautiful, beautiful pork fat, but because of the kimchi, carrots and lettuce, it almost felt healthy. Almost. I hope you people appreciate the lengths to which I go for you. I’ll have you know that I have high cholesterol. Also, I have webbed toes.
The friend with whom I dined is a “steak and potatoes” type, and he was pleased with a salad of Boston lettuce, pecans and goat cheese ($7), followed by a hanger steak with hand-cut fries and a shallot vinaigrette ($16).
Coquette also offers a three-course lunch menu for $20. Last week the menu featured a choice of fried oyster salad with arugula and a warm fennel vinaigrette; a Boston lettuce salad with candied pecans, a red wine vinaigrette and goat cheese; or a butternut squash soup with a piquillo pepper marmalade as starters. Entrees were a choice between lamb loin with white bean stew and collard greens or cobia with brown butter, roasted beets and kumquat. For dessert, your choices were beignets with sweet potato soup, or Persille de Malzieu (a blue cheese from the Languedoc region of France) with sherry vinegar and Honeycrisp apples.
Coquette is a beautiful space, and there’s no reason that the location –– at the corner of Magazine and Washington –– shouldn’t be home to a successful restaurant. I’m glad that Stoltzfus and Hubbard took a chance on the property and also happy that they seem to be enjoying such good business. If you want to dine there, you should definitely call them at (504) 265-0421 to make a reservation. It’s not all that hard to get into the place, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend just dropping by at 8 p.m. on a weekend.
Sometimes there’s a backlash when a relatively new restaurant becomes extremely popular. But generally, there’s a reason for that popularity, at least in New Orleans. And you’d be making a mistake if you doubt that’s the case with Coquette. If you haven’t been: go.                

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