Note to all fussy bloggers: Coquette nicely fills a niche

Posted: August 26, 2007

It's a tough town. Before Coquette, the big-windowed bistro and raw bar at the corner of Fifth and Bainbridge, opened last month, a gadfly named Alec posting on eGullet, the Internet forum, fired this dart across its bow: "I just saw the menu for Coquette . . . and I already dislike the place."

That Coquette hadn't served its first Cape May Salt or grilled sardine didn't seem to matter. The writer had trouble with the menu's mix of French and English, its use of "natural jus" one place and "housemade steak sauce" another, and the fact that it probably wasn't going to be as good as the recently departed Pif.

Well, well. That stirred a flurry of other complaints: The "hors d'oeuvres" - mussels (mine turned out to be puny), for instance, and grilled boudin blanc - weren't truly hors d'oeuvres. How come there was feta listed in the tomato salad instead of French cheese? "Cassoulet . . . all summer?" And so on.

I'm not a religious reader of eGullet.org or the proliferating food blogs, many of which seem to cater to (or attract) a tight cadre of folks eager to show off their knowledge of proper French (oops, how'd "Le Coquette Plateau" slip through the proofreader?), or to crab wittily or obsess about cheese. On the other hand, I do like to eat. And I do really go to the cafes and restaurants; in almost every case that comes to mind, after they actually open.

Let us return, then, to the world of reality dining, and the physical premises of Coquette. The windows look out on Bainbridge and upon a Queen Village eat-scape that currently includes Southwark, which provides some of the most amiable and thoughtful bartending in town; Famous Fourth Street Deli, cleaned up and genuine again, although the service can veer from charmingly brusque to unaccountably rude; and Ansill, where former Pif owner David Ansill is cooking adventurous small plates in the former bones of Judy's, the sorely missed, old-shoe, gay-friendly corner cafe.

There are other spots, too. But the point is that Coquette may be just what the neighborhood was lacking, with its honest salads (at $7, the Lyonnaise a light meal in itself), juicy boudin blanc (at $9, a nice plate of juicy white sausage served over warm lentils and mustard-braised lettuce), beautifully seasoned (but non-French!) yellow-tomato gazpacho, and mostly-under-$20 entrees - a decent steak frites, flavorful roasted chicken and light monkfish.

This is the latest venture of Cary Neff, who has let his classic Sansom Street Oyster House slide a bit (oversteamed clams? c'mon!) while Coquette turned his head. (An old hand, Ted Kanas, recently came aboard to try to arrest that slide, improving Sansom's soups, and adding a terrific crab-corn chowder. And there's still the estimable raw bar, and the steady and comforting presence of veteran bartender Fred Finlan.)

Coquette's look is right - hexagonal-tiled floor, cozy eating bar, those smiling windows and sidewalk seating, butcher paper on the tables. Its kitchen is in the charge of young David Gilberg (Matyson and Loie) and his wife, Carla (doing breads and dessert). And while the mood is generally French and, Neff says, patterned on New York's Balthazar and Pastis, hints of Portugal, where Carla grew up, give the place a bit of its own personality.

In fact, one favorite of mine has been the robust, lemon-spritzed sardines over a dense, absorbent corn-flour-yellow bread called broa that Carla bakes each day. The slow-cooked Portuguese pork with clams for two is another un-bistro offering, though my first delicious encounter with it was superior to my second.

As for the eGulleteers, two parting thoughts. One, lighten up, guys! Two, you're right about cassoulet in August: What was (La) Coquette thinking?



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.


Corner of Fifth and

Bainbridge

215-238-9000

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