2800 Magazine Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
Great New Orleans restaurant always seems to beget others as talented professionals grow confident enough to start their own ambitious ventures. One of the latest examples is Coquette, opened by chef Michael Stoltzfus and Lillian Hubbard. The couple racked up years of experience at Commander's Palace and August and early in 2009 used that background to create Coquette. Hubbard runs the front of the house, while from the kitchen Stoltzfus puts out cuisine that is elegant, understated and beautifully in synch with the restaurant's urbane environment. It has turned out to be one of the most exciting new bistros to come along in a while.
It's hard to believe today, but the townhouse at the corner of Magazine and Washington streets was for many years used as an auto parts store. It was renovated into a steakhouse in 2004, and has seen some very different restaurants come and go since. Coquette seems very much at home in the space, however, which now is a handsome, stylish pair of dining rooms with lots of broad windows and exposed brick. The huge bar is elegant, but takes up too much of the comparatively small first-floor dining room. On busy nights the bartender seems to be the only one in the restaurant with elbowroom.
The servers are personable and engaging, but on the busy nights you don't get enough face time with them. Coquette caught on quick, and the eager demand of interested customers can send service off the rails. Several times we sat through awkwardly long gaps in service with empty plates and dry glasses covering the table.
The whole menu is very short, and rewritten constantly. But there is a consistent theme of deftly done classics mixing it up with subtle international influences. Coquette makes an extraordinary crab cake. The light crust on the surface and a mix of green herbs seems to be all that binds the sweet clumps of crabmeat together. Smooth, spread-able pork rillete has an intriguing assortment of condiments, including sour cherry to cut through the lusciousness. A tangy, green chimichurri similarly put an edge on the fatty short ribs. Fried figs, wrapped in thick, smoky bacon, are simply and utterly irresistible.
Main dishes remain understated and restrained under Stoltzfus's hand. Very little jumps off the menu - or the plate - for attention. Yet most of it works extremely well. These dishes don't need to shout, but they do invite you to linger over them. Thick pieces of black cod rest on top of a memorable sauce made from watercress, sweet piquillo peppers and almonds. A caponata of olives, red pepper and eggplant made a wreath of different flavors around seared redfish. The grilled flat iron steak seems to be a mainstay, and gets a boost from sweet, thin-sliced onions. Cochon de lait with collard greens also makes frequent appearances and while good it seems too rustic and plain for the setting, especially when compared to the more interesting options.
Dessert has always been a bit of a letdown here. Bread pudding is fine, though conventional, as is the crème brulee. By comparison, cocktails are fantastic, with an ever-evolving list of specialty drinks drawing on top-shelf liquors, exotic liqueurs and fresh juices.
Coquette is in line with the fine-dining norm of the city, though just a little less expensive. The menu changes frequently, but most entrees are priced between $20 and $26. Dinner for two with a bottle or wine or cocktails should be around $140.
Lunch is quite reasonable, with entrees (including a burger) ranging from $10 to $16.
Coquette is a young restaurant that feels very grown up. The cuisine is intelligent without being severe, and creative without being cute.