Pretty Coquette Review: We Still Don’t Have Paris

Pretty Coquette, the first of several new French bistros, isn’t quite what the city craves

The French bistro maintains a mythic hold on diners’ imaginations: the simple yet satisfying food, the balance of intimacy and energy, the evocation of Paris, real or imagined. It’s not easy to measure up to the bistro devotee’s notion of authenticity, and bemoaning the lack of a proper bistro has been a favorite pastime among Philadelphia foodies since the demise of Blue Angel. It may be harder to sustain that grousing with the recent openings of Cochon and Zinc, and Stephen Starr’s anticipated Parc Bistro on Rittenhouse Square.

 


The French bistro maintains a mythic hold on diners’ imaginations: the simple yet satisfying food, the balance of intimacy and energy, the evocation of Paris, real or imagined. It’s not easy to measure up to the bistro devotee’s notion of authenticity, and bemoaning the lack of a proper bistro has been a favorite pastime among Philadelphia foodies since the demise of Blue Angel. It may be harder to sustain that grousing with the recent openings of Cochon and Zinc, and Stephen Starr’s anticipated Parc Bistro on Rittenhouse Square.

[sidebar]The first to appear was Coquette Bistro & Raw Bar, in Queen Village. This venture of Sansom Street Oyster House owner and chef Cary Neff gets the look and feel right, with painted mirrors over the bar, hex tile on the floor, and butcher paper on the tables. But is it authentic? Neff seems unconcerned. He claims not to know much about bistro cooking, and despite a menu that implies a traditional approach, he dodges the issue of authenticity, saying he’s more interested in creating a casual neighborhood restaurant.

Though bistro cooking is seemingly straightforward, there’s a degree of alchemy involved in transforming humble ingredients into gustatory gold. And while Coquette’s kitchen is occasionally able to perform that trick, it more often delivers plates that look the part, but lack the deep flavors one expects from these classic dishes. A Wednesday special of cassoulet — listed on the menu as for two, but also available for one — featured a flakingly tender confit duck leg, chunks of pork, creamy-textured boudin blanc sausage and hearty beans. Each element was tasty, but this dish exemplified the shortcomings of Coquette’s nontraditional approach: It wasn’t a cassoulet at all. The components hadn’t been cooked slowly together, the magic that melds the traditional dish into a sum greater than its parts. The same problem plagued the bouillabaisse. The mussels, langoustine, and filets of cod and monkfish hadn’t absorbed any of the garlic and saffron of the soup, and remained shockingly bland. It seemed appropriate that our server forgot to provide a spoon, as if the broth was beside the point.

Steak frites displayed a pleasing beefiness, but the attractive presentation, pre-sliced on a wooden plank, seemed to be part of some perverse moisture-reduction strategy. The board not only soaked up any juices, but also precluded adding a winy sauce or an herbed butter, each so typical of the dish. (They’ve since done away with the plank.) As seems prudent, we verified the type of meat used for the steak frites — a hanger steak — although at press time, Neff said they were experimenting with a short-rib “zabuton,” a tender, cushion-shaped cut from the chuck.

Minor changes should be expected. Chefs David and Carla Gilberg departed abruptly about a month after the restaurant launched. But Neff says he’ll continue with the same formula, with occasional tweaks to reflect seasonal changes.


One thing the owner of an oyster house shouldn’t need to tweak is the raw bar, yet there were even stumbles here. A pricey “Grand Plateau” wasn’t the enthralling indulgence we expected. The serviceware itself was perfunctorily industrial, lined with glum tangles of dark seaweed that smelled stronger than it should have. While the shellfish were all of good quality, several of the oysters had been carelessly shucked, and a few offerings were served too warm.

This tendency to get the idea of the food but falter on the execution affected other dishes. But more often, the food simply failed to thrill. Roasted chicken, a bar steak adorned with a fried egg, a crock of onion soup, artichokes stewed with ham — all appeared correct, yet lacked vivid flavors. We rarely finished what we ordered, losing interest before running out of appetite. Even desserts were oddly bland, although the baba au rhum was a surprisingly airy and decadently boozy cake.

But there are some winning dishes. The charming tiny mason jar filled with duck rillettes has a tendency to tip over and makes it difficult to actually extract the meat, but the tender shreds of delicious duck are worth the effort. Lyonnaise salad was satisfying, with substantial bacon lardons and a warm poached egg oozing over bitter frisée lettuce — even if the fried potato cubes were indistinct, and the dressing could have used more bite. Better was another salad featuring warm chunks of potato, lettuce, an herb omelet and a citrus-y truffle dressing. A burger was nicely charred, with a fried egg dripping yolk over the juicy meat, caught by a soft bun.

Service was friendly, but marred by odd quirks. On every visit, plates were changed between courses, but forks, sometimes caked with food, were placed back on the table. Spills were ignored, and details about oysters and cheeses were vague.

There are still rough edges: Coquette, more than most new restaurants, has been finishing itself in public view. When the doors opened in July, the mirrors weren’t mounted over the bar, the menu was rife with language errors, and the liquor license hadn’t been approved. Almost two months in, the decor seemed complete and the menus had been cleaned up. It was nearly three months before the liquor license came through.

Judging from the line for tables even at eight o’clock on a weeknight, the lovely setting may compensate for those shortcomings. But for those diners yearning for a bistro whose food provides flashbacks of Paris with every bite, the wait continues.