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Coquette 

A new bistro knows how to turn on the flavor

click to enlarge Chef/proprietor Michael Stoltzfus serves dishes like scallops with - roast pork and mustard green ravioli at Coquette. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Chef/proprietor Michael Stoltzfus serves dishes like scallops with roast pork and mustard green ravioli at Coquette.

Many home renovators feel lucky when they can make improvements by stripping away rather than building up. A meal at Coquette delivers a similar sense of satisfaction, both on the plate and around the room.

  Coquette is the third restaurant to open at its address in the three and a half years since Hurricane Katrina. It replaces the bizarre Japanese/French/tapas fusion concept called Takumi. Gone are Takumi's wobbly, pod-like booths and the industrial-looking sushi prep area, leaving behind a clean-lined, stately dining room of brick walls, broad windows and dark wood under a soaring ceiling.

  Coquette's cuisine also is based on precision and polish, so much so that it can seem stripped down compared to the city's more exuberant contemporary Creole bistros. Chef Michael Stoltzfus was sous chef at Restaurant August before he and front-of-the-house manager Lillian Hubbard opened Coquette in December. In his new kitchen, Stoltzfus takes subtlety to the limit. Few of his dishes have aggressive flavor, but fine groceries and deft technique make most of them shine.

  Bacon-wrapped scallops are quite common at upscale restaurants. At Coquette, shreds of roasted pork join the sweet, finely-textured mollusk. The pork doesn't wrap or encase them, but rather adds a dose of meaty smoke to a thin, light sauce spread around the whole dish, also complementing the underlying ravioli filled with strands of mustard greens.

  A mellow, watercress-based sauce with almonds and sweet piquillo peppers sits patiently beneath thick, flaky pieces of black cod. Crab cakes seem to include only crab, herbs and the lightest of crusts on the outside, about as crisp as the accompanying Bibb lettuce. Seared redfish served at lunch is crowned with caponata, and the hash of olives, red pepper and eggplant adds unexpected, salty-smooth flavor to the otherwise unadorned fish. Pork belly rillettes are lusciously smooth yet enlivened by a wet burst of sour cherries.

  Cassoulet seemed like a plated deconstruction of the classic casserole, with firm, al dente beans and pieces of duck sitting under a languorously fatty duck breast cooked to a soft blush, its skin bitten by pepper, one of the few obvious appearances of strong seasoning here. The grilled flatiron steak is left to its own merit with a hint of sweetness from very thinly sliced onions over the top.

  Desserts are few and not terribly exciting. Profiteroles filled with ice cream and Nutella spread are soft like buns rather than crisp pastry crust. Bread pudding molded into cupcake shape is conventional and fine. Coffee for two arrives in a French press large enough to get an air traffic controller through a Thanksgiving shift.

  Service is very friendly and professional, but there can be uncomfortably long gaps between courses or when waiting to pay. The wine list has decent variety, though no obvious bargains, but the creative specialty cocktails can pack a true wallop. For instance, the dangerously smooth Kahlo tastes like a mellow margarita with a touch of lemongrass.

  Dominated by a large, handsome bar, the dining room is smaller than it looks. Reservations are necessary even on most weeknights, as smartly dressed customers crowd the place and have the look of newly minted regulars at this impressive young restaurant.

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