While developing the concept behind Coqueta, celebrity chef Michael Chiarello's new Spanish restaurant in San Francisco, the Emmy-winning Food Network host and his team traveled to Barcelona, eating 16 meals in six days.

From street tapas to fine dining and chocolate shops, Chiarello realized that the Italian food he'd built his career on was a "kissing cousin," as he writes on his blog, to Spain's vibrant cuisine. Instantly, a new love affair was born. With his daughter, Margaux, and her seventh-generation Catalan husband living in Barcelona, Chiarello made several more trips, eating and drinking his way through one of the world's most vibrant culinary regions.

Aaron "Toast" Lagasca works the wood-fired grill at Coqueta on the Embarcadero’s Pier 5 in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 23,
Aaron "Toast" Lagasca works the wood-fired grill at Coqueta on the Embarcadero's Pier 5 in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello brings his take on Spanish cuisine to the San Francisco waterfront. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) ( JANE TYSKA )

You can smell and taste Chiarello's experiences in every nook of Coqueta and its adjoining high-profile Bar5 on the Embarcadero. From the sexy, hand-strapped leather chairs and traditional perrons (cocktail party pitchers, $17-$19) to precious pintxos (single-skewered snacks, $2.50 each) and hot tapas that put other small plates menus to shame, Coqueta gets it right almost every time. My only complaint was having to wait 20 minutes for our table despite having a reservation.

But, hey, that's what happens when you're dining at one of the buzziest restaurants in the city. Even though it opened almost a year ago, Coqueta is still a big deal. People memorize the dishes, pore over Yelp reviews in deciding what to order (paella or "gaucho" bone-in rib eye?) and generally credit Chiarello, who started Bottega and Tra Vigne in Napa, with bringing the authentic Spanish experience to San Francisco (though, if memory serves me well, Zarzuela and Gitane do a fine job, too).

What made it all the more special for someone like me, who did Spain on the uber-cheap in my early 20s, was seeing how Chiarello interpreted the cuisine through a modern, Northern California lens. He's a vintner and farmer, after all, and relies heavily on seasonal and organic ingredients, down to the bottle of honey-chile glaze that came with the Iberico de Bellona pork shoulder loin ($38).

It tasted like the chiles were slow roasted and smoked before being blended with the honey and warmed into a glorious, sweet and smoky syrup. Pouring that to your heart's content over slices of juicy, grilled pork (think what it could do for chicken and waffles) was a sinfully delicious experience. So was the sunny side-up egg with shrimp ($13), a colorful dish with toothpick-thin slivers of crunchy potatoes and dried red chiles that were all mixed tableside with chorizo dressing. Man, the creaminess of the yolk with the heat and crunch of those peppers was a winning combination.

A night view of Coqueta on the Embarcadero’s Pier 5 in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello brings his
A night view of Coqueta on the Embarcadero's Pier 5 in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello brings his take on Spanish cuisine to the San Francisco waterfront. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) ( JANE TYSKA )

For us, texture was a big part of the cuisine's appeal. The "freshly dug" patas bravas ($8), for instance, were elevated from simple, crispy new potatoes to something of a treat, with their lightly smoked skins and creamy-soft insides. Even the grilled albondigas ($12), or pork meatballs, got exquisite depth and character from the addition of duck. But any gaminess was cut -- avoided, really -- by the lip-smacking acidity of the accompanying tart cherry and tempranillo puree.

There wasn't a dish we tasted that we didn't love. In fact, we regret not ordering more, perhaps a montadito (open-face sandwich) like the smoked salmon with queso freso and truffle honey ($8) or the mar y Montana ($14), Iberico lardo gently melted over sea urchin with that high-quality jamon Iberico de Bellona.

Luckily, we did get our ham fix in a favorite cocktail, the Tariff ($12). A clever spin on nose-to-tail eating and a nod to Spain's current obsession with gintonic (they drop the 'and' -- sounds cooler, doesn't it?), the drink featured jamon Iberico-infused gin, orange rind, cava, and a house-made tonic of apricot and acorn (bellota means acorns, the staple in these pigs' diet). It was savory and refreshing.

But our favorite drink on Coqueta's impressive cocktail menu (which includes sangria, $9/glass; and sherry cocktails, $9-$10) was actually a nonalcoholic "refresco" called the J&T ($5), a blend of juniper, lime, and Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic (which, according to the company's website, includes quinine with lemon thyme, rosemary and citrus plus essential oils from fruits and herbs gathered in Provence and Sicily). It was simple, delicious and aromatic.

Our waitress steered us in all the right directions, especially when it came to dessert. Per her recommendation, we ordered the manchego cheesecake ($4 for two pintxos) and warm churros ($8) with sipping chocolate and mixed berry powder. But it was the savory cheesecake, cloaked in dulce de leche and playfully dressed with a few kernels of caramel corn, that was the perfect pintxo. The perfect pintxo to end a perfect meal.

coqueta

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WHERE: Pier 5, The Embarcadero, San Francisco
CONTACT: 415-704-8866; http://coquetasf.com
HOURS: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; bar menu 3 to 5 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays-Wednesday and until 11 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
CUISINE: Spanish
PRICES: $$$
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including white gazpacho with Marcona almonds, and arroz con seats, slow-cooked Bomba rice with mushrooms
BEVERAGES: Wine and cocktail programs that rival the city's best; highlights include seven cava choices, seven types of txakoli and seven Spanish-themed gintonic. Try the Tariff ($12) with jamon Iberico-infused gin
RESERVATIONS: Strongly recommended
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Take BART
KIDS: Get a sitter. If you do tote kids, order the patas bravas or classic paella.
PLUSES: Star chef puts top-notch Nor Cal spin on Spanish tapas.
MINUSES: You may be asked to wait, even if you have a reservation.
DATE OPENED: April 2013.

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$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Under $20
$$$ Under $30
$$$$ Under $40