Could the Italian dominance of Shanghai’s dining scene be giving way to its Gallic neighbour? The past few months have seen the opening of several French bistros offering varying degrees of authenticity from the extremely good (Paris Rouge) to the mediocre (Paris Tour). Now the folks behind one of the city’s most popular trattorias, Scarpetta, have opened an upmarket seafood brasserie cheek by jowl with their original venture.
Influenced by a raft of top French and Vietnamese restaurants including New York’s Balthazar and San Francisco’s Slanted Door, Coquille, like its older sibling, comes more from a canny business eye than the heart. It is tailored towards Chinese women’s affinity for ‘quality fresh seafood’, as investment banker-turned-restaurateur John Liu told Time Out last year. To realise the concept he’s brought in Filipina-American chef Anna Bautista, formerly of the now-shuttered Jack London and many prominent restaurants in California.
The two-storey space was previously occupied by an outpost of Vietnamese chain Hua Yue Lou, owned by Liu’s mother, but no traces of its former strip-lit incarnation remain. White marble-topped counters, brass accents and a mother-of-pearl mosaic-tiled floor lend the gleam of an oyster shell. Copies of Paris Match and Figaro sit in the news racks; a counter houses perfect shellfish specimens nestled on ice. Even the smell is spot-on: a delicate, briny whiff more reminiscent of an ocean breeze than a dockside fish market.
It’s also packed, despite it being a Tuesday night just three weeks after soft opening (booking ahead is essential). We end up sitting at the bar, which is actually a lot of fun, as you can watch the bartender preparing giant artisanal gin and tonics (78-138RMB). Prices on the opening page of the menu might elicit a gulp, but by avoiding the obvious high-roller dishes such as Coquille’s seafood platter (888RMB/two people) – an admittedly stunning-looking shellfish edifice of Boston lobsters, Dungeness crabs, oysters, abalone and prawns (pictured) – and opting instead for a mix of hors d’oeuvres and smaller plates, a trip to Coquille needn’t be a wallet-buster.
Among the more affordable options are French-imported escargots (88RMB), denuded of their shells and bathed in fragrant red curry, melted lemongrass-ginger butter, kaffir lime and coriander. The firm, but not chewy snails are a great vehicle for the curry sauce: mop up any excess with the excellent gratis bread. Another Asian-inflected success is the smoked yellowtail tartare (178RMB), a superb interplay of firm, fresh fish chunks, coconut milk and lime, with crisp discs of radish and crunchy puffed wild rice adding textural interest.
Bautista is equally successful when playing it straight with Gallic bistro favourites such as French onion soup (78RMB) and bavette steak frites (298RMB). Moules marinières with live Australian or Norwegian-imported mussels are one of the top orders, and had sold out on our soft opening visit.
On our server’s recommendation we opt for another classic, deep-fried battered frogs’ legs (88RMB) which come piled in a bowl like a posh KFC bucket, with a slick of garlic cream, pureed cauliflower and parsley-walnut pistou (Provence’s answer to pesto) on ketchup replacement duty. Nothing like the scrawny offerings we’ve previously encountered in Shanghai, these hoppers have the thighs of a rugby player. The juicy meat literally falls off the bone.
Of the mains, crispy duck leg confit (218RMB) is a standout. Not just beautiful to look at – curing with pink salt gives it an attractive ruby red hue – it is richly gamey without a hint of grease, perched on a cassoulet of meaty, homemade bangers and fat butterbeans. A side of chilli pork crackling is so light, crispy and puffy (the result of a stint in a dehydrator before deep-frying) it tastes like a healthy counterbalance.
For those who like a high filling to pastry ratio in their sweets, don’t leave without trying the deconstructed tart au citron with yuzu (78RMB), which features two graham crackers for scooping up the sharp citrusy curd dotted with meringue quills and peaks.