Owner Amir Karmali calls Coquine a "casual upscale restaurant. We consider ourselves as European - the menu just happens to have a lot of French dishes."
It's a confusion that has plagued the restaurant since its beginning, but it hasn't stopped the lines outside or the dining room and bar from being packed.
"We don't claim to be bistro," Amir tells me. "We are modern with classic bistro feel. Our idea was to have something of European influence and some great, classic French dishes wit
h modern twists."
He says they wanted to appear to a wider audience than that of a bistro.
"We don't want to limit ourselves," he says.
Amir Karmali and Robert (Robbie) Prete own the restaurant together, but share a long history. They met at Grazie Ristorante (where Robbie is still a partner and the three owners are his cousins) and had "very similar mind set and energies - treating people well, doing good things," says Amir.
"Robbie and I are spiritually connected like brothers. It's rare to find that much trust in somebody."
Amir was at Grazie for eight years and left 4 ½ years ago to manage a restaurant and bar at a private golf and country club and then he went into hospitality recruitment, where he was working with "chefs and managers worldwide."
Two months in, Robbie called and told him he'd found a place. He didn't go looking for it-it came to him, he told Amir.
Amir had 5-year-old twins and was working 9-5 for the first time and wasn't looking to get back into the hustle and bustle of working at a restaurant, never mind owning one.
"I am extremely close to my kids," Amir says. "I do absolutely everything I can to spend time with them."
But he took the leap knowing that if Robbie sensed it was right, it would be.
Their first venture though has been incredibly successful: "We had parties booked before we opened," Amir says. They've only been open six months and they are still jam-packed.
"We've been in the business and neighbourhood for so long [that] the neighbourhood dictates a little bit of what we're doing," says Amir.
Amir says that the menu has a lower price point than most restaurants of the same standard; Coquine wants to be competitive.
"We want to be busy and keep the price down and keep customer happy."
He also remarks on the big portions of food and that most wine markups at other restaurants "are ridiculous-it's $20 cheaper here."
This fits into his philosophy of being honest and treating people fairly. So at Coquine, you can come in for brunch, lunch, dinner or drinks and still go home with money in your pocket if you like.
And if you do come in for dinner, you can finish up at the bar, making it one-stop-shopping for your evening. It's a large enough space that you can do this comfortably. There's even a private dining room for up to 35 people.
And this space should definitely be talked about.
Amir tells me the story:
"There was no designer. We did it ourselves. We designed it and got contractors to do it. Mostly, it was the two of us looking through books. We knew what we wanted to bring to the city."
There is a large windowed front and art deco accents and mirrors in the bar area, which is divided from the small dining room.
Black and white bathroom tiles cover the floor and the dining room wall is lined with dark wood cabinets filled with wine, spirits and champagne.
Light cream stucco walls make it open and airy, making the room feel like a higher-end bistro.
Along the top of the bar area there is a picture of the bar when it was Manor Arms to its renovation and current inception as Coquine. And there are photos of a chair placed around the city, but you should ask them to tell you the story-I think it's better told than written.
It is these unique touches that make Coquine so special. Even the waitstaff carry detailed uniforms: the female servers wear nylons-mesh or with a seam along the back of the leg-and red neckerchiefs like flight attendants. It is in line with the name, Coquine, which for a baby means mischievous, but for a woman means naughty or flirty.
Another important part of the staff is Alejandro Bustamante who is responsible for the food here. Alejandro started cooking "right out of high school," and went to George Brown where he graduated in 1994. He then took a two-year Culinary Management program, where he did a stint in Italy for five months. Alejandro was at the Gooderham House, Marlowe, "College Street a little," and nine years at Shark City at Yonge & Eglinton.
"I was the sous chef and then became head chef in the last year."
He says of the menu here, "We try to keep everything simple try not to confuse the palate [with too many ingredients)."
Alessandro himself prefers home cooked food, and here at Coquine he's made comfort food, but probably not the dishes you're likely to make at home such as Beet Gnocchi in a Gorgonzola Cream, Foie Gras Mousse and Cassoulet.
I begin with the Coquine Salad ($12)-arugula with warm prosciutto-wrapped figs, gorgonzola, candied walnuts and sherry vinaigrette.
Alejandro grills the figs after they've been poached in honey and wine. "Fresh figs are hit and miss," he says. "Like this, you get a really nice flavour."
And it's true. They're divine.
The Wild Mushroom-Filled Ravioli ($15) are covered in a white wine truffle cream with sundried tomatoes and spinach along for the ride, but what you savour is the woodiness of the mushrooms ensconced in an incredibly silky, creamy sauce. My oh my!
The Duo of Duck ($24) is crisp duck leg confit and roasted duck breast with kumquat jus. It is rich and comforting and perfectly commendable, but it can't compare to the Cassoulet ($19) of braised white beans , double-smoked bacon and lamb and duck confit.
Cassoulet is a dish that needs to be cared for and Alejandro has cared deeply for it, not leaving it too long or allowing it to get mushy. It is illuminating and light and the flavours are still fresh and distinguishable.
Alejandro's Vanilla CrÃ¨me Brule ($8), garnished with fresh berries, is sublime. In fact, it's the best I've had in a long time-maybe ever.
Now I can see why there are lineups.