Last month I turned in a long-overdue review of Knife & Tine, a six-month-old Lincoln Park restaurant where the chef, Nate Park, a veteran of Moto and Ing, was doing some interesting, if problematic, things in the kitchen. Hours after I filed the copy it was announced that Park was out the door and replaced, and the review, naturally, was 86’d.
It’s rarely a good sign for a restaurant’s fortunes when a chef departs in its early days, and we’ll see if that’s true about Knife & Tine. In the meantime, here I am writing another long-overdue review about Coppervine, a restaurant that opened early last December but is now on its third chef. First there was the esteemed Michael Taus, a Trotter’s vet who went on to make his name with Zealous. Taus was only signed on in a consulting capacity, creating dishes meant to be paired with particular beverages chosen by owner/sommelier Don Sritong of Just Grapes and the bar staff. Taus was followed by David Wang, who was subsequently replaced in September by Chip Barnes—another Moto vet.
Quite a few of Taus’s original dishes appear on the menu: a few flatbreads, lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, fried chicken with buttermilk whipped potatoes, Thai chile-spiced popcorn with Parmesan. Barnes has added a number of his own recently, and I’ll get to those in a bit.
Coppervine’s initial modus operandi of pairing each dish on the menu (divided into small, medium, and large plates, flatbreads, sides, a cheese and meat platter, and dessert) with a choice of three particular beers, wines, or cocktails was a headache on paper, with the beverages and their vital statistics listed in fine print.
All were served in short pours—three-, five-, and two-ounce wines, beers, and cocktails, respectively—which, if you were sharing food, would leave most folks a bit dry if they tried to share the pairings too. Servers were prepared to explain the rationale for choosing particular pairings, but diners but weren’t beholden to them.
Last week Sritong scotched this tedious concept and reprinted the menus without all the fine print, instead offering three- or five-glass customized pairing flights. It’s OK to order that Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale with the ahi tuna tartare instead of with the duck. The customer is always right. But if you want to go on autopilot, he wants you to know that’s OK too.
I’ve eaten the food of enough chefs who’ve graduated from the laboratories at Moto and Ing to see some enduring commonalities in their later work: jokey little twists, quirky flavor combinations, and miscegenation among cuisines. Most noticeably, there’s usually an emphasis on sweetness in primarily savory foods.
Barnes seems relatively restrained in these departments compared to some of his fellow vets. That is, unless you order the aforementioned duck. Here you have some perfectly luscious, silky slabs of rare sous vide and seared duck breast, spammy slabs of duck paté, and batons of roasted pumpkin, plated among a deep drift of charred cranberry-flavored marshmallow fluff, all drizzled with sweet Mexican-style caramelized milk. Pumpkin ale? I don’t think so. You’re much better washing that away with the well-executed manhattan poured over a single big rock.
While that’s probably one of the most absurd dishes I’ve ever encountered, things don’t get quite that crazy again, though a pasta dish comes close. The good news is that the delicate, vibrant green tendrils of scallion tagliolini are strangely delicious, suffused with a surprising acidity, sprinkled with crispy shreds of mushroom and cylinders of compressed parsnip confit, and mounted with a quivering molten quail egg that adds the right amount of richness to the whole. The plate is nicely balanced with a light, frothy egg white cocktail with gin, Maraschino, and St-Germain elderflower liqueur.
It’s a likable showing of audacity that Barnes never quite repeats. Instead, executional flaws mar dishes that should be quite good, like a slab of crispy but inexplicably dry pork belly garnished with an otherwise appealing toss of finely shredded mustard greens, fat runner beans, and pureed squash. Two fish dishes, otherwise compellingly accented, arrived far overcooked: a flap of leathery skate wing with some lovely, light and fluffy sunchoke croquettes and intensely pickled cippolini onions, and monkfish that adorned a thick, emerald-hued fennel puree with orange sections (taken with a sweet but nicely bodied old-fashioned made with butter-washed bourbon). A plump, snappy, dense, and tasty rabbit bratwurst is overwhelmed by its bulging potato roll, the very opposite of the accompanying light and crispy herbed potato chips (the recommended beer pairing for this dish is a PBR).
There are still a number of more straightforward dishes from Taus’s original menu. Thinly battered fried chicken is as basic as it gets, with a side of overaerated whipped potatoes with sriracha mayo. A Loire Valley sparkler is the appropriate choice for this. Ahi tuna tartare with tart “giardiniera”-flavored aioli is a fresh update on this standard; similarly, that simple bowl of popcorn improved with Parmesan, Thai chile, and lime salt.
For dessert, an arrangement of bourbon-poached Asian pears, bourbon ice cream, brown-butter custard, and crunchy pie crust goes down nicely with—guess what?—the brown-butter old-fashioned. There’s no choice more appropriate for the gooey, salt-dusted, baked-to-order chocolate-chocolate chip cookies than a glass of cold unhomogenized milk.
So the food is still a mixed bag at this ambitious concept. But if you give it a shot, you’re not likely to be confused about what to drink.