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The dining room and bar at Coppervine

Match Point

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | March 6, 2014

While plenty of us have experienced the magic that happens when a dish is matched perfectly with a wine, not all of us have the knowledge and skills to create that synergy ­on our own. But what if a restaurant took the guesswork out of the equation by offering tasting-size wine, beer and cocktail pairing suggestions for every item on its menu?

That’s exactly what Don Sritong, a master sommelier and owner of 9-year-old Just Grapes wine shop, was envisioning when he created neighborhood restaurant Coppervine with chef Michael Taus. “The philosophy isn’t just about the food or the drinks. It’s about how the two work together,” says Sritong. “We want to change how the average Chicagoan thinks about dining.”

Ambitious? Sure, but Lincoln Park’s Coppervine, which opened in December, is a lot of fun, too, whether or not you buy into the whole pairing concept. For the record, says Sritong, about 50 percent of the diners choose pairings for the entire meal. Those who don’t sometimes receive a sample of what they’re missing. “Nine times out of 10, you see the light bulb go off,” says Sritong.

To further enlighten themselves, longtime friends Sritong and Taus, along with manager Ben Drescher, the beer expert, and cocktail consultant Paul Sauter, got busy in Taus’ home kitchen during the months prior to Coppervine’s debut, tweaking the dishes and drinks that would eventually make it on the menu. What they quickly discovered was that in order for the pairings to work, they needed to keep it simple for both the drinks and the food. (Taus also came to the conclusion that he never drank so much in his life as during that menu testing period, but that’s another story.)

But simple doesn’t mean boring, especially in the hands of Taus, who previously was the force behind fine-dining restaurant Zealous and, prior to that, a chef at Charlie Trotter’s. Rather, the menu of comfort food-inspired dishes—divided into small, medium and large plates, along with a small selection of flatbreads, artisanal cheeses and cured meats, and sides—is a well thought-out mix of the usual suspects that’s done, for the most part, really well. (Let’s hope his successor—Taus came on as a consulting chef since he has his own project in the works—is just as good.)

Take, for instance, the daily crudo from the small plates section. While the crudo, tuna on our visit, paired with crispy chunks of pork belly, a refreshing lemon curd and peppery leaves of arugula, may not earn bonus points for creativity, its flavors were spot on, especially when eaten with its 2-ounce cocktail partner, the 1532, a zippy blend of cachaca, ginger root, citrus and orgeat.

When it comes to salads, it doesn’t get more classic—or ubiquitous—than a Caesar. But here, Taus tops the crisp pieces of romaine with fat, briny, whole white Spanish anchovies. The crunchy garlic croutons made from hand-torn pieces of bread—the nooks and crannies soak up that terrific dressing—give it more texture, while the Parmesan ups the umami factor.

Of the three flatbreads, my favorite is the royal trumpet mushroom with fresh ricotta and bits of spicy pepperoni. A bit small for its price perhaps, but the crispy-yet-chewy crust (made from Taus’ Sicilian grandmother’s dough recipe) is wonderful. And the 3-ounce wine pairing of a 2012 Domaine Solitude Cotes du Rhone was a winner, too. Once it finally arrived, that is. While key staff players are equipped with headphones to facilitate the intricate timing of the drinks and food, sometimes the process can be a bit off, although the servers, and often Sritong, are quick to remedy the situation.

When the fried chicken was served, though, we couldn’t have cared less. The four plump, delicious pieces of Miller Farms chicken have a subtle sweetness to them—courtesy of a three-day brining in water infused with cinnamon, cloves and allspice—while its skin was so crunchy I heard my dining companion bite into it from across the table. Served with a hearty crock of gravy-topped whipped potatoes and kicky coleslaw, this was a large plate that lives up to its Large Plate moniker—and then some.

Size wasn’t a problem with the grilled striped bass served with fennel, pieces of tangerines and perfectly done gnocchi, but too light a hand was used with the salt shaker in the kitchen—an easy fix to an otherwise good dish. The seasoning and the texture of the fork-tender red-wine braised short rib were ideal, as was the creamy goat cheese polenta served underneath it.

Desserts continue the similar down-home vibe, including the warm Valrhona chocolate molten cake (yes, you’ve seen it a million times before but, trust me, this one’s worth revisiting) and the daily housemade ice cream always served with some crunchy streusel and fruit compote.

Like the food, the interior design of the 75-seat dining room can be described as comforting, too. On one side of the long, narrow room, you’ll find a banquette outfitted in a gray, nubby fabric; on the other, a nine-seat bar (love the cushy bar stools with backs); and in the middle, a smattering of high two-top tables. Overhead, a copper vine sculpture adds a decorative touch, while the curved ceiling gives the room a subtle wine cave feel. Or as one of my dining companions said, “It’s the kind of interior design that you could come back in five years and it’ll look just as nice then, too.” In a space that’s already seen a few restaurants come and go, let’s hope we get the chance.

Kitchen Confidential
Want to try Coppervine dishes and drinks before they hit the menu? Next month, head to the upstairs lounge where its test kitchen will create items for guests to taste—and comment.

Heads Up
The eye-catching ceiling sculpture, made from copper piping and handmade resin flowers, represents the restaurant’s passion for wine as well as its love for distilled beverages.

Animal Instinct
To add warmth to the space, designer Karen Herold of 555 International opted to top the restaurant’s bar with leather, a cool twist she picked up while in Paris.

1962 N. Halsted St.

Open for dinner Tue.-Sun.
Small plates, $6-$16
Medium plates, $11-$24
Large plates, $25-$43
Desserts, $8