Copia catches fire again—no, wait, let's rephrase that.
Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
1122 Washington Avenue
Average Main Course: $24
Dress: Guys and Dolls do Washington Avenue
Reservations: Indeed, especially outdoors, where they are accepted as well.
Chef: Dave Rook
The relationship had only budded. Was past the flirtation stage, only barely. And then it was gone. And you were left wondering if it really had been as good as you remembered it, and whether, had there been just a little more time together, something serious might have developed.
When a fire turned Copia into a patty melt a few years ago, we figured it was all over. It wasn’t. The place rebuilt, much in the same style as the original. The Loft Moderne Eatery look prevails: brick walls, high ceilings and exposed rafters, diffused lighting, French fin de siècle posters. But there’s also a beautiful glass waterfall partition, a bar area that’s just the right size for socializing, and an attached wine shop with fermenting tanks on display that we’re promised will soon be producing. Seating accommodates couples and parties comfortably. Noise levels, even when it’s crowded, allow for confidential conversations as well as more animated dinnertime chatter. A gracious patio, with a retractable roof, more than doubles space here and is one of the most attractive outdoor dining spots in town—in all four seasons. Top that.
The creamy puddle of lemon aioli is fine, but unnecessary for the heap of deep-fried calamari, the best appetizer on the menu. A welcome change, calamari steaks (no rings here) are hand-cut in house, then battered and fried as crispy-crunchy delectable as any seafood you’ll find in a New England clam shack. Introduced at San Diego’s Kemo Sabe eatery, a wedge of brie rolled in nuts and flash-fried is a pleasant array of taste and texture; a port-wine reduction sauce only adds to the fun of Copia’s take on this dish. Golden golf balls of arancini make for another fine starter. The rice is herb- and garlic-scented, wrapped around fresh Parmesan and served with a light, creamy basil-tomato sauce. A spicy Creole mustard enlivens meaty lump crab cakes that are moist, full of herby flavor, and redolent of crab.
Good luck if you think you can get a handle on Copia’s main courses in a single visit. The menu’s small, with about a dozen offerings, but sufficiently extravagant in scope that you may as well begin planning the follow-up visit while you consider your options for the evening.
Copia unquestionably has the best upscale version of barbecue in the area; the only fault you’ll find with the smoked spare ribs here is that the venue seems odd. The ribs are perfectly smoked. A filigree of crispy crust gives way to succulent, juicy meat underneath with just the right texture to cling momentarily to the bone. Along with sweet, fried onion rings, fragrant baked beans, and a superb slaw with a light, fruity tang, it just seems like you should be tucking into this huge serving in some low-country barbecue shack, not in a “nice” restaurant. (The chunk of sweet cornbread on the side should be a dessert—it’s that wonderful.) Prime rib here is nearly as good and seems nearly as out of place. Few steakhouses have a prime rib of this caliber, slow-roasted and served simply with horseradish and its own savory juices.
Searing tuna so the surface caramelizes, the interior remaining gloriously purple, is tricky. Copia does a fine job with the meaty fish, rolled in black sesame seeds. The rest of the presentation—roasted shiitakes, Napa cabbage, and leeks—is a too-busy distraction. Pan-roasted scallops, though, benefit considerably from a dressy combination of French beans, sliced shiitakes, yellow pepper, garlic, and goat cheese, all tossed and served atop a swirl of angel-hair pasta. The difference is that unlike the tuna, which should be at the center of things, the scallops serve only as players in this complex, rewarding dish.
Do you remember the duck at the old Copia? Same preparation, but with different accoutrements: A spray of breast slices fans out over the plate, with a Jackson Pollock flourish of dark, candied date and peppercorn gravy. On the side is a confit leg quarter of the bird that rests on a hot grill just long enough to get its stripes. The combination of the rich breast meat, still dark pink, and that succulent sweet confit right off the bone, is rewarding, and it all goes perfectly with a fat cake of mashed potatoes studded with Maytag blue cheese.
Sweet meaty curls of lobster tail and delicate rock shrimp are tossed with bow ties of farfalle that are outstanding—then become far more so with the restrained addition of an absurdly rich saffron-and-sherry cream sauce. An unusual lasagna layers grilled chicken with roasted slices of portabella and delicate baby spinach, topped with a delightfully luscious three-cheese cream.
Young diner John Ma interpreted the presentation of a dessert platter as a personal invitation, his fork already poised over it as the waiter began his description of crème brûlée, a Jack Daniel’s–marinated bread pudding, and a fudgy chocolate cake. He was mollified with the cake, which was more than enough for the rest of the table to share.
A happy selection of cab savs is just one highlight of a good wine list. That Guigal Côtes du Rhône, rounded and smooth of tannin, with the duck? Excellent choice. You paired the ’07 Newton chardonnay, unfiltered and bright, with both the crab cakes and the lasagna? Thrifty and perspicacious. (The corkage fee is confusing, but it affords one of the better wine bargains in town, so have your waiter explain how it works.) One had hoped the gimmicky stemless wineglasses might have perished in the fire—no such luck. The glint of well-balanced utensils and handsome, functional dishes add to the charm. Service is friendly and competent. Notice how the staff often communicates with one another by a simple nod or gesture. It’s a sign of a restaurant humming in the groove—although one meal here will be enough to convince you of that.
The Bottom Line: “American Bistro” fare in a stylish, comfortable—and convertible!—setting.