Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar

A combination of hunger and curiosity lured me into Manayunk earlier this week to venture a first look at one of Main Street’s newest dining scene entries, Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar. Visiting a new place immediately after it’s been written up in the major local newspaper does not generally fall under my definition of a grand idea. However, the usual buzzing effects of a relatively positive review – two bells from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig Laban, in this case – were negated by the combination of foul weather and the Tuesday night doldrums. Not the greatest night for the restaurant, I’m sure, but good for us, as my pal Phil A. Dining and I had no problem snagging choice spots at the bar and lingering over a casual meal.

Chef Bruce Cooper, long-time owner of Manayunk institution Jake’s Restaurant, launched his new, partly eponymous endeavor just last month in the storefront immediately adjacent to Jake’s. Cooper’s is an inviting spot, mixing contemporary and rustic elements in its décor, with warm lighting, a cool stone bar, amply sized booths and a colorful wall of wine setting the tone for the space. There’s an immediate sense of potential, too, in the new restaurant’s offerings.

Cooper’s eclectic and much better than average beer list includes local standouts like Sly Fox Pikeland Pils and Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Walt Wit on top, along with solid choices like Stone IPA, Brooklyn Brown Ale, Saison Dupont and La Chouffe in bottle.

Our first plates were both well executed. Maple brussels sprouts (from the kitchen at Jake’s) were fresh and flavorful, a light glazing of maple syrup accentuating their own inherent sweetness. If only they’d been kicked up a notch by the presence of a little bacon (or other tasty treat – read on…), they could have been stellar. Crispy skin duck confit was the star dish of the night, featuring moist, perfectly salty, fat-preserved duck leg along with tender roasted potatoes, scented by floral herbs and a spike of vinegar. The brussels sprouts included with this dish found what those in the separate plate were missing, deeper caramelization and an infusion of duck fat. The kitchen could use a little work on its pacing, as all four of our dishes were delivered in rapid succession, but that’s a kink that should easily work itself out with a bit more expediting experience.

The brick oven and the wine bar, the supposed stars of the show, on the other hand, didn’t do enough for me to demonstrate they’d earned their spots on the restaurant’s marquee.

Cooper’s wood fired pizzas are built on a relatively thin, cracker-like crust, a style I enjoy when it’s done right. As my dining partner rightly pointed out though, our crusts weren’t just undercooked, they also lacked flavor. Topping combinations are interesting, including several vegetarian options, but show the conceptual influence of a chef with a sweet tooth.

Our pizzas: Fiorella’s Fennel Sausage, with tomato and banana pepper; and Short Rib, with parmesan, onion, horseradish cream and port sauce.

With twenty-seven wines poured by the glass – twenty-nine if you include the “Cheap White” and “Cheap Red” offered in carafe – there’s theoretically something for everyone at the wine bar. The list makes a sweeping gesture toward diversity, offering up choices from ten countries on five continents and representing varieties from Grüner Veltliner to Alvarinho to Verdeho in the white department, from Sangiovese to Tempranillo to Primitivo among the reds.

The selections are universally commercial in style, though. Those that we sampled were not quite manipulated or manufactured to the point of “wine-like beverage” status but were lacking in any real character. Pricing is tough, too. Glass pours range from $6.50 for a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc to $18.50 for a single-serving bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. Based on a listed six-ounce pour, there’s no break given for full bottle purchases; standard markup looks to be about four times retail. Pricing issues aside, a good wine bar needs to offer more than a list that covers a bunch of grape varieties. The simple steps of offering half-pours and putting a little more effort into choosing wines with some soul would go a long way toward making Cooper’s a viable wine bar rather than a bar that just happens to serve a bunch of wines.

In spite of my gripes with the wine program and some shortcomings in the brick oven department, Cooper’s does show some real potential. “The Jake Burger” sounds more than tempting enough to draw me back, maybe for a new installment of A Burger and a Beer. Our starter courses were good enough to suggest there’s talent at work in the kitchen. And the overall concept, from bar to vibe to drinks list, adds an element of wining and dining style that had previously been missing from Manayunk.

My biggest question is not whether Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar will succeed. Rather, I wonder what its effect will be on the future of its parent restaurant, Jake’s. The two spots are joined by an open archway and share a common hostess, while Jake’s has eliminated its original bar to make way for additional seating. The end result is a spot that feels, sitting at the bar in Cooper’s, much more like one restaurant that has an upscale, quiet room than two restaurants that just happen to share a bar. Is it the beginning of the end for a Manayunk institution? Only time will tell.

Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar
4367 Main Street (Manayunk)
Philadelphia, PA 19127 [map]
Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

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