Cooper’s Hawk Soars with Creative Cuisine, House-Made Wines

  Chef Jose Garza runs the kitchen at Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant in Arlington Heights. He previously worked at the South Barrington location.

Talk about making a good first impression. Before we were barely in the door at Cooper’s Hawk Winery, we had a glass in our hand. And things only got better from there.

As I’m told is customary, a server welcomed diners to the Arlington Heights restaurant, the newest of the eight spots in the Cooper’s Hawk nest, with a tray full of tasting-sized pours. White for me, a red for my redheaded friend, and we made our way through the crowded entry to the hostess stand.

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Cooper’s Hawk Winery

798 W. Algonquin Road, Arlington Heights (847) 981-0900,

Cuisine: Contemporary American with accent on house-made wines

Setting: Elegantly rustic

Entrees: $13.99 to $32.99

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

The doors open to a store where Cooper’s Hawk sells its wine, an array of wine accessories and prepared gourmet goods, as well as fresh pastries and wine-friendly chocolates. The room is flanked by two walk-up tasting bars where you can taste before you buy or sidle up for an official tasting ($7 to $12 for eight, 1-ounce pours). A well-appointed bar with high-topped tables provides a spot to wait for a table (if you opt to save your wine sampling for dinner) or order a casual meal after work.

Past the hostess stand, the restaurant opens up to a cavernous dining room rimmed with oak barrels and accented by stone, heavy woods and dark leather. The space is elegantly rustic and could almost be romantic if it weren’t for the noise of everyone else’s dinner conversation and clinking glasses.

Thankfully I had a reservation. It was relatively early, a bit after 6, on a recent Saturday and already the place buzzed with activity and hopeful diners were moving into the bar to settle in for a 45 minute-plus wait. Learn from my mistake and reserve early if you want to select your dining time. I wanted a table for 7 p.m. but when I called Thursday only 6:15 p.m. and earlier or 8:30 p.m. and later were available for Saturday evening.

We were ushered straight away to our table, a comfortable and roomy booth in the main room, and set about the task of figuring out meal plans as the server offered to bring us yet another tasting of the evening’s featured wine, a blended Barrel Reserve, which we eagerly accepted.

Don’t get too attached to anything on the menu until you hear the evening’s specials. Corporate chef Matt McMillin develops the menu and the specials for the growing chain, and those recipes were beautifully translated by chef Jose Garza. Garza knows the Cooper’s Hawk culinary traditions well, moving to the Arlington Heights kitchen after several years at the South Barrington perch.

The vast menu contains a dozen categories (including gluten-free and new healthier Life Balance items) and can be generalized as modern American — cuisine that draws heavily on the meat, seafood and pasta that we’ve grown up with accented by global flavors.

The appetizer menu is a perfect example of this with dishes including crabcakes served with Asian slaw, Tex-Mex-style egg rolls, Buffalo chicken flatbread and our selection, Thai lettuce wraps. The presentation was exceeded only by the taste: tender soy-glazed chicken with a colorful carrot and broccoli slaw, piquant cucumber and crispy won ton strips that we happily packed into delicate lettuce leaves. A trio of vibrant sauces are available for dipping, though we found it easier to just drizzle a bit over the filling before wrapping. The wraps were delicious and more than two women could put away before our soup and salads arrived.

Bisque is a Cooper’s Hawk signature for a reason; the flaky crab provides a nice taste and textural balance to the buttery lobster, sweet shrimp and velvety soup. The Caesar salad (also available as an entree size) was leveled up with the pesto-infused dressing and crisp Parmesan flatbread.

Entrees are just too many to count. We skipped over the pasta, seafood, burgers, sandwiches and chicken preparations and honed in on the meat. The Farm Grill includes a beef fillet, pork tenderloin and lamb chop. And while that sounds like a whole lot, the portions are approachable — not button-popping. The tenderloin came capped with blue cheese, the lamb with parmesan; both were very nice and cooked just the way I asked. The standout, however, was the pretzel-crusted pork brushed with a maple-mustard glaze that had me dreaming about the flavor combination days later. The beef tenderloin showed up on my dining partner’s plate as well, this time paired with an Asian-glazed grilled salmon fillet. The mashed potatoes that accompanied both dishes were rustic and well-seasoned, but I would have preferred more vegetables than the three asparagus spears that seemed more for decoration than consumption.

Despite our protein-packing we left room for dessert and went with the fan favorite, Banoffee Pie, a mashup of banana slices and creamy toffee in a graham cracker crust. Oh, and fresh whipped cream. Had we shared an entree, we probably would have had room for the berry crisp, or perhaps the Key lime pie, or maybe even an array of chocolate truffles (all of which are made in-house).

If it hasn’t become clear yet, don’t look for Santa Margherita or Coppola on the wine menu. All of Cooper’s Hawk’s wines are crafted by winemaker Rob Warren, who sources grapes from California, Washington and Oregon. The wines are blended and aged at a plant in Countryside and distributed to their Midwest restaurants.

Dozens of wines can be tasted before you commit to a bottle or even a glass. Beer and cocktails also are available.

Our dinner was well-paced but hit a bump when it came to the bread basket. We had heard about the awesome pretzel bread, but almost missed out on trying it for ourselves. Our entrees were delivered and we were just about to ask, when our server realized the gaff.

She didn’t miss a beat, however, when it came to telling us about the restaurant’s wine club membership that offers a wine-of-the-month and discounts on wine purchased with dinners. Dollars spent on meals also are rolled into points that build into free wine and other promotions.

Another nice touch was the “congratulations” chocolate wafer on our dessert. I mentioned we were celebrating my friend’s graduation and the manager, who wandered by the table earlier on his dining room rounds, comped our dessert, which made that already decadent treat, and the entire evening, for that matter, all that much sweeter.

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not review restaurants it cannot recommend.

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