Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
TAMPA — Chicago-based Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant opened its first Florida location in Tampa six weeks ago. It found the right spot. • I bet the big credit card companies have a mission control room where a gargantuan map of the globe lights up with areas of densest credit card use — hot zones. In the Tampa Bay area, the most vigorous credit card calisthenics would illuminate Boy Scout Boulevard. Easy access to the airport and West Shore hotels and businesses, adjacent to International Plaza (what goes better with shopping than eating?), it’s where every second or two a Visa or AmEx gets smacked down in a black, simulated-leather guest check folder.
There’s a formula for what kind of restaurant does well here. They are name brand. You’ve been to these places, or at least seen them in in-flight magazines. Roy’s is in a business person’s wheelhouse, same goes for Fleming’s and Texas de Brazil (lots of meat, but upscale meat!). It’s about suave service in large, attractive dining rooms with menus that are sophisticated while being simultaneously familiar. Plus a lot of high-end hooch.
Cooper’s Hawk may be a household name in Illinois (Obama quaffed a little Cooper’s Hawk Blanc de Blanc sparkler at his 2009 inaugural gala). But Floridians have likely never heard of the wines. That’s because they are not available in stores.
It’s an unusual vision. Projected production for 2013 is more than 175,000 cases of wine, none of it made from grapes owned by Cooper’s Hawk. Founder Tim McEnery and winemaker Rob Warren source grapes from all over California, Oregon and Washington, producing wines with no vintage or vineyard designation. Because of that, of the more than 50 wines they make, many of them pleasant, there’s not a lot of terroir, or sense of place.
In a way, that’s a metaphor for all of the successful chain efforts along Boy Scout. They are competent and attractive, with menus broad enough to accommodate virtually every taste. And they could be anywhere.
As at many of the restaurants along this stretch, Cooper’s Hawk has seared ahi, it has pork belly (in 2013, you have to have pork belly). It has big chopped salads and sliders and flatbreads; it’s got steaks and Asian-inflected fresh salmon. It has burgers and spa food and big, goobely desserts. Think Cheesecake Factory, but with portions not as big, a menu not as Tolstoy-esque and a vision that’s a bit more upscale.
I could spend a lot of ink unpacking the couple dozen things I ate. It may suffice to say the entree-oriented chopped salads (Napa chopped chicken, barbecue Ranch chopped chicken, both $12.99) and the housemade desserts (especially the bite-sized ones like the chocolate-covered strawberry and the candied walnut turtle, $2.99 and $2.49 respectively) were the most successful. They weren’t original (a tip of the hat to California Pizza Kitchen for that barbecue Ranch salad, and to Seasons 52 for the little dessert idea), but tasty. The bulk of what I tried was capably made, pleasantly plated and innocuous.
What’s more interesting is the winery concept. The DIY strategy makes all the wines affordable (everything I tasted was between $6.25 and $8.50 a glass), with the staff eager to pour you a gratis barrel taste of a fruity, crowd-pleasing Bordeaux-style blend. They’ll pour you a little try of anything you’re considering, and suggest a flight of reds, whites, “lux wines” (that’s their premium line) or a flight of your own devising ($10.99-$15.99). It’s fun.
There are clunkers (the unoaked chardonnay had a Pezlike fruitiness that took it miles from a white Burgundy, and the port-style dessert wine was insipid), but the whole experience is something fresh. The 11,229-square-foot space at MetWest International sprawls in all directions, with a waterside patio, a welcoming bar and a series of dining rooms, and it’s fronted by a tasting room and gift shop that really does feel like something you’d stumble into off Highway 29 in Napa.
For now, servers (all still a little green) are stuck explicating the concept and telling McEnery’s story and explaining about the wine club (something about birthdays, and a new release each month, and a newsletter). But Cooper’s Hawk’s leave-no-stone-unturned culinary approach (there’s a whole separate gluten-free menu and a “life balance” menu on which everything is under 600 calories), plus the novelty of affordable, proprietary wines could make this newcomer a Boy Scout Boulevard hot zone.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.