By STEVE PAUL
The Kansas City Star
Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant gets some serious kudos for its makeover of the Plaza space that formerly housed the 810 Zone.
With glass accents, trimmed limestone columns, woodlike veneers and wine barrels, the place has a kind of sleek corporate sheen, befitting a small and expanding chain, born eight years ago outside Chicago and built around the concept of an upscale Napa Valley wine purveyor.
You might feel a little sense of dislocation when you walk in.
There’s a retail store with fancy cork pullers, decanters and wine-culture odds and ends for sale. (“It reminds me of Cracker Barrel,” one of my young, wisecracking friends said on her first visit.) There’s a stand-up bar for wine tastings.
Farther in is a good-looking full-service bar with a dining area of high and low tables. Then up the open staircase (or an elevator) is a multilevel warren of dining rooms, each scaled nicely to give the overall sprawling space a sense of intimacy at your table.
Then comes the spiel.
At the outset, your eager server will explain everything to you in a fast fountain of words: how Cooper’s Hawk makes its own wines, how chefs and winemakers teamed up to create dishes with a specific wine in mind (look for the bin numbers to find the one that goes with your food), yada yada. You might feel exhausted by the time you start looking over the menu, which in itself is an eye-glazing romp of all-over-the-place American-fusion tastes.
The Cooper’s Hawk strategy — judging by its food and its wines — seems to be “something for everyone.” The menu is peppered with a wide variety of Asian-influenced dishes as well as Mexican, Italian and American Midwestern tastes. And the wine ranges from the most cloying of sweet reds and fruit wines to some elegant and sophisticated pours.
On my first visit, with my regular dining companion, She Who Is Not Easily Pleased, we spent some wait time on a Saturday night sipping the monthly selection of wines at the tasting kiosk ($7 a person). I felt kind of trapped and not just because Cooper’s Hawk products are the only wines served.
For a while we were surrounded by a proselytizing member of the restaurant’s wine club and a wobbly, drunk college student. But I dutifully made my way through a half dozen small samples, a couple of which I’d probably try again. I had no interest in the almond-flavored bubbly at the end, but luckily, sort of, by the time we got to that one our table was ready.
We came from that dinner with emphatically mixed feelings, especially after an encounter with a hardly edible dish of canneloni — it was way too salty, and the pasta was way underdone. When we mentioned it to the manager, he said he understood our displeasure. Just the day before, he’d complained to the kitchen that there wasn’t enough salt in a vat of stock. Maybe they’d overcompensated. In any case, he took the dish off the bill.
We had been pleasantly surprised by an appetizer of Asian BBQ pork belly nachos, a lively mix of textures (crispy tortillas, tender braised pork belly) and distinct flavors (tangy radish, chili sauce). But I had an issue with my bowl of short rib risotto: the meat was not quite tender enough inside and had a crust that was too chewy by half, suggesting that the short rib had either been undercooked or had sat too long in a post-prep state before being reheated to serve.
I gave the place some shakeout time before going back.
Then, for lunch one day I downed a Zin burger — a half-pound patty of ground Angus topped by zinfandel-braised onions and a slice of Gruyere. I lost track of how many times the chatty server mentioned how fantastic that one was, but it was just OK. And I was not too impressed with the funky Asian slaw on the side — I’m not sure if it was the julienned cabbage and bell peppers or the soy ginger sauce they were tossed in, but I left most of it on the plate; I could’ve had fries, but no, I was trying to be good.
So I had a sense of dread recently going back for dinner.
Pleasant surprise: Despite a few issues, things turned out much better than expected.
Some mild alarms went off round my table of five serious eaters when a couple of our appetizers came to the table somewhat short of hot. Yet the Mexican drunken shrimp had its attractive qualities — fresh avocado and a spiky tequila-lime butter sauce — although with a mere sliver of bacon on each tender shrimp, all of us experienced a momentary longing for crispy bacon-wrapped Paco shrimp, a standard-setting version that was a bar staple at the late great JJ’s.
A platter of chicken-stuffed mushrooms also came out a bit tepid, and, despite one of the longest ingredient lists I’ve ever seen, more than one of my table mates judged the dish to be disappointingly bland. The ground chicken filling hardly showed off the promised seasonings and accents. (For the record: “Slow-Roasted Chicken Rubbed with Traditional Mexican Spices and Savory Chiles, Chicken Chorizo, Pepperjack Cheese, and Cilantro. Stuffed in Jumbo White Mushrooms. Served with a Chipotle Tomato Sauce, Crispy Tortilla Strips, and Sour Cream.”)
We were very much impressed by that night’s special: a Parmesan-crusted grilled flounder. Fresh fish arrives daily, we were told, and the flaky fillet was allowed to speak for itself beneath a very light coat of cheese. The achievement here bodes well for the pistachio-crusted grouper on the main menu, which I have not yet sampled.
Jambalaya, with chicken, shrimp and spicy cubes of andouille sausage, was rich, filling and vibrant. We shared a plate of gnocchi pomodoro as a communal side dish and liked the house-made, ricotta-light dumpling and its velvety coating of tomato sauce.
Other dishes met mostly medium expectations, though each fell short of perfection: Scallops were slightly undercooked and lacked a crispy cap, but that didn’t detract much from the savory package, including asparagus spears and tarragon wine butter sauce. Flatiron steak frites had a lot going for it, including crispy, seasoned fries, though the meat came out much closer to rare than medium rare as ordered. The red wine mustard short ribs were a cut above my early experience with short rib risotto, and the mustard beurre blanc gave a sassy edge to the bed of roasted vegetables and potatoes, along with the fried onion strings on top.
We never got around to checking bin numbers and trying to pair suggested wines with each dish. We tended to order what we thought we liked, sampled a range of tastes at various price points, and, lo and behold, the better glasses went quite well with whatever we found on our plates. As it should ever be. The point being, you don’t need to feel like you’re on a forced march through a Cooper’s Hawk wine experience.
As it turned out, our fivesome had quite a good time around the table for three hours or more, and, it seemed, we closed the joint down without even realizing it.
Food: * * A solid variety of new American fusion tastes comes out of an industrial-oriented kitchen not always hitting on all cylinders.
Service: * * 1/2 Friendly, eager, fairly well trained and sometimes overly enthusiastic.
Atmosphere: * * * A good looking place with surprising opportunities for intimate dining.
Star code: * Fair, * * Good, * * * Excellent, * * * * Extraordinary
Restaurant hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30: a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$
Vegetarian options: Lots of salad options, portobello sandwich, caprese panini, roasted eggplant ravioli, plus “life balance” and gluten-free menus.
Handicapped accessible: A ramp on the hillside Broadway entrance; elevator access to upper floors.
Parking: Street or nearby Plaza garages.
Kids: A kids menu includes some typical offerings such as hot dogs, a burger and mac and cheese ($5.99 each), plus a junior filet for $13.99.
Noise level: There’s a general buzz befitting a large place, but good table spacing gives you some privacy.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends; by phone.
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
Ahi tuna tacos: $11.99
Asian BBQ pork belly nachos: $8.99
Gnocchi pomodoro: $14.99
Sea scallops: $25.99
Key lime pie: $6.99
What to drink
A full bar and a craft cocktail list are available, as well as a short list of draft and bottled beers, including an ale made by Cooper’s Hawk. When it comes to wine, though, snobs (OK, that’s kind of me, too) must get over the fact that their only options are wines made and labeled by Cooper’s Hawk. But the menu lists 45 varieties, available by the glass or bottle (mostly under $30), plus a lineup of various sangrias and a bellini.
Among the best I tasted were Lux Chardonnay, a serious glass of seasoned-fruit flavors ($9.50 a glass, $37.99 a bottle), a pretty solid Barbera ($8.50, $29.99), and the Winemaker’s Barrel Reserve, a Bordeaux-style blend available only by the glass and straight from an on-site barrel ($8.75). Unlike a lot of people, I happen to like well-made dessert wines, so I tried Cooper’s Hawk Ice Wine, and though it lacked the kind of viscosity you find in major-league versions, it gave a pleasant punctuation on a big meal.