By: Mark Loehrke
Previously spotted in nearby suburban enclaves such as Burr Ridge and Arlington Heights, Cooper’s Hawk recently migrated to the crowded Naperville dining scene, alighting on a small patch of prairie amid the growing cluster of eateries along the Freedom Drive corridor off Interstate 88. While this places it in competition for survival among formidable foes such as the White Chocolate Grill and Morton’s, it also ensures a steady stream of prospective hungry patrons into the area.
While many of its fellow species in the “upscale casual” genus certainly acknowledge the concept of wine as an important part of the dining experience (not to mention their bottom lines), Cooper’s Hawk sets itself apart with its attempt at full integration of wine and food throughout the meal—not surprising, perhaps, given the winemaking aspect of its business concept. From the tasting room to the on-site aging barrels to the gift boutique stocked with bottles bearing the house label to even the placement of the word “winery” before “restaurant” in the moniker, the message is exceedingly clear—the wine list here will be no mere afterthought.
The first thing that diners will notice as they enter this handsome wood and stone nest is their immediate, and rather abrupt, arrival smack dab in the middle of the gift shop. No hostess station or bar area to soften the blow here—before that door could even come to a close behind us we were face-to-face with endless bottles of wine and a display of lighthearted wine-themed T-shirts and novelties (several of which were bedazzled beyond recognition). Normalcy resumed just a few steps ahead, however, as we approached the bar and the semi-private “barrel room”—six to eight tables sequestered and arranged amid carefully stacked casks of aging vino. After a bit of confusion as to which one of the many enthusiastically smiling faces to speak with as we arrived at what appeared to be the front desk in a hotel lobby (I think I wound up addressing the group as a whole by default), we were shown to our table in the sleek main dining room.
Given the focus at Cooper’s Hawk, staff members clearly must possess a broader intellectual approach to wine than simply knowing how to work the old corkscrew. Taking a cue from the menu—which features suggested bin numbers to accompany each appetizer, entrée, salad and dessert available—the servers here display a deeper understanding of and appreciation for wine than most. That said, we were relieved to find that this heightened knowledge did not manifest itself in the kind of off-putting snobbery that can often be found in this field. To the contrary, our server was refreshingly personable and down-to-earth, even taking the time to explain to us the purpose of the laboratory-worthy glass decanters dotting many of the tabletops throughout the room (aeration for the reds), which we had mistook for fancy wine bongs.
While the extensive wine list comprises the first two full pages of the Cooper’s Hawk menu (tastings are free and sampling is vigorously encouraged), any concern that so much focus on the grape juice might mean a compromised or shortchanged dining experience was quickly and emphatically laid to rest by the wide-ranging selection of appetizers, pastas, meats, seafood, sandwiches, and salads that followed. Quite frankly, if your companion cannot find something appealing on this slate, it’s time to consider changing partners, not restaurants. The southwestern egg rolls got us off to a solid start, and the maple-glazed pork medallions and BBQ chicken chopped salad more than kept that momentum going right into dessert—a hefty apple tart drizzled with caramel and topped with cinnamon ice cream that emerged from a tense, drawn-out elimination process. As for the wine, we opted for a glass of the night’s special—a rich barrel blend of five different reds.
The Hawk has landed—Naperville wine lovers rejoice (quick, somebody put that on a T-shirt!).