Ordering a bottle of red at the new Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant, on the Country Club Plaza, is sort of like asking your server to perform the "Largo al factotum" from The Barber of Seville. After the cork comes out, the wine is theatrically decanted, with the server pouring the contents over a glass ball filled with glycerin, aerating the wine as it drips into a cone-shaped glass that hangs, like a trapeze artist, from a metal frame.
It's supposed to be showy, but not everyone here has mastered the gestures with equal flair. I watched with amusement one night as a young server fumbled with the cork for several awkward minutes. After that, the pouring of the wine over the glass ball wasn't a climax — it was a relief.
Wine is the star at this restaurant. All the vintages on the menu are bottled at the Cooper's Hawk Winery, in Illinois, and the street-level entrance here is a gift shop that stocks wine-related trinkets and tools, including the decanters used in the dining rooms. The store is part of the reception area (along with the bar), where cheery young greeters wear headsets to do their work. The immediate impression is that you've walked into the lobby of a stylish Manhattan boutique hotel. I wasn't sure if I was coming in for a meal or checking in for the weekend.
Past all that production, the dining area is the standard industrial-issue décor, emphasizing anonymous sleekness. It's what the Cheesecake Factory might be like if it abandoned its signature clutter of cheesecake options for Midwestern wine. Once you pass muster with the concierge staff ("Do you have a reservation? Will you be dining upstairs tonight? Will you use the stairs or the elevator?"), you're seated in the lower-level bar (a Siberian exile) or escorted up the stairs to one of the dimly lighted dining rooms. You want the latter, but be careful maneuvering your way through the space, lest you accidently bump one of those darling decanters off another table.
The Country Club Plaza being our local Disney World of novelty dining experiences — bubbling fondues, cartloads of dim sum, wasp-waisted passadores dripping au jus from long metal skewers — Cooper's Hawk and its wine fetish should settle in its space just fine. The last tenant, the raucous sports bar 810 Zone, had a gimmick (screens, screens and more screens, a satellite dish for every patron) but couldn't lure the sweatshirt crowd in this upscale, high-profile spot. Cooper's Hawk is a much better fit for a building that also houses Pottery Barn and Barnes & Noble: It's an openly commercial chain restaurant with a menu that travels more continents than Phileas Fogg and serves only its own wines (don't get any ideas about pairing a glass of 2006 Sesta di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino with your gnocchi). The place has a certain Disney pretend quality — a winery where the big oak casks are purely decorative, positioned here and there. (I can't vouch for the realism of its "Napa-style tasting room," though I applaud the name.) If only there were a grape-filled vat and a couple of Sicilian peasants (a few of my relatives, perhaps) to stomp on the fruit every night, Cooper's Hawk would be almost perfect.
I left the judging of the wines to friends of mine with connoisseur credentials. Former restaurateur Lou Jane Temple sampled two glasses — a sauvignon blanc and a red zinfandel — during our meal and graded them "a good, solid B."
"The sauvignon blanc was crisp and clean," she went on. "The zinfandel was fruity, robust, with very little tannin — really pretty pleasurable."
The cuisine at Cooper's Hawk is equally pleasurable, in a nonthreatening, Cheesecake Factory way. "Our lettuce wraps are really superb," announced my server one night. I tried not to roll my eyes, but Lou Jane wanted them, and I succumbed. Cooper's Hawk presents this ersatz Asian creation with three small ramekins of house-made sauces, including caramel (for God's sake, why?), peanut and a jade-green concoction called "cashew sauce" that was tasty but without a hint of cashew flavor. "Why is it green?" I asked the server. She vanished to find out. "It's basil," she reported. I didn't taste basil, either, but the wraps themselves were fine.
The real winner on the starter list is a multicultural collision called "Asian BBQ Pork Belly Nachos." I know, that sounds like something you'd pull from the freezer case at Trader Joe's. But I found myself entranced by the dish: miniature corn tortillas topped with squares of luscious pork belly, chopped tomato and translucent slivers of fresh radish. The tastes somehow work together.
Pillows of house-made ricotta gnocchi, in a surprisingly creamy pomodoro, are delicious. The vegetable in the roasted-eggplant ravioli was chewy and a little salty, but the real problem was what covers the pasta: a sloppy, helter-skelter blanket of chopped artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives and goat cheese. Its appropriate pairing isn't wine — it's Gatorade.
A trio of beef medallions, each topped with a different crust (horseradish, blue cheese, parmesan), is a little too dainty for the $29 asking price. The delicious-sounding braised short ribs, slathered with a mustard beurre blanc, suffered from a severely caramelized exterior on the night I sampled them. The meat was dry and rubbery.
The most consistent satisfactions on the menu so far are the soups. The crab and lobster bisque is extraordinary — rich and loaded with shellfish. A hearty, creamy tortilla soup is probably the best potage going by this name around here.
The menu insists that its cheesecake is "the best in town," which is a daring claim to make on the Plaza. Not wanting to choose a side in that particular rivalry, I instead sampled a ridiculously sexy chocolate cake, layered with chocolate mousse and ganache. Thumbs up. More complex but less rewarding is an "ice cream sandwich" that boasts two circles of cinnamon ice cream tucked between two slices of banana-nut bread, drenched in butter-rum-caramel sauce. It earns points for creativity, but it's difficult to eat, even with a knife and a fork.
Maybe I should have used a wineglass instead. "Each of our dishes," servers explained during each of my visits, "was uniquely created to be paired with one of our Cooper's Hawk wines." So there's a wine "bin number" next to each of the dishes on the menu, punctuating the feeling that the restaurant wants to control your experience of it. Cooper's Hawk seems to have been dreamed up for diners who have never been to an actual winery (and who perhaps don't trust restaurants that don't franchise). But go ahead, do it their way.