There was a familiarity with the menu at Copper Spoon that delighted me, but it was what has changed about the former Wine Down in The Harrison along West Jefferson Boulevard that made it a place I will frequent.
Executive chef Aaron Butts' cuisine has changed over the years, and Copper Spoon showcases his journey.
The upscale, classic tastes I fell in love with at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke, where he spent 15 years and established a fine reputation, were there.
The bolognese that I once called the best pasta dish I have ever had was there as were the delectable veal sweetbreads that I used to have to drive to Roanoke to enjoy because nobody else was offering them.
And the more approachable, but still upscale, dishes he produced at The Golden, which lasted only 17 months in the Ash Skyline Plaza, were there, too. The Baron, a big, sloppy cheeseburger, was similar to the McGolden. And the Smutty Fries, an ode to poutine, had that Golden-like mix of fancy ingredients prepared in a not-so-fancy way.
But what really stood out at Copper Spoon were the bar and the impressive array of cocktails listed in a little rustic, leather-bound booklet. I guess you could say Wine Down is now mixing it up.
There were up to four mixologists manning that bar, and it was fun watching how meticulous they were – spritzing lemon oil over their take on a whiskey sour or using an eyedropper to dot the top of a cocktail with bitters.
There are drinks to match every course, classics, trendy new elixirs and off-the-wall creations like the Kamehameha Punch, an adult horchata served in an aluminum coconut water can.
The Smutty Fries were the first thing I tasted at Copper Spoon and set the tone for a wonderful meal. Crispy cubed potatoes (patatas) were topped with sloppy Joe meat, queso sauce, crumbled cotija cheese, pickled hot peppers and a runny fried egg. The peppers were my favorite element as they added heat and vinegar bite, while the cheese sauce was simply perfect and the egg was really not even necessary.
The Red Russian Kale Salad couldn't have been more different, and it was even better. The kale was nicely coated by the pungent garlic dressing as were the apples, which provided sweetness. Almonds gave it crunch, and the manchego cheese was lightly sprinkled in so it did not take over.
The Vietnamese Spinach Salad was not as pleasing. It also had Napa cabbage, carrot, peanuts and crispy pork belly – not quite enough of it – and a garlic-ginger dressing, but it came off more like a garnish for fried rice or a noodle bowl instead of a salad. I was also a bit surprised at the heat the dressing had considering there was no mention of it.
The shitake and oyster mushroom soup fell flat, too. Its creamy base was too heavy and lacked balance. Either a heartier mushroom and/or vegetable stock or more stock instead of cream would have helped.
The best appetizer – and best item overall – was the veal sweetbreads. It was probably the best version of the fried thymus gland I have ever eaten. The veal was perfectly breaded and crispy to fend off the moisture of the pumpkin seed vinaigrette and scrumptious goat cheese polenta. The inside meat was creamy, tender and as mild as an offal can be. Agridolce cipollini onions added a wonderful sweetness and peppery arugula offset its richness beautifully.
The Pasta Bolognese had ground veal, pork and beef, fresh ricotta, Parmesan and broccoli rapini over perfectly made fettuccine. It was pretty straightforward but pretty fantastic.
The Baron was as good as it looked on social media the first time Copper Spoon advertised it. Offered as a double or triple – I chose the triple – it had three thin, hard-seared and a little crispy patties and double (or triple) slices of American cheese melting down the sides of them, adding eye and palate appeal. It also had the burger-staple raw shaved onions and lettuce, plus a smear of egg salad – a first-time topping for me – that worked well as a creamy element just like mayonnaise.
The Faroe Island Salmon was an exquisite representation of how fish should be treated in a fine dining establishment. Seared on one side and served atop a curried coconut puree that was creamy and luxurious but also had a nice little kick of heat, the fish was flaky and perfectly cooked. Roasted mushrooms gave it a hearty note, and an onion and arugula salad added brightness.
When it comes to dessert, the options were a bit pedestrian. The chocolate torte and the turtle cheesecake were respectable but did not excite the way the other dishes did. But that was not the end of the dessert options.
That cocktail booklet had plenty of dessert options from sweet, cool, shaken drinks to classic ports. But the after-dinner cocktail I had to try was savory – and funky.
The Gravyback was a play on a pickle back – whiskey chased with a shot of pickle juice. This off-the-menu treat that I found out about from a talkative and delightful waiter started with Evan Williams 100-proof bourbon, and the pickle was replaced with a shot of house-made turkey gravy. Yes, a shot of gravy. And I loved it.
The gravy is made from scratch for this drink combo only, and it was wonderfully hearty and salty, and it would have been fantastic atop mashed potatoes.
Besides letting me in on the Gravyback, my servers were wonderful during all of my visits. Not only were they personable and engaging, they knew the menu cover to cover and were assets when it came to making suggestions.
Copper Spoon has not really changed since its days as Wine Down. It still has the sort of medieval, castle-like appearance, is dimly lit and truly feels like a place you go to at night, which makes sense since that is the only time it is open.
But during one visit an incense-like aroma filled the bar area for a while. It might have come from one of those skilled mixologists lighting herbs or something for a smoked cocktail, but, regardless, it was not welcome and quite unappetizing.
Restaurant: Copper Spoon
Address: 301 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Sweetbreads ($14), Smutty Fries ($12), Vietnamese salad ($12), kale salad ($8), bolognese ($18), Baron ($13; $17 for triple), salmon ($28), desserts ($8)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Out of a possible five