When Copia opened a few years ago, it billed itself as a combination winery and restaurant. Its laudable goal was to help an incipient revival of downtown St. Louis as a place to go for an evening out. That's been a problem here since Chouteau and Laclede and their friends swam ashore in the 18th century.
Good place for business, pleasant place to live (after the swamps were drained and the mosquitoes moved out), poor place for fun, was the decision, but that was fine with the mercantile class that settled the city. Over the centuries, folks looking for fun settled elsewhere, giving the Mound City (as we once were named) a wide berth as they rolled westward.
The minor revival of the late 20th century has been limping. People who moved into expensive apartments with clubs and restaurants just downstairs and across the alley soon realized they came with noise. Artists and artisans who happily found low rents soon were faced with, and forced out by, higher rents as the neighborhood became popular and richer people thought they'd try living there, too.
But cities, even those as fragmented as ours, need a downtown which is more than a place to drive through on the way to or from a sporting event or a casino. We admire and encourage the entrepreneurs who are trying to make a go of it--for themselves and others--as they battle a huge array of obstacles.
Enough digressions. . . .
When Copia first opened, we stopped in for dinner one night. The results were shockingly bad, so bad in every respect that we didn't write, figuring it would not be open very long. Well, it wasn't, but because of a fire, which turned out to be arson, it closed and stayed closed for some 2 1/2 years, a long time for rehab, remodeling or anything else.
We went back the other night, and it was terrific in every respect. Dave Rook, a member of a prime family of St. Louis-based chefs, is in the kitchen, and everything worked. Dave, brother to Annie Gunn's Lou and son of Lou Sr., has been one of the city's more peripatetic chefs, with a lengthy resume. And when he's right, as he was during our visit, he's right on.
The Copia operation, which includes a wine shop next door and still plans to eventually make its own wine, benefits from an extensive wine list and generally good pricing. Just remember that all wines have an $8 corkage fee that is added to the dinner check. That announcement is on the first page of the wine list, but many people seem to roar past it. When we ordered a bottle, and then said, in a questioning tone, "and there's a corkage fee on top of that, right?" the server sighed with relief, obviously a victim of non-readers who questioned the extra charge when the check arrived. We think that when the Copia folks re-do their wine list, they should add the corkage fee to the wine price and explain what it's about up front. By the way, it's a good list at fair prices, with many modestly priced selections.
However, with chicken lasagna and spare ribs as our dinner choices, we found a French rose on the list at a bargain price ($22, including the corkage) and then, to our joy, discovered it was an import by Kermit Lynch, one of our favorites. A 2009 Chateau St. Martin de la Garrigue, from Languedoc, a blend of Cinsault and Grenache, with nice fruit, a crisp dryness and a very pleasant flavor. "Garrigue" means a piece of land with scrubby brush and trees, which may be a description of the property.
The menu is American, with steaks, fish, roast chicken, pasta and other familiar dishes, some with some interesting sides. Appetizer choices include gravlax, or salmon that is cured rather than smoked, pate, gumbo, ox tail soup and shrimp with a bacon wrap (Rook used to work with Bill Cardwell, who brought the dish to St. Louis). The shrimp, fat and tasty, showed a tangy mango-and-chili sauce and, as we all have learned, bacon improves everything. An interesting touch to the gravlax was some lemon grass, adding an Asian hit. The dish also contained some dynamite (obviously fresh) tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs with whites and yolks separated (yes, after cooking) and in neat piles, sweet red onions and a creme fraiche sauce that was unnecessary because there was plenty of flavor in the fish.
Main dishes were outstanding, with a platter of spare ribs the best we've had in a long time. Well-rubbed with good spices and a hit of cinnamon, they were huge, served dry, tender and delicious. The sauce was good, a nice combination of sweet and hot, but a little too sweet for my taste. Beans were excellent, and this time the balance of sweet and hot was on target. A corn tamale, studded with juicy kernels, was a delightful addition, as was a handful of crisp tobacco onions. There also was some outstanding cole slaw, its herb-heightened flavor showing something we did not recognize. When we asked the server to ask the chef, he returned and said, "pineapple."
A strange response, until we later learned that Rook also prepares a fruit-accented slaw, which had pineapple, and we had the herb-helped slaw that Ann finally decided was bolstered by fresh tarragon.
The chicken lasagna was gloriously cheesy, with diced chicken, spinach, mushrooms and, of course, the pasta, under the a large amount of outstanding cheese. A wonderful, comforting dish.
Desserts are basic--a good-looking, dark-chocolate brownie, creme brulee, bread pudding and a berry crisp, just right for a summer when berries are abundant and delicious. We tried it, and it was glorious, the oatmeal crisp pleasantly crunchy and the fruit handled so well that it was easy to tell the blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries apart, something that happens too rarely.
Copia still plans to make wine, but that won't happen for a month or two, after the grapes ripen crushed, with the juice coming to visit downtown for a while. But right now, before the fermentation starts, the new Copia, redecorated and re-opened about a month, is a bright star in the St. Louis summer sky.
1122 Washington Ave.
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good