Copia Runneth Over

The food's delish, but Copia still needs to prove a thing or two to oenephiles

Copia Urban Winery & Market

Copia salad $5.95
Spare ribs $7.95
Duck breast $24.95
Surf and turf $31.95

Copia Urban Winery and Market 1122 Washington Avenue; 314-621-7275. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Sat.

Red Moon: Highfalutin French-Asian fusion. Flannery's Pub: Bling-bling sports bar. Mosaic: Postmodern tapas. Kitchen K: Postmodern bistro/New American/ comfort food. Lucas Park Grille: Breakfast/lunch/dinner/bar/lounge/boutique grocery. Wasabi: Extreme sushi. An American Place: Haute couture organic.

Takes a few tricks, or at least a savvy marketing concept, to debut a restaurant downtown nowadays. Copia Urban Winery & Market — the latest doe-eyed dining spot to open in the belly of the beast — has a pretty good one behind it. One that actually adds something new, as opposed to just another something, to the 'scape of downtown dining.

It's a wine bar. Or at least, it's a wine-centric establishment, with full lunch and dinner menus accompanied by a list of nearly 250 varietals (Copia is the Roman goddess of abundance) cheekily housed in a faux-cork cover, and an adjacent market selling all those labels at prices comparable to what you'd find at local wine shops and the Schnucks booze aisle. Appealing to bargain-sniffing oenophiles (read: young consumers) and wary oenophobes (read: ibid.), Copia tags on a mere $8 corkage fee to serve those same bottles in the restaurant — a welcome discount on the typical St. Louis markup.

In another au courant twist, Copia pours its wines into stemless "wine tumblers" — a newfangled trend pioneered by Riedel, the benchmark in stemware worldwide. The design was invented with an unabashedly fashion-forward motive, but it has found fans all the same. (The argument that holding a wine glass by the bowl heats the wine is a red herring. Wine snobs also gripe that a fingerprint-smudged bowl mars the view of a wine's color.)

Copia's wine "cellar" stands front and center on the floor, serving as a wall that separates the dining room from the bar area. It's a narrow glassed-in closet that stretches nearly as far as the exposed loft ceiling, in which bottles are cradled upon what look like large coat hooks. High concept, in form and function.

Come 2006, Copia will begin dispensing its own house wines (hence the "urban winery"). Even as you read this review, juice from Les Bourgeois Winery outstate in Rocheport is fermenting on-site. A new restaurant that doles out house wine — not just as a code word for "the cheap stuff," but actually produced in-house — is a great example of postmodern hospitality in action. In old-school Europe, practically any corner bistro or family-run restaurant will place a carafe of their house wine (or "table wine") in front of you. House wines ought to be worthwhile; otherwise, what's being said about the quality of the house?

Thus primed, I flung open the wine menu's rubber cover ready to be swept away by impassioned prose extolling the virtues of fine Burgundies or enumerating the nuances of the tempranillo grape. Or, failing that, at the very least to find helpful food-pairing suggestions. I was pleased to see scores of bottles under $40, dependable value vinos like California merlots and meritages, Chilean cabs, Spanish Riojas and French Côtes du Rhône. But it was disappointing to see that this list amounted to nothing more than, well, a list.

Never mind detailed descriptions; this text more closely resembled binary code. As in, strictly by the numbers: white/red/ sparkling, region, grape, vintage, price, with a prefatory sheet that lists twenty wines by the glass (including two sparklers and four ports). OK, a paragraph about every bottle and you wouldn't be able to lift up the list to read it. But a little something — a few notes about each region, descriptions of the wines by the glass?

Instead, the meat of the book is marred by an unwieldy categorization system, with wines classified first by "New World/ Modern" (Napa, Sonoma, "Other Calif," Washington, Oregon, Missouri, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Spain), then "Old World/Traditional" (Germany/Austria, France, Italy). The only further subdivision is whites vs. reds. So to settle on, say, a west coast riesling or an Italian pinot grigio, you have to squint and scan pages and pages of close-set type — a feat that's nearly impossible to accomplish during the dinner hour, when the house lights are dimmed to where's-my-food? low levels. After all that, you still know nada about why the management believes you might enjoy this wine.

Chef Dave Rook, formerly of Chesterfield's Crazy Fish and Aqua Vin, does convey zeal for his solid yet snazzy New American fare. His menu is a thoughtfully curated affair that cavorts through many a modern-day enticement — ahi tuna, sea scallops, flash-fried calamari, a cheese plate, undersize pizzas well-suited for bar noshing — and backs those up with classic selections like prime rib, rigatoni, even escargot. A grilled duck breast plated with a leg of duck confit alongside a sticky goat cheese risotto cake and a slathering of port wine reduction was perfection, as good as one could hope for and a lot of duck for the buck. Lobster and shrimp pappardelle — the lobster sautéed, the shrimp grilled — was equally decadent, cozied in a saffron and sherry-accented cream sauce.

I'm more a fan of the concept of surf and turf — the old-money, country club-style gluttony of it all — than I am of the flavor clash it presents, briny shellfish competing with brawny steak. But Copia's version makes a case for the dish. The tenderloin medallions were delicious if nothing fancy, while the "surf" — Alaskan king crab legs — was out of this world: toothsome, tasty and humming in harmony with the buttery hollandaise on top.

Appetizers include a well-considered plate of smoked trout that was accompanied by toast points, a creamy horseradish sauce akin to aioli and a mess of capers, chopped tomatoes and red onion that might best be described as pico de capers. Thanks to a delicate smoking that preserved the trout's natural oils, the fish hinted of the pleasant essence of a grilled salmon, but with a firmer texture than salmon and a more mature flavor. I've never cared much for spare ribs, but Copia's, charred on the outside with a sprinkling of chives, provided ample mouthfuls of meat that pulled cleanly off the bone and melded well with a sweet barbecue sauce served on the side.

Desserts are presented not on a printed menu, but in person on an audacious, colored-glass tray — a bit of retro service reincarnated. Pastry chef Sarah Brennan seems inclined toward a provocative, Vegas look for her creations, judging by all the plumes of spun sugar soaring out of them, and the little golf ball-size scoops of ice cream perched rakishly upon many a cake or torte, like a cigarette girl's pillbox hat. A raspberry bombe, pink mousse covered in a white chocolate shell, was served cold enough that the mousse did double duty as a mock ice cream. A "cowboy" — like a brownie crowned with a "tollhouse" topping of chips and nuts — needed its scoop of vanilla to impart a pleasant creaminess to its dryish texture.

Two lunch visits didn't match up to my Saturday-night dinner at Copia. By the look of the Copia salad, the house is unafraid to try something different; a tangle of red wine-soaked onions the color of Beaujolais and a goat cheese-smeared crostini on top looked promising. Halfway through, though, the salad lay in soggy ruins, done in by a balsamic sludge underneath that progressed from unpleasant to unbearable. The roasted portobello and artichoke cake sandwich was more intellectually than viscerally satisfying. Clearly handmade, the "cake" was airy and downy but also weak in flavor and impractically loose (all the more so when served next to a heap of shredded lettuce intended to be a topping). A crab cake sandwich on an onion roll fared better, while an Italian club clocked in as deli-issue grub and nothing more.

During my most recent meal at Copia, our party ordered a bottle of Washington state cabernet, which our friendly server transported to the table wedged under her forearm. After presenting the label, she inexplicably departed to do a few quick other things — with the bottle still lodged in her armpit. Meanwhile, we looked on jealously as the server at another table swaddled a bottle in a linen napkin, decanted it into his table's tumblers like a pro, then placed the half-empty bottle in a holder, with the cork in a nifty little cubbyhole. When our server deigned to return, she poured our wine, then left the bottle and the cork standing solo on our tabletop.

It's not that I coveted our neighbors' coaster. (In fact, I can do without the cork entirely; sniffing it like a prize truffle is so ten years ago.) I just want Copia to present a smoother — but not slick — oeno-rific experience. I'd hate to think the wine concept was just a gimmick to get me through the door.

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