For me, there are few dinnertime dishes more evocative of my suburban youth than Cooperage’s “pork chops and applesauce,” a seemingly wink-wink reference to perhaps the most famous Brady Bunch episode of them all, the one where Peter plays the sleuth as Alice whips up her ’70s classic.
So many of us grew up on the kind of comfort food served on the menu at Cooperage that there’s an inherent charm to it. That’s also the risk, as even the slightest misstep may feel deeply personal.
Back around Thanksgiving, executive chef Benjamin Martin began re-conceptualizing the menu to reflect more of an American-comfort-food-with-a-twist ethos. And while some of the nice southern touches of Cooperage’s initial incarnation are gone (no more boiled peanuts!), it’s still a pleasant, generally unchallenging place to visit for sustenance and a drink or three.
Like those pork chops, for instance. The dish, aside from garlic mashed potatoes that were overwhelmed by salt, hit all its intended heartland notes. Like early John Mellencamp, its familiarity, its all-American comfort, was the backbone of its charm: Serve it on a stars-and-stripes commemorative plate from the Franklin Mint and you’re as patriotic as you’ve ever been.
Cornbread muffins arrive warm and surprisingly savory on their own, with a touch of sweetness added by whipped honey butter. Deviled eggs kissed with a barely perceptible whiff of truffle oil were accompanied by pickled beets that were more sweet than sour. Tender chicken with a subtly aromatic 40-clove garlic sauce, though Frenched and served spread-eagle on a layer of grits as oversalted as the chop’s mashed potatoes, were nonetheless appealing.
But more than anything, it’s the experience as a whole here that makes Cooperage such a pleasure to visit. The selection of whiskey is stellar, especially if you’re a bourbon fan. This is a category of spirit that’s finally getting the respect it deserves in local bar programs, and the range of our great national whiskey is on full display here. Start with a Johnny Drum, an initially spicy sipper that turns all warm and butterscotchy on the finish, before diving into something even stronger. The beers, too, are varied enough to hold your interest—all American, all from small breweries, save the Yuengling—but not so obscure that every one needs an explanation.
As for the space, it’s just as pleasant on a sunny day as a snowy night. I think it has something to do with the Edison bulbs and reclaimed wood throughout. Such old-timey touches are like the jeans of the restaurant world: Everything looks better in them. Even the chipped paint of the windowpanes adds to the view through them.
Still, a great space, hit-and-miss comfort food and an interesting bar selection aren’t enough to keep the crowds coming. Though happy hours here are popular, and the addition of Open Table reservations have helped, according to talented GM Alex Bokulich.
I’ve already spouted on about the hits. Some misses: Beer and cheese fondue, for one. It leaned too heavily on its roux, and turned gloppy and a bit grainy after a few minutes of cooling. The sad, off-season tomato sandwiched between the basil-pestoed foccacia also left me cold. Mussels with coconut milk were an odd addition given the contents of the rest of the menu.
But the totality of the experience here is about more than all the food being executed perfectly (or a few slugs of whiskey, or a glass of wine from the nicely chosen list). It’s generally enough to win you over, and to take you back to another place. The cakey, deep-fried Oreos were certainly evocative of another time. And the lavender creme brulee, its perfume barely perceptible, employed its marquis ingredient with delicacy. (Too often, lavender creme brulee leaves you with an aftertaste like you just French-kissed someone’s over-perfumed grandmother.)
Sometimes, a good drink and a tasty trip down memory lane are enough to carry the day. Cooperage is the kind of place you could make a habit of, if only the execution were a bit tighter. Can they do it? Sounds like a case for Peter Brady, master sleuth. My guess is they will.
123 S. Seventh St. (in the Curtis Center)
Cuisine: American comfort food, often with a twist.
Kitchen Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-10pm; Sat., 1-11pm.
Price range: $4-$20.
Atmosphere: Warm and comforting.
Food: Execution could be more consistent, but generally very good.
Service: Well-informed and friendly.
35 Things You Must Eat at the Shore