Review: Copia Urban Winery in St. Louis

Say, have you heard the news? Copia reopened. Of course you have, the chatter has been nonstop. It’s been the most anticipated resurrection since word got out Peabody was reviving Kiel Opera House.

Welcome to the return of Copia Urban Winery and Market. When arson destroyed the popular restaurant almost three years ago, people worried it was the end of the two-year-old Washington Avenue endeavor. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, here stands Copia, in the same location and stronger than before. The newly rehabbed space seems primed for its previous popularity: The spacious, enclosed back “patio” with retractable roof panels still invites a party vibe, central to a Wash. Ave. crowd; the clubby bar area still seduces with comfy couches in front of the stone fireplace. An added water wall separates the bar from the newly designed dining room, where the décor features ochre-hued walls, full-length windows, exposed wood ceilings and a massive hanging glass ball light fixture in the center of the room.

The reopening also marks the return of chef Dave Rook, part of the venerable St. Louis chef family that includes brother Lou and father Lou Sr. of Annie Gunn’s. Yes, the surf and turf is still on the menu, as is flash-fried calamari, duck breast and confit leg, ribs, and the house-smoked trout appetizer. Rest assured, Rook and staff kept the menu decidedly American, emphasizing grilled and smoked high-quality meats. The spare ribs? Dry-rubbed, charred, smoky, tender with a bit of chew off the bone. And huge. “We’re serious about food here,” I was informed when the heavy platter arrived. I was impressed with what I thought was a half-slab until I picked up a meaty rib only to discover another row waiting to be devoured (you can get the half-slab as an appetizer). The sauce was sweet-hot and sticky – a bit too sweet, but a good complement when used sparingly. On the platter came a side of beans, a family recipe chock-full of bacon and onion; a deliciously sweet corn tamale; and Rook’s pineapple coleslaw. A tangle of crispy fried tobacco onions topped the ribs, as if to say, “Thought that was enough, did you?”

Bacon-wrapped smoked shrimp make a return, and for good reason: Who can resist (seafood allergies aside) three supersized crustaceans, each wrapped in a bacon blanket and bathed in a sweet ’n’ hot mango-red chile-honey glaze? Exactly. A pulled-pork sandwich for lunch one day proved a wise choice. Hearty and smoky, it came with Cheddar cheese on an onion roll, house-made chips and a side of the tasty pineapple slaw.

With resurrection comes new vigor. The arancini appetizer set a good mood: five small creamy, cheesy, moist rice balls resting in a tomato-cream sauce. While not thick, as is too often the case with arancini, the crispy bread crumb exterior held up well, even after sitting for a time in that delicious sauce. Farfalle replaces pappardelle as the noodle of choice in the lobster and shrimp entrée, bowtie pasta being much easier to navigate from plate to mouth than long, wide ribbons of pasta. Continuing along the Italian theme (OK, the menu is not completely American), pork scallopini is as capable as they come: two cuts of tenderloin pounded thin, flour-dusted and sautéed with leeks, mushrooms, garlic and capers in a traditional sauce of white wine, lemon and butter. A mound of garlicky fried spaghetti and roasted vegetables accompanied the dish, but two asparagus, a piece of a carrot and a slice of yellow squash hardly seemed worthy of a side.

Too often, sea scallops suffer from too much skillet time, making them dry and stringy. Not at Copia, where an entrée of three thick, plump scallops were beautifully pan-seared while retaining their briny succulence. Underneath the trio was angel hair pasta tossed with arugula, vegetables and goat cheese; on top, a relish of tomato, basil and balsamic vinegar added a fresh counterpoint. Salmon paupiette was fresh tasting, buttery rich and spectacularly moist from its steaming. A mound of mashed garlicky, herby Yukon gold potatoes and that same skimpy side of roasted vegetables as with the scallopini (nearly) rounded out the plate.

As an “urban winery and market,” Copia sells retail wines next door and plans to age its own house wine on premise using juice from Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport, Mo. The original plan was to start serving the house wine in late August. Alas, nothing’s ready yet. Oenophiles will have to be content with Copia’s copious and reasonably priced wine list. Bottle prices reflect both the retail price if purchased in the market and the restaurant price, which includes a modest $8 corkage fee (it should be noted the fee has not increased since Copia first opened five years ago). Like the similar policy at Balaban’s, the reasonable corkage fee (read: cheap) offers the best value and opportunity for trying new wines. But for being so wine-centric, there is a paucity of wines by the glass.

Also curious is Copia’s policy of allowing smoking in the bar and back patio. Increasingly, St. Louis restaurants are going smoke-free, especially given both the city and county smoking ordinances that will take effect in January.

The most attractive aspect of Copia’s menu is how it fits any mood, from a mid-day nosh of grilled pizza and salad to sitting on the back patio for bottles of wine and a few appetizers with friends to hanging at the bar with a beer and oxtail soup to, of course, a full-fledged meal in the dining room. If you’re coming back, come back big.

Click here to read Glenn Bardgett’s review of Copia’s wine list.

Don’t-Miss Dish: Bacon-wrapped smoked shrimp, house-smoked spare ribs
Vibe: Contemporary without being trendy, the renovation features dark woods, stone and earth tones.
Entrée Prices: $15.95 to $34.95
Where: Copia Urban Winery, 1122 Washington Ave.,
St. Louis, 314.241.9463
When: Mon. to Sat. – 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Bar until
1 a.m.)