Cooper's Hawk: Sufficiently intriguing 

click to enlarge Cooper's Hawk's Asian BBQ pork belly nachos. - MARK LEE
  • Cooper's Hawk's Asian BBQ pork belly nachos.
  • Mark Lee

With its generous expanses of exposed limestone and natural-hued wood, Cooper's Hawk Winery and Restaurant, on the inside at least, resembles a sort-of fantasy incarnation of the idyllic wine country restaurant. Bordeaux barrels adorn the walls and the ambience is light and spacious. If it weren't for the view of H.H. Gregg next door, you could almost be in Napa.

Entering the front door, you find yourself not in a traditional restaurant lobby, but in a tasting room-gift shop full of the latest essential wine-related accoutrements, chocolates and, of course, wine for sale and for tasting. For Cooper's Hawk not only serves wine, it makes it too, at the restaurant's headquarters in Illinois, from grapes sourced from notable growing regions around the country.

At first glance, the gift shop seems a bit heavy-handed, like an upscale Cracker Barrel, but in spite of having been warned to expect an equally heavy sales pitch for the winery's club, the subject wasn't broached a single time during the course of a very agreeable recent meal. Seated promptly, we were attended to with efficient yet unstuffy courtesy throughout the course of lunch by our knowledgeable and helpful server.

Cooper's Hawk offers an epic menu, with a full complement of salads, sandwiches, soups, pasta, fish, poultry and meats, not to mention desserts and cheeses. Usually a menu of this scope could only achieve middling quality at best, for obvious reasons, but in this case the kitchen did a credible job of bringing freshness and vitality to most of the dishes we sampled.

First off, and best of all, was an appetizer of Asian BBQ Pork Belly Nachos, small individual crisp tortillas topped with slices of sweetly spicy belly, finished with a heaping crunch of scallions and radish and a smear of subtly spiced barbecue sauce. Served six to a plate for $8.99, this was a generous portion.

Somewhat less successful, but still quite tasty, was a plate of Mexican Drunken Shrimp ($12.99) served in a tequila lime sauce. Although good-looking on paper, the bacon-wrapped shrimp could have used more crunch, and the sauce appeared to have been thickened with cornstarch, slightly dulling the edge of the otherwise snappy main ingredients.

Of the two entrees we sampled, the house-made gnocchi, topped with fresh spinach and a lively tomato sauce, was a solid effort, the gnocchi being perfectly cooked and just slightly firm in the middle. The chicken piccata, a wonderful traditional dish when done perfectly, was almost there but not quite: the super-thin chicken escalopes had become a bit tired and chewy and the sauce was on the creamy side, lacking the dish's essential zip but still delivering a good depth of lemon-caper flavor in spite of that.

Rounding out the meal we enjoyed the aptly named banoffee pie, a surprisingly light and airy confection centered around bananas, caramel and cream. And what of the wine? Although Cooper's Hawk offers numerous tastings and wine flights, this was lunch, so I confined myself to a very well-made and varietally true gewürztraminer, a wine sufficiently intriguing to prompt a future visit to try a few more.

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