Restaurant review: Cooper’s Hawk

From the November 22, 2012 edition

At two-week old Cooper’s Hawk in Easton Town Center, you enter through the gift shop. That’s fitting because this quickly expanding family of semi-upscale wineries/restaurants (by next year, 13 expensive-to-build branches will have opened) is a committed marketing dynamo.

For instance, Cooper’s Hawk has concocted an ingenious model for selling wine. It buys West Coast grapes, takes ’em back to sweet home Chicago, makes West Coast-style wines there — about 40 flavors are available at Easton — then sells only its wines in C-Hawk’s Napa-style tasting-room-equipped restaurants.

It’s not like C-Hawk produces shoddy stuff, though. How about this for a testimonial: another high-profile Chicagoan — Barack Obama — sipped C-Hawk’s wine at his 2009 inaugural ball.

While waiting for your table in the gift shop (thus providing time for impulse buying) you’ll be handed your first free sample of vino (recently, a tropical fruit-hinting little sauvignon blanc/ pinot gris blend). Your next teeny freebie will be titrated from a showpiece barrel after you’re seated (lately, an oaky Bordeaux-blend red). Nurse that one — your other drinks won’t be gratis (glasses are $6.50-$9.50; most bottles are mid $20s) — and take in the bigness of it all.

C-Hawk’s soaring ceilinged, multi-roomed, two-storied space is a complex unto itself. Amid snazzy-not-fancy, California-casual, wood-and-stone confines, literally hundreds of diners can be accommodated. Actually, “accommodating” — while making a buck — aptly describes this place, as a gaze at its all-over-the-map, Chicago phonebook-sized menu indicates (n.b. gluten-free and low-calorie selections are identified and, as part of C-Hawk’s marketing and “Wine 101”-type sensibilities, all items appear with wine-pairing suggestions).

C-Hawk’s contemporary American grub can be over-thought and over-sweetened and it’s up against large capacity odds, but what I tried was very solid to considerably better, especially for a mall establishment. The dinner-for-two-sized Appetizer Sampler ($21.50) provided a fine welcome wagon.

It’s packed with terrific tenderloin sliders, pan-crisped chicken potstickers (atop a lacy and refreshing Asian slaw), mini-chimichanga-like “Over-the-Border” egg rolls (good, though the wrappers are extremely thick) and so-so crab cakes (heavy on the cake). On the side were several sauces like a sugary cashew pesto, a flattering cilantro ranch plus a chunky and zesty tomatillo salsa.

Another “sampler’ is the winning Farm Grill ($28). Temptingly laid out among rich mashers and no-problem asparagus spears were three sorta stuffing-crusted hunks of meat that looked similar but didn’t taste it. The perfectly grilled, tender and juicy stars were a lamb chop with herb/cheese bread-crumbing; pork medallion with a sweet and zingy, maple/mustard topping; and a sharply blue-cheesed beef tenderloin.

So far, so good, but so pretty damn expensive too; fortunately, cheaper fare abounds. Like a lively, shareable and lightly dressed Caesar Pesto Chopped Salad ($6) with crunchy homemade croutons and a pleasant basil-y undercurrent plus an impressive soup of the day (white bean and sausage — think pasta-free pasta fagioli, $4.50).

Other strong bangs-for-the-buck came with a couple recommended — and huge and messy — sandwiches. The Parmesan Chicken ($10) was a stoner-iffic onslaught of crisply breaded poultry, marinara, pesto mayo, provolone and vibrant giardiniera. Teetering on a glossy bun with two mammoth, commendably beer-batter-fried tilapia hunks garnished with prettily fanned-out avocado, fresh slaw and sweet mayo was the enormous Crispy Fish ($12). Sandwiches come with decent fries or, say, mac-n-cheese-like Betty’s Potatoes.

But save room for Banoffee Pie ($7), an inspired fusion of banana cream and toffee. It’s wonderful even without wine.

Photos by Meghan Ralston