PLEASURES OF THE PALATE: Cooperage

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BY LEN LEAR/ I thought maybe I needed a new eyeglass prescription when I checked out the website for the new restaurant called Cooperage: A Wine & Whiskey Bar, located in the Curtis Center, 7th & Sansom Streets. (I have seen its address listed in two local newspapers as 601 Walnut Street, but that’s not where it is. It’s a long story.)

The following words are on the website: “Complimentary valet parking is available every Friday and Saturday, beginning at 5:30 p.m.” Now I thought I would see a Jewish president of Saudi Arabia before I would see a Center City restaurant offering free valet parking on weekends, so we called the restaurant to see if my aging eyes were playing tricks on me. They were not.
I have seen valet parking signs in Center City in recent weeks hawking prices from $16 to $22, so I was willing to go to Cooperage for that reason alone.

When we arrived at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jun. 26, a beautiful young lady with a ring in her nose, a hairdo from ancient Egypt and a million-dollar smile gave us a ticket for the car and ushered us inside. This young lady was like the Energizer bunny; every time we looked up, she was rushing around doing one chore or another, such as watering plants outdoors, where customers were dining on a perfect early summer evening. She logged more miles than a marathon runner.

When I asked later to take her photo, I was told she had left to go to Johnny Brenda’s, a club in Fishtown — not as a customer but as a singer (with a band called Lady). I was told her name was Kate Foust, so I checked her out on YouTube the next day. And there she was — performing at Theater of Living Arts and World Cafe Live (rock music), a stage in Tennessee (bluegrass music), even one video with an a cappella quartet. She has the whole package — great looks, great voice, great stage presence (and great at watering plants and getting your car parked). What more can you want? Just remember that when Kate Foust becomes a household name, you read it here first.

Cooperage opened Apr. 10. The name Cooperage, by the way, refers to the art of barrel making, which is relevant to the production of both whiskey and wine. “The concept of Cooperage is twofold,” explained Jen Kremer, co-owner and certified sommelier who hails originally from North Carolina. “On one side, there’s the wine and whiskey bar. (There are 20 wines by the glass and bottle, about 40 whiskeys from around the world and several locally produced beers.)

“The second side of Cooperage is the cafe, a to-go store with the same quality and ingredients at a faster pace and without the fuss.” The cafe offers homemade breakfast pastries, bagels, sandwiches, salads, vegetarian and non-vegetarian soups, and gourmet coffees, teas and sodas. About 80 can be seated indoors and 24 outdoors.

Executive chef Ralph Kane (his nickname should be “Sugar”) previously cooked at Fork, Field House and Bistro 7, among other local restaurants, as well as the world-renowned Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. His Southern bistro-style menu offers appetizers from $6 to $13 and entrees from $9 to $23, using ingredients purchased from local farmers. With his Southern dishes like ‘gumbo ya ya’ (with chicken, andouille sausage, tomatoes and okra, $6), Cajun poached shrimp ($10) and chipotle-bourbon barbecued wings with buttermilk blue cheese ($9), Kane definitely has his roux-tine down.

A pecan-crusted catfish entree with black-eyed pea ragout and sauteed spinach was a delightful marriage of textures and flavors, with the pecan pieces adding some punctuation to the mild fish ($17), and a special of lemon/nutmeg-scented gnocchi (don’t knock the gnocchi) with crabmeat and summer vegetables — peas, spinach and sundried tomatoes — in a white wine pancetta sauce, truly lived up to the word “special” ($21).

Desserts are made in-house. We had a pecan pie tartlet with black raspberry ice cream ($6) and bourbon-spiked chocolate beignets with coffee ice cream ($6). Both were creamy and dreamy, worthy of a fine New Orleans kitchen. Also a plus was the not-overly-loud background music, a nice mix of rock, soul and blues.

Another asset for Cooperage is server Chuck Bischof, who apparently likes his job so much that he insists, “This is the closest thing to not having a job.” Chuck was a history major in college, and he was probably hired as a server because all of the singers, dancers and actors were already taken by other restaurants.

Cooperage is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and for dinner only on Saturday and Sunday. For more information or reservations, call (215) 226-COOP or visit www.cooperagephilly.com.

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