Bruce Almighty

Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar does justice to its creator.

There's plenty of room to unwind at Cooper's bar. (Photos by Steve Legato)THE SCENE: Back in February, Manayunk was buzzing with the news that Jake’s chef/owner Bruce Cooper was shaking up his nearly 21-year-old institution by taking over the adjoining space formerly occupied by Chico’s. Out went the clothes and in came an arched doorway connecting Jake’s to its new roommate, Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar.

True to its name, it features a woodstone-fired brick oven, spacious bar, blood-red leather banquettes, a smattering of high-tops, and a bank of windows that open onto the sidewalk. The new space is airy but not really cavernous, and it can be delightfully sunny during the day when Mother Nature complies. The sleek, minimalist interior juxtaposes hard-edged brick, wood and metal design elements with warm lighting, soothing Tuscan-hued ochre walls, a mocha ceiling, and booth seating accented by elongated, khaki-colored drum lights crafted with textured fabric.

The room’s focal point is an abstract mural created by area artist Chris Lynn, illuminated by black track lighting. Symmetrical displays of wine bottles and glassware line the shelves behind the cement-topped bar, and schoolhouse pendants provide just enough light for patrons to see and be seen. On a sunny day in winter, there’s no better spot to be than next to the open glass front that extends onto Main Street.

- Advertisement -

Cooper’s affable demeanor shows itself almost immediately, thanks to an unpretentious staff that starts with the hostess and kicks into high gear with the bartenders. If you’re dining at the bar, be sure to consult the staff about libations. They have good instincts when it comes to making recommendations, and they’re generous when it comes to tastings.

THE FOOD:
For the most part, the fare at Cooper’s is simple, focusing more on the interplay between attention-grabbing ingredients than artistic amalgamations. Creative, sure. But hardly over the top. The menu features seasonal brick-oven pizzas, artisan cheese, snacks, sandwiches, salads and small plates, along with about 30 wines by the glass and at least 20 craft brews. Expect your meal to play out a little unconventionally as dishes arrive when they’re finished in the kitchen. It might be best to pace your ordering to avoid this.

While even the pizzas and chicken wings are geared toward a more refined palate, less adventurous eaters will find comfort in the sandwiches—shrimp salad, crab cake, chicken Caesar—and starter fare like calamari or mussels. Earthy, nutty and loaded with cheese, the pizzas have a thin, crispy, near-cracker-like crust. The short ribs with Parmesan and horseradish cream “za” proved tantalizing and addicting, its sweet and savory notes swaddled in velvety cheese.

We didn’t sample the ham-and-egg version with spinach and bourbon maple syrup, but apparently it’s causing a sensation among pizza aficionados. Ditto the mission fig pie, dolled up with piquant Gorgonzola and port.

Elsewhere on the menu, the roasted beets come in a square-shaped bowl studded with Shellbark Hollow goat cheese crumbles that are, alas, too small for the large red chunks, which could’ve used a bit more cooking time. The crunchy, sweet almond-thyme praline topping added a nice hint of fall, but I would’ve been just as happy with a drizzle of high-end balsamic vinegar.

Stracciatella is a primary ingredient in Cooper’s Caprese salad. Sure, it sounds weird, but it’s just the curds left over from the mozzarella-making process. The dish is served warm with grape tomatoes (roasted in the oven just long enough to deliver a sweet pop when bitten into) perched casually atop a bed of fresh mozzarella and basil.
 

- Partner Content -
Story continued on page 2 …
 

Mission fig pizza with creamy Gorgonzola and portA favorite from the Jake’s menu, the Prince Edward Island mussels were less plump than I’d hoped. But they came in a wonderful, fragrant, silky white wine-and-tomato broth, topped with andouille sausage and shredded fennel. The curd from the Caprese salad elevated the broth to stardom. Once we picked apart the mussels, we inhaled the stuff with our spoons, adding a dollop of the curd to each mouthful.

The chimichurri-marinated shrimp arrived as a tapas-sized portion tossed in a traditional chimichurri sauce (typically a mix of parsley or cilantro, fresh garlic, onion bits, paprika, olive oil, and lemon or vinegar). Cooper’s version had a subtle peppery flavor that could’ve been amped up a bit (the same can be said for the garlic—more, please). But the shrimp were well cooked, affording just the right snap between the teeth.

The duck leg confit was crispy, as advertised, but not overly so. Moist and flavorful, the dark meat made for an exciting mouthful when combined with the accompanying potato salad, Roquefort cheese and sweet port drizzle. And my new snack food of choice: the brown-bag potato chips. Thin, crispy, light on oil, and seasoned with malt vinegar powder, they’re oh so worth the calories. My sincere compliments to chef Abdoulaye Soumah.

To top off your meal, Cooper’s serves La Colombe coffee, and they aren’t shy about fixing a bold espresso. Tried-and-true Jake’s pastry chef Debbi Tonsey is also behind the sweet treats at Cooper’s, and the buzz points to the cinnamon-crusted cookie taco served with ice cream and a medley of fresh blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. The decadent combo of caramel and raspberry sauces is a must-try, along with the ice cream-filled profiteroles.

THE DRINK: The draft beer selection at Cooper’s includes some unfamiliar names (at least to me), including Atomium Grand Cru, PBC’s Walt Wit, Boulder Mojo IPA and Gaffel Kölsch. Less foreign are the Tröegs Rugged Trail Nut Brown Ale and the locally brewed Sly Fox Royal Oktoberfest. In bottles, there are Chimay Blue, Saison Dupont, Stoudt’s Fat Dog Stout, Voodoo Pilzilla, Yards ESA, Brooklyn Brown Ale, Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, Chouffe Houblon, Lindemans Framboise, Eel River Organic India Pale Ale and a handful of others.

- Advertisement -

The wine list features almost 30 affordably priced bottles of a fairly global variety. If there are just two of you and it’s a school night, stick to glasses, most of which are priced under $10. But a quick perusal of the list proves that bottles are a better bargain.

THE SKINNY: A word to anyone who’s been reluctant to try Jake’s because of its more formal, pricey special-occasion past life: The menu is expensive—$19-$23 for medium plates, $26-$30 for large. But the fine dining feel has mellowed. Now, at both Jake’s and Cooper’s, the vibe and the food are hip but unfussy, with a dress-up or dress-down flair.

And you can mix and match menu items from both restaurants, a sound business move that adds value by allowing folks to share. Who knows—it may even entice budget-conscious guests to splurge on a Jake’s meal.
 


DETAILS
Location: 4365 Main St., Manayunk; (215) 483-0444, jakesrestaurant.com
Cuisine: New American
Price: $10-$20 for entrées
Attire: Casual
Atmosphere: Laid-back and unpretentious; noise level depends on day and time.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday
Extras: Free parking until 3 p.m. Monday-Thursday; validated parking at night
 

 

Q&A with owner Bruce Cooper on page 3 …
 

18 Questions for Bruce Cooper

Why didn’t you open your first restaurant in Center City? I looked at a lot of restaurants, from Center City to Marshalton. There wasn’t anything I was interested in downtown—and 21 years ago, Center City wasn’t very popular. Manayunk was up-and-coming, and I lived in Havertown.

To what do you attribute Jake’s longevity? Consistency in the food and the service; keeping up with the times without losing your identity.

Economics aside, what were the other reasons for opening a casual side to Jake’s rather than trying a different location, cuisine and concept? To start with, the space next to Jake’s opened up; I’m here anyway. But since we’re tweaking Jake’s at the same time we’re working on Cooper’s, it feels like we’re opening two restaurants at once. Some days, it’s extra work, others it’s not. I was really looking for a very simple concept—one that had the potential to travel. Now it’s growing into something more. The menus at both restaurants are evolving.

What makes the perfect pizza? Right now, I can’t even think about pizza. I’ve eaten so much in the past five months, I can’t eat it anymore. However, I’m a fan of Greek-style pizza. I’ve never strayed from Drexel Hill Pizza in Broomall. Half sausage, half onion—every time.

How did you settle on your pizza dough recipe? What cheese do you use? I tried a lot of different formulas for the dough until I found one I liked. It’s our secret, though. The cheese is a Fontina blend.

What is your philosophy behind the wine list? Approachability in price and in selection. We want to be informative and educational in how we present wine to customers, and introduce them to wines they may not have tried.

What type of wine training does your staff receive? The staff tastes two bottles every day. There’s a lot to absorb, but we want them to understand their tastes and the virtues of each wine so they can make recommendations. It allows them to build relationships with customers.

Was there ever a time when you thought Jake’s wouldn’t make it? I never thought we wouldn’t make it. The model was built around small numbers.

What restaurant do you equate with Philadelphia’s culinary rise? There are a lot to choose from, and you could readily pick from the ones with the best PR hype, but I think those that have been most consistent are under-recognized. Rouge is like that. It doesn’t get a lot of press, but the kitchen always hits the mark. Restaurants going in and out over a short period of time aren’t as impressive to me as those that stick around. I miss Bliss, too.

Trends you hate? Foam; not enough sauce on dessert plates; too-small portions of dessert; and too-small scoops of ice cream.

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? Although I love finance, I’m glad I’m not doing that now. I can’t imagine not doing this, but I would love to own a small country inn on the water.

What’s your take on themed restaurants or the notion of restaurants as theater? I don’t eat out Saturday nights, so it’s not theater for me. I’m more interested in who I’m with. We’re in the business of show-and-tell, but when you’re in the business for 20-plus years, people look at you differently.

Your favorite haunts? I don’t go out much downtown, so it’s hard to say. I love Sovana Bistro (in Kennett Square). It’s a great space, and the employees love what they’re doing.

What restaurants and styles of cooking do you miss the most? Restaurants: Striped Bass when Neil Stein was there; he made you feel like he opened the restaurant for you that night. Food: basic, well-done French, like at Zinc.

What do you cook at home? Regular food—but I don’t eat at home much during the week. When I do, it’s a two-item meal—salad and a protein on the grill.

How important are local ingredients to you? I believe in supporting local products, and it’s a great connection—when they make sense in a dish. But I think it’s overplayed sometimes.

Has there been an impact on Jake’s now that Cooper’s is open? It’s been positive. Overall, I think Jake’s is being perceived as an easier-going place now. But I’m being careful about how I introduce changes and lay out the menus. I don’t want to lose the distinction between the two.

What experience are you trying to create at Cooper’s—and for whom? No night is exactly the same. Thursdays, we get more of the suburban, older crowd; Friday maybe younger. On Saturday nights, there’s a mix of that Main Line and Chestnut Hill crowd, and younger adults. I think it’s a good thing to attract a diverse patronage. We’ve made Cooper’s handsome enough—and the beer expensive enough—to eliminate the 23-and-under crowd. I really see a difference between 23 and 24. The 24-year-olds are more discerning and educated about tastes and trends; I’m amazed at how much wine I’m selling to a younger crowd.
 

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!