If I’d been a civilian diner without a reporter’s mission, I would not have gone back to CO-OP after that first lunch.
The Wianno oysters on the half-shell weren’t cold, despite the fact they were raw beneath an oh-so-stylish pouf of foamy Champagne-verjus and a hot pink dusting of cracked peppercorns. The chicken noodle soup (a.k.a. “hen stew”) made from the restaurant’s rotisserie-roasted birds was homey and wholesome …but it wasn’t especially hot. The fried chicken cutlet with D’Artagnan’s trendy “Green Circle” pedigree – if you could find it beneath the bale of arugula that overflowed the plate – was burnt and buried deep inside a doughy armor of thick breading.
And yet, something about CO-OP held my attention for further consideration. With its big glass walls folded up to let a Chestnut Street summer breeze drift across its blond wood floor and bare wood tables, there’s an appealingly Nordic sleekness to this contemporary space in the new Study hotel. And as fast-evolving University City begins to savor the cosmopolitan rewards of its big-money building boom, this well-placed corner restaurant and bar has the potential to be a stylish all-purpose destination to suit many needs – a Drexel departmental meeting over kale Cobb salads and avocado toast, an upscale dinner out with the parents and roommates, a date night with high-concept cocktails and grazing platters of Birchrun Hill cheese and charcuterie from 1732.
I saw them all unfold during my meals here, and a potential for success so clearly within reach. CO-OP’s chef, Craig Russell, is a young talent I’ve tasted very good things from in the past during his tenures at smaller venues, like the Red Store in Cape May, as well as Will BYOB, Pumpkin, and Blackfish, where he worked the lines.
But running a hotel restaurant is a daunting task for the management skills of someone who’s mostly worked in tiny BYOBs. And it’s fair to say the training process here, both in the kitchen and dining room, where the staff was always friendly but often either confused or conspicuously absent, was particularly rough in the early going. There are good reasons, though, that a restaurant should be judged on multiple visits. So much can change from night to night, from the crowd to the service to a kitchen’s performance when a dining room is either jamming or drifting through a lull. And rarely have I seen as much growth between visits as I did at CO-OP, which managed to go from terrible to promising over the course of three meals. A duck roulade over dirty rice for the win? It would take a few months to get there.
And Meal Two wasn’t perfect, either, including the cocktails, which have $14 drink aspirations and creative flourishes but lacked much finesse (a murky Manhattan variation, a syrupy ginger overdose in the mule). But there were moments that inspired hope. Like the bowl of shishito pepper nibbles deep-fried inside an airy tempura crisp. Or the thick fillet of seared mahimahi over Israeli couscous with white asparagus and trout caviar that lent a briny burst. Big seared scallops over white beans and artichokes ably reprised one of Russell’s best hits from his Red Store summer.
And yet, there were still too many miscues for me to get excited. The chicken liver mousse was diluted to blandness with too much cream. The delicious mini-loaf of warm potato bread (and all the good bread here is house-made) came with a spinach-ricotta dip that was too runny. The tender octopus featured a jarring garnish pairing of chorizo chips and pickled blueberries that tasted as though the pantry chef had tripped over the fish station. The deep-fried leg of duck confit was probably the greatest idea that didn’t work, the already fat-basted meat simply too rich to be encased inside yet another thick deep-fried shell. A more delicate crust might work. Also, I loved the notion of rotisserie lamb shoulder turned into a rustic barbacoa-style stew of meat and chickpeas. But the lamb’s earthiness was overwhelmed by too much acidity from tomatillos in the broth. Then the dish as a whole was muddled further by the cross-cultural distraction of yogurt tzatziki for garnish. (Shades of a similar Mexi-Middle East fusion misstep at Mission Taqueria?)
CO-OP needed a timeout. And two months later, it felt different. The staff seemed more at ease in the dining room, cheerily offering small tastes of wines until we settled on the right glass, a flexible tempranillo from Rioja’s Siglo Saco. The kitchen also had begun to refine its creative impulses. A summer salad of thin-sliced heirloom tomatoes came beneath a clever frozen scoop of tangy sorbet made from Champagne and sherry vinegar. A smart twist on shrimp toast brought beautifully char-grilled crustaceans over house sourdough lathered with a capery gribiche mayo.
The good house-extruded pasta was highlighted two ways. Gnocchi greened with a puree of stinging nettles had more of a cavatelli snap than typical gnocchi’s tender puff, but it anchored a colorful and flavorful twist to peas and carrots, with the carrots turned into a frothy orange sauce, with bits of ham and Parmesan foam and a dusting of shaved summer truffles. Fresh rigatoni in cheddary Mornay cream sauce provided a toothy pasta upgrade to the comfort favorite of mac-‘n’-cheese topped with tender smoked short ribs in a sweet and tangy BBQ sauce.
Then we devoured the burger, which was a whopping $18. But it was also juicy, with an excellent grass-fed beef savor, sweet onions, and smoked Vermont cheddar, also sided with top-notch fries and roast garlic aioli – a useful option for a campus-friendly venue that straddles the line between casual dining and more ambitious impulses.
Chief among those hauter efforts is the duck roulade, which Russell described as his “masterpiece of the summer.” I wouldn’t go quite that far. But any culinary-school instructor would beam at this well-executed ballotine of a whole duck, deboned with skin intact, then rolled around its pounded breast stuffed with a core of slow-cooked confit leg meat. Sliced into tender medallions over a
Southern-inspired plate of collards braised with smoked neck meat and “dirty” jasmine rice sauteed with a hint of livery offal, it is a resourceful dish of “high-low” spirit. Of course, I could nitpick with the flabby outer ring of skin, which should have been crisped to finish, just as I might have noted that the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes earlier in the meal were served ice-cold from the fridge (shame!), or that the homey desserts still need polish. Less crust on that mini-pie, and more fruit.
But this dinner was nonetheless a sign of clear progress. One bright meal out of three still isn’t enough to score a two-bell recommendation. But at least CO-OP is tracking in the right direction. So I’ll likely return before the year’s ratings are sealed for 2017 to check back once more, and see whether this promising new corner on University City dining has begun to consistently meet its considerable potential.