I’m really glad that I’m not a restaurant entrepreneur. It’s got to be a little bit like being a Vegas high-roller. You need guts ‘n’ money and, well, the stakes are high. Case in point is Hyde Park’s 1502 S. Howard Ave.
When I visited in September 2012, it housed the nuevo latino Samba Room, which earned a rapturous review and the BOTB imprimatur as “Best New Restaurant.” The food was thrilling, but the market didn’t meet expectations and it shuttered within months.
So the SoHo Hospitality folks regrouped. They took the best ideas from their restaurant portfolio, i.e. fresh and local from Boca and craft cocktails from Ciro’s, and threw in the excitement of open flames to launch CopperFish.
As I approach the entrance and pass the huge, shiny namesake sculpture that’s large enough to make any true angler proud, my nose sends a lighting bolt to my brain. It’s the arresting sense memory of a roaring fire. The smoky allure immediately conjures images of being joyfully snowbound in my days up north. Grateful as I am now to have traded the scourge of winter and the polar vortex’s brutality for sun and sand, it’s an elemental scent that harkens back to the birth of civilization. And it permeates every inch of CopperFish.
As we pass the handsome decor on the way to our booth, there’s a huge open grate fueled by split oak logs that spits flames among the embers. I don’t know about you, but this is the heat source I want to cook my protein. And the menu gives you many options.
No matter how much you love impeccably sourced raw oysters from both coasts, or Prince Edward Island mussels, don’t miss the signature grilled oysters. Their nectar mixes with a touch of smoke and herb butter topped with grated Parmesean and Romano to start your meal with a bang.
There’s also soup, salad, and sushi rolls, but we settle on smoked (what else?) amberjack spread. It’s a colorful presentation with slices of jalapeño, grape tomatoes, and red onion to gild the fish you smear upon crisp crostini to suit your taste; another winner that’s great to share.
The sandwiches include beer-battered fish and a burger. We choose the lobster roll that’s available hot or cold — simple in concept, but demanding in preparation. Huge chunks of lobster are bound by an unusually wet mix that leans toward acidity. It sits on a splendid herb brioche bun and is accompanied by house-made kettle chips. It’s not quite up to the level of the appetizers, which is also the case with the fish and chips. The Sam Adams batter on the Icelandic cod isn’t crisp, which is also true of the fries that steam under the weight of the filet. It’s tasty, but can’t match the superb wood hearth-roasted entrees that follow.
As a seafood grill, there are three times as many fish selections as there are those from the farm. The shrimp stuffed flounder is full of flavor, and accompanied by absolutely delicious fingerling potatoes and pencil-thin grilled asparagus all brought together by sauce americaine, a tomato-based stock/wine reduction that traditionally has a touch of brandy.
Jumbo lump crab cakes have a nicely caramelized crust that balances the creamy interior. They’re served under a row of kimchi cucumber slices which provide contrasting acidity and crunch. Plus, there’s some heat from spicy sriracha aioli so you can tailor the luscious crab to your taste.
On the meat side, the smoky oak can work its magic on your choice of NY strip or filet, but the braised pork shank falls off the bone, and creamy Hungarian barley with parsnips and Granny Smith apples can almost make you forget the smoke that permeates the air.
Just as CopperFish’s main menu is less exotic than its Samba Room predecessor, the desserts feature popular favorites with tiny twists: seasonal crème brûlée, key lime pie (with meringue), and chocolate pot de crème a la s’mores with graham crackers and marshmallow.
Our table looks to the dessert outliers, which don’t disappoint. The jumbo choco taco features a huge deep-fried scoop of Dutch chocolate ice cream coated in crisp taco bits, surrounded by swirls of delectable caramel and strawberry sauce. The plate is empty soon after I take the first bite for critical analysis, which, it turns out, is unnecessary. Sometimes the image of a plate emptied at lightning speed speaks louder than any words I might conjure.
The individual round mini goat cheesecake sits on a graham cracker crust that adds texture to the creamy, yet tangy, filling. Using chèvre instead of just cream cheese imparts a savory note that kicks this most popular of sweets up a welcome notch.
The craft cocktails are spot-on, and the wine list offers a mix of glasses that enchant — minus Champagne, which is only available by the bottle. Still, CopperFish is sure to please. From the moment that you catch a whiff of the seductive smoke, a happy hook-up is inevitable. So while I might miss Samba Room, I expect this new bet is paying off.