It’s impossible to separate the hotel from the restaurant, since the hospitality is seamless. There’s a strong local identity to the place and to the menu, with lots of nods to history and to the new South, the bourbon and banter that starts at the Roebling Bridge.
When we arrived, we were offered our choice of iced water or a John Daly, a spirited twist on an Arnold Palmer made with Coopers’ Craft Bourbon, a newer product from Louisville’s Brown-Forman distillery.
There was no rush to get us to a table in the dining room even though we had arrived a few minutes past our reservation. We lingered in the lobby briefly, looking at the local products in the gift shop and taking in the scene. There are lots of comfortable places to perch, including a long ledge draped with luxurious faux fur throws. Donna Salyers, the owner of nearby Fabulous Furs faux fur shop, is a partner in the enterprise. (The throws would make a fabulous gift for someone, like me, who is fabulous. In case you were wondering.)
Anyway, the dining room is adjacent to the lobby in a glass atrium with a view of an inner courtyard that is still under construction, surrounded by bare brick walls. The contrast between new glass, old brick and posh upholstered seating makes the space quite chic. We sat at the far wall and had a good perspective of the dining room and the band setting up beyond it, the Young Heirlooms.
I usually try to give new restaurants time to get their kinks worked out before I head in for a review, but the buzz about Coppin’s was positive already, and the kitchen proved to be totally up to game. Executive Chef Brendan Haren is an eight-year veteran of Orchids at Palm Court, as is the pastry chef Madeline Bernard. They were ready to hit the ground running, so I didn’t give them any time before heading over. (That’s a preface to mentioning that our server wasn’t quite ready for prime time. For example, she had difficulty opening a bottle of wine. But on a follow-up call to the management, I was assured that they were continuing her training.)
For starters, we chose the sweet corn fritters ($6), savory bite-sized delights that are another nod to the Southern side. They were spiced with smoked togarashi, a Japanese pepper blend — in this case, made in Kentucky by Bourbon Barrel Foods — and served with buttermilk dressing with a mild pepper kick. The fritters arrived in a cast iron crock on a thick wooden plank that we learned was crafted from the hotel’s floorboards during renovation.
Duke’s Mayonnaise, a kitschy favorite of the Garden and Gun magazine set, bound aged cheddar and roasted pimento peppers to make the Pimentadew cheese ($8), another good starter for sharing with a crowd. Crisp roasted pork belly ($11), a treat that has gone from rare to ubiquitous over the last few years, was perched on a ragout of white beans that was pure soul satisfaction. There’s also a country ham and biscuit ($4) appetizer that I can’t wait to try on my next trip.
The chef is using local ingredients as often as he can. Napoleon Ridge Farm’s chorizo added porky richness to the mussels ($12). More sauciness would have given me a welcome excuse to use all the Sixteen Bricks toast to soak it up. My friend’s sassy fregola pasta ($18) featured delicious Kenny’s Farmhouse Norwood cheese, a local Swiss-style treasure. The pasta beads, reminiscent of Israeli couscous, are blended with toasted pine nuts, arugula and sultanas (a fancy name for golden raisins) — an unexpected combination that really worked.
The perfectly cooked striped bass ($23) had a fine crust of earthy Weisenberger Mills’ cornmeal that tasted like sumac. This was one of our favorite dishes, served over a bed of finely diced roasted vegetables and lentils. We passed it back and forth, convinced that it was spiced with something really exotic, when it was good old cornmeal all along.
Haren makes his own za’atar, a recently trending Middle Eastern spice that’s been around since biblical times, which he uses to spice up roast carrots and other veggies that accompany the fish and the strip steak ($28). One of the best bites of the night was the steak’s chimichurri sauce — emerald bliss. Chef Haren makes it with a meat grinder instead of a food processor to keep from pulverizing the herbs.
The other favorite was the pecan tart ($7). I’ve had my share of pecan pie in various formats over the years, but this one was the best I’ve ever tasted. Not too sweet with an amazing flaky crust that was almost crisp on the bottom from caramelized sugar and butter. Chef Haren told me, on follow up, that he has a real sweet tooth and that the peanut butter and jam mousse ($7) is his favorite Coppin’s dessert, but that pecan tart was in a league of its own.
As the Young Heirlooms set into “Silverglade,” I scooted up the last few crumbs of piecrust with my fingertips and headed out to the lobby for a better listen and a sip of fine Kentucky bourbon. What a magical place this is.
Coppin’s Restaurant & Bar
GO: 638 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky.; CALL: 866-501-1700; INTERNET: hotelcovington.com/dining/coppins; HOURS: Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. seatings Sunday; also offers hours for weekend breakfast and brunch and weekday lunch.