The Upper East Side has a restaurant problem. Rents are so high that few new mid-price high-quality restaurants can afford to open and survive. So we have a succession of decent but unexceptional — mostly ethnic – eateries or places with large and noisy bars that appeal to post-college twenty-somethings who increasingly populate the less fancy blocks of the UES.
For a brief time, pushing against the tide, chef/owner Joseph D’Angelo opened a serious Italian restaurant, Spigolo, that earned two stars in the New York Times, and brought grown up diners a menu that was inventive and sophisticated at prices that did not break the bank. Inevitably, perhaps, as business slowed during the recession, it moved from the low eighties on Second Avenue to the high seventies and, in 2015, gave up the ghost and closed.
Now, the same team that brought us Spigolo has opened Copper Kettle Kitchen (in Spigolo’s old quarters), based on an altogether different concept and formula.
Casual and homey. Grazing and sharing. Farm to Table. Comfort food. These are the operative terms used to describe the menu which is divided into Dips, Flats, Greens & Grains, Daily Presses (Sandwiches), Comforts (Small Plates) and Features for Two plus Sides. In other words, there are no official Appetizers or Entrees. Basically, one eats a series of small plates – sophisticated little dishes – that add up to a full meal. It’s how a lot of New Yorkers like to eat these days, especially women, for whom splitting a salad and main course has long been a way of life.
The concept seems to be working. On a recent cold winter night, when most local restaurants were half empty, The Copper Kettle was booming. Diners were mostly on the young side. We wanted to see, courtesy of the restaurant, what was drawing them in.
The ambience is exposed-brick homey, and the tables tightly packed. One can eat at the small bar where a curated beer list and cocktail menu designed by – yes – a mixologist, offers classics and creative variations on those classics. We did not try “Gotham is Burning,” a Manhattan with a smoky kick, but ordered a lovely bottle of Nebbiolo, not inexpensive but delicious.
“Curating” one’s dinner during an initial visit involves guessing at portion size, taking into account one’s dining partner as well as one’s appetite. Consulting with a waiter helps. By and large, we were delighted by our choices.
We began with the wonderfully smooth Whipped Ricotta ($9) sprinkled with scallions and drizzled with a Truffle Oil whose earthy emanations lifted the dish from good to amazingly good. It was served with squares of the restaurant’s toasted, homemade bread. I would have preferred a chewy Italian loaf. The portion was appropriate for two.
Baby Organic Kale Salad
Next came a really terrific Kale Salad ($12), with charred baby carrots, red onions, Jerusalem artichokes, slivers of radish and a healthy scattering of my favorite nut, Pistachios, all bound together in a delicious mustard Vinaigrette. My only complaint is that I could have eaten the whole plate myself. Next time, if I go with a friend, I will order two.
We ordered two Small Plates from the “Comforts” section and, here again, the emphasis is on “small.” Three delicious Pierogies ($12), stuffed with potato and cheddar, topped with sweet, caramelized onions were so good, I wouldn’t have minded more. And the three astoundingly good Eggplant “Meatballs” ($12) barely whetted my appetite. Their crisp exterior and melting interior — atop a puddle of homemade tomato sauce – added up to a surprising dish, exceptional in every respect. For any vegetarian, it could be the high point of their meal.
Braised Short Rib
Our only mistake was to go for the Braised Short Rib ($20). Though the small portion of beef sitting on a pool of polenta looked delicious, unfortunately, it was dry, chewy and bland, not to mention small for the price. Other Small Plate choices, which I plan to explore when I return, include a Free-Range Chicken Pot Pie ($18), Mac-N-Cheese ($15), Ricotta Gnocchi ($16), Grilled Octopus ($16), Marinated Shrimp ($17), Salmon ($19) and Rabbit & Dumplings ($19).
There are three desserts on the menu: a Kettle Float ($7), a CMPB – Chocolate Brownie with Homemade Marshmallow and Peanut Butter ($7), and Donut Bread Pudding ($8). We sampled the last two. Unfortunately, the large slice of Donut Bread Pudding – gussied up with candied Lemon Zest, Amaretto Almond Crumble and Whipped Cream –was too dry. Similarly, though I love peanut butter and brownies, the tastes did not enhance one other. If you are still hungry, which I was not, my instinct would be to skip dessert and order another dip or small plate.
On weekends there is a $37 Feature-for-Two meal that, our waiter informed us, is delicious and a great bargain. On the Weekday menu that night’s Feature-For-Two was a Free Range Brick Roasted Chicken with fingerling Potatoes Cherry Peppers and homemade Fennel Sausage ($37).
The restaurant was blissfully quiet until about 8:30 when background music suddenly went on. Forewarned is forearmed.
Copper Kettle provides an imaginative and sophisticated alternative to conventional dining choices in the neighborhood. I liked enough of the dishes to make me want to return to see what else the chef is up to. I trust, too, that with the restaurant’s farm-to-table mantra, the Chef de Cuisine, Matthew Capone, will continue to be inspired by what’s available in the market. I look forward to what he might conjure up with, for example, spring peas and fresh, local asparagus.
As the evening wore on, more and more people poured in, no doubt straight from the 77th Lexington Avenue subway that disgorges hordes of hard-working eastsiders late into the evening.
It’s clear that the neighborhood has embraced the restaurant’s approach to dining, and unpretentious vibe. I can see why. It’s the perfect casual place to meet a friend, share a series of plates and, over a beer or glass of wine, catch up on the day’s events and relax.
Copper Kettle Kitchen
1471 Second Avenue (Bet. 77 and 76th Streets)
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Mon- Thurs 5 PM – 11PM
Fri – Sat 5 PM – Midnight
Sun 5 PM – 9PM
Sat – Sun Brunch/Lunch Noon to 4 PM
Mon – Fri 5 – 7 PM Happy Hour