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LUSH LIFE

for The Brooklyn Paper
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There is a fantasy shared by amateur cooks and food professionals. It begins innocently enough: Say you are employed as a designer or an accountant. On a whim, you pick up a cookbook and in the cookbook you find a recipe for cheesecake, or lobster bisque or a hearty, crusty bread.

You decide to give the recipe a try.

Everything about the cooking process pleases you. You love creaming the cheese for the cake and the warm aroma wafting from the oven as the cake bakes, or adding the lobster shells to the pot and what that last swirl of cream does to the stock. Mixing the dough and kneading it feels like the most productive and cheapest therapy you’ve ever had.

You hear that first compliment, "I love your cheesecake," or, "Nobody bakes bread like you do," and as you continue to cook, and continue to hear those compliments, you say to yourself, "I am very good at this."

On the days when your designs look like contenders for the JC Penney catalogue, or the numbers don’t add up, you might think, "I adore everything about cooking. I want to feed and nurture. I will open my own place one day."

You don’t consider the 15-hour days and seven-day workweeks, or the waiter who looked like Donny Osmond when you hired him and Charles Manson when he showed up for the Elks Club party for 500. This is a fantasy - why ruin it?

I remembered that fantasy when I stood outside Copper, a restaurant that opened in Carroll Gardens last September. Here was a tiny storefront eatery, on a little side street, sandwiched between quaint brownstones. Outside the restaurant sits a small, rusty-looking table and chair. In warmer weather, there will be brightly colored flowers spilling from a window box. A copper-hued awning shades the front windows. Above the awning is a quirky old sign left by the previous tenant that reads, "Dom’s Deli and Grocery."

A sniff of the trout roasting on a cedar plank that makes the restaurant smell like fireplaces and Christmas will lure you inside. One look at the papaya-colored walls and the pretty stained-glass lamps, and I thought, "They are living the dream."

"They" are Robin Cuccio and Raina Agyer. What they’ve created with Copper, a first-time effort for this pair of culinary professionals, is the kind of old-fashioned place that those of us who lose ourselves in fantasy, fantasize about.

Once inside Copper - so named by Agyer because, "Copper is healing. It radiates warmth" - you will want to sit for a long time. You will enjoy listening to Agyer banter with her customers; you may want to look into the small square of a kitchen while Cuccio is roasting the trout, which will be fine with her; and you’ll probably tune out the sweet, but unpolished waitress after 30 seconds into her speech titled, "The Care and Feeding of Tuna, and Why We Don’t Serve it Anymore."

You may consider bringing your new date here, because the room is quiet enough for conversation and feels intimate, or you might consider Copper the perfect place to celebrate your 30th birthday.

If Copper were in Paris, there would be a sleeping dog under the tables.

How to describe Cuccio’s fare? She dubs it "Brooklyn fusion" which, loosely interpreted, means French technique with touches of Asia, Mexico and Italy. As I ate, one word kept repeating itself - lush. The curried sweet potato soup [see recipe below] was pure luxury - creamy, rich, delectable luxury. After a couple of mouthfuls, I had to sit quietly for a few seconds and just let the flavors linger.

The coconut shrimp with Thai dipping sauce will remind you of the hors d’oeuvres gobbled up at weddings, and the ethereally light crab cakes, which you’re probably tired of, will taste new again. The shrimp are fried-chicken crunchy, and that dipping sauce, with its compote-like texture, has lemongrass mixed into the tomato base and Thai chilies to give the sauce a little heat.

Request that the crab cakes, lemony and lighter than most, be returned to the menu. The side of smoky, charred corn, mixed with finely diced cactus pear and freshened with lime juice, will make you stop mid-bite and think, "Crab cakes should always be served with this corn salad."

The lush factor was evident in the whole trout roasted on cedar planks. The aroma will amaze you, but it’s the way the wood perfumes the delicate fish - every bite tinged lightly with the cedar smoke - that will make the dish memorable. The sides of simply prepared rice and fried spinach enhance the fish, without detracting from it. That spinach, fried in hot oil like french fries, will be just the vegetable for you if you’re not a vegetable lover. It tastes more like french fries than spinach. The fish is a special, priced at $20. It’s the highest priced entree on the menu, and it is well worth the price.

A hanger steak served with a balsamic vinegar reduction may not thrill you. It is a fine, tender steak, but the vinegar reduction is too sharp and overpowering. The mashed new potatoes served with the steak will remind you of good vanilla ice cream - nothing mixed in and simply delicious as they are. The spinach, sauteed with a little garlic, will taste only of spinach, garlic and olive oil.

For dessert, the lemon souffle, adorable in a little cup topped with a pansy, will seem lonely on its own. It is a lovely souffle - delicate and lemony - yet you may find yourself craving a crisp little cookie, or something chocolate with which to pair it. Cuccio makes souffles to order, and the chocolate souffle is a mainstay on the menu. The Key lime pie, traditional and delicious, is a sensible way to end a meal as complexly flavored as the one you’ll have at Copper. Also, a different house-made ice cream is offered each evening. Try the ginger.

Brunch is served on weekends. Plan to drink many cups of coffee and enjoy a leisurely reading of the New York Times. Cuccio’s chicken andouille hash with poached eggs over brioche is rich and delectable - not to be missed. It is unlike the hash your mother made. Adding the spicy sausage to the hash and topping it with a velvety hollandaise sauce adds up to (here’s that word again) a decadently lush dish.

 

Curried Sweet Potato Soup

Adapted from chef Robin Cuccio of Copper Restaurant. Serves 8

4 large sweet potatoes, washed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (not necessary to peel)
1/4 tsp. fresh lemongrass, cut into 1/4-inch pieces. Smash each piece with a knife to release flavor
1/2 tsp. curry paste, saute in dry pan for two minutes to release flavor
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 can (12 ounces) coconut milk
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 curry leaf or add 1/8 tsp. of ground curry
1 tbs. lime juice

Place all ingredients in a large, covered stockpot. Simmer gently until the potatoes are tender. Remove the lemongrass, bay leaves and curry leaves. Puree in a blender until smooth. Add more vegetable stock if mixture is too thick. Add salt to taste.

Curry paste can be found at Sahadi’s [187 Atlantic Ave., (718) 624-4550]. Lemongrass, curry leaves and fresh bay leaves can be found in Asian groceries.


Copper (243 Degraw St. between Court and Clinton streets in Cobble Hill) accepts MasterCard, Visa, Discover and American Express. Entrees are $10-$20. Brunch is $11.95 and includes freshly squeezed juice or a mimosa, and coffee or tea. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday, 10 am-3 pm. For reservations, call (718) 797-2017.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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