This new Ballard restaurant is polished and restorative, what you’d hope for from a chef and general manager with such impressive résumés.
The departure of Shaun McCrain and Jill Kinney, the chef and general manager, respectively, from Book Bindery more than two years ago led to that restaurant’s closure and left many regulars lamenting the loss of a gracious dining room with an ambitious kitchen. Now they are back with Copine, one of the most polished new arrivals in a bumper year for notable restaurant openings.
The name (pronounced ko-PEEN) is French for pal or girlfriend. The logo design incorporates a sprig of sweet cicely. The couple consider it a talisman. McCrain had been trying unsuccessfully to grow the anise-scented herb for years, Kinney told me via email. “After we gave our notice to the owners of Book Bindery, we came in to work the following week and there was the tiniest growth in the planter box. We took it as a small sign that we had made the right decision.”
A sweet cicely leaf sits on every bread-and-butter plate at Copine, alongside a warm, glossy roll that is freckled with thyme. It’s the kind of deliberate detail that is a hallmark of McCrain’s plates. Even when his compositions look artless, nothing is random. It’s a style he honed over a career at restaurants like Masa’s, La Folie and Michael Mina in San Francisco, at Taillevent in Paris, at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City, and right here in Seattle where the Eugene, Ore., native started his career at The Painted Table while attending Seattle Central Community College.
6460 24th Ave. N.W., Seattle;
Hours: dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: $$$$ (starters $12-$20; mains $22-$45)
Drinks: full bar, original cocktails, concise list of wines in styles well-suited to the menu
Service: relaxed formality
Parking: on street
Sound: no shouting necessary
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
McCrain assembles dishes like a pointillist painter, applying dots and dashes of flavors and textures in patterns that form a coherent whole. Fond of sweet elements but careful to balance them with acidity, he’s judicious in the use of smoke, salt and peppery heat. His plates seldom startle at first bite, instead they beguile.
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Compressed melon is a favorite ingredient. As a starter, watermelon juxtaposed with a molded disk of ahi tuna crudo formed sweet, red concentric circles with puffed rice, jalapeño slivers and a mizuna salad for contrast. For dessert, cantaloupe consommé turned diced summer melon into a refreshing fruit soup, garnished with a quenelle of tart yuzu sorbet.
In other notable starters: Candied hazelnuts and hazelnut butter augmented an already luxurious foie gras terrine, cut into precise squares that revealed thin layers of minced duck confit and huckleberry gelée sandwiching a smooth midsection of duck liver. Fresh hearts of palm — raw, cooked and pickled — cavorted with creamy coconut flan and ribbons of rainbow carrots in a zany circus of a salad splashed with zesty ginger aigre-doux.
Corn was splendidly cast in different roles. Vanilla flits through both a chilled corn soup and the miniature corn panna cotta that buttressed a tomato and basil salad. Polenta, mascarpone and Parmesan plumped pillows of agnolotti in a brown-butter emulsion, a main dish that eloquently expressed summer with the inclusion of corn kernels, lobster mushrooms and Mission figs.
There was a hint of fall in wild mushroom risotto enhanced with frothy Parmesan mousseline, and in pithiviers de canard, a stunning meat pie. The domed pastry filled with confit forcemeat, breast meat and foie gras looked straight out of Escoffier.
Among other main dishes, you’ll find excellent pan-roasted rack of lamb paired with falafel and some type of beef. Lately it’s a grilled rib-eye (Mishima Ranch American wagyu), very satisfyingly served with onion-laced rosti potatoes and bordelaise sauce. Seared halibut somehow arrived mushy and bland, but Alaskan salmon with pickled vegetables retained its crisp-skinned perfection even in a puddle of lovely bonito consommé.
Uniformed servers do their jobs with calm purpose and relaxed formality, though they aren’t yet as anticipatory or as adept at reading guests as they could be. That should come with time, especially given Kinney’s own association with such restaurant luminaries as Michael Mina, Thomas Keller and Thierry Rautureau.
Copine is just 2 months old. McCrain and Kinney searched for a year to find the right spot. They liked the accessible location of this light-filled ground-floor corner space in the Ballard Public Lofts and Market, roughly half a mile north of the restaurant-clogged brick arteries of old Ballard. (They are contributing to the “market” concept, too, with Copine Project, a small selection of take-home prepared foods available during lunch hours and after work, including a treat for Bowser — foie gras dog biscuits.)
The design, by Olson Kundig architect Kirsten Ring Murray, has the elegant austerity of an art gallery. It’s as consciously unfussy as the food is fussy. Refinished antiques and wood surfaces — some of them painted, some of them lacquered, some of them repurposed and rough — soften what is essentially a concrete shell. The kitchen is partly exposed but tucked into a corner. It’s visible mainly from a chef’s table positioned right in front, but passers-by can peek through a window from the sidewalk on 65th Street, and get a fascinating birds-eye view of McCrain and his team of five cooks assembling plates at nearly fast-forward speed.
A stunning sideboard crafted from a long slab of live-edge elm separates the main dining area from the bar, where beverage director Ruven Munoz, another Book Bindery alum, dispenses cocktails and sage wine advice. The bar is as comfortable for dining as it is for drinking. I sat there one Saturday night sipping a cucumber martini called Ballard Locks and listening to Sinatra over the hum of conversation, thinking what a pleasure it is when food and mood align so well. Copine is restorative in a way few restaurants are today, thanks in large part to noise- abatement ceiling panels that really work. Those who bemoan the rock-concert decibel level of so many restaurants, who grumble about the demise of fine dining, Copine is for you. A place for grown-ups, long overdue.