I don’t believe it’s possible to write our opinion about something in an “objective” fashion. This is an odd myth that has arisen among those in the journalism profession. The people who review restaurants for a living in the mainstream media have of course taken to this code like vinegar to rice. Being that they are on the very periphery of journalism it’s no surprise that they are some of the most fervent believers in this myth.
While I don’t believe it’s possible to be objective, I do believe it’s possible (and important) to be fair. Fair means disclosing your bias, being transparent about your perspective, being consistent, and honest. So when I write about restaurants I try to be as clear as possible about my personal priorities. I know they don’t match all other folks but at least they’re out there. Service, decor, and even price to a certain extent are all pretty much secondary (if not tertiary) for me. Food, namely flavor and texture, are really the primary concern. If there was one other factor that I weighed in any significant fashion, I would have to say it’s location. While I long for Star Trek transporters to take us to Tokyo for dinner, they’re still not quite ready for prime time. So until then the reality for most people is that you have to factor in how hard it is to get to a place to its overall rating.
For example, the best ramen noodle shop in Seattle may be great… for Seattle. But it may not compare to a decent stand in Tokyo. But for a place you can actually get to, it could be considered quite enjoyable. And while proximity has some impact, there also has to be a baseline and a standard. So as it turns out, in reality that Ramen shop in Seattle is not very good even factoring in that you can actually get to it. So in this case even proximity could not overcome the quality of the soup.
This brings us to a space in my neighborhood that has gone through about 6 restaurants in the past year (or something like that). Each restaurant was progressively worse than the next. Each bringing their own non-descript and cliche melange of crap to their table. Each searching for an indentity and not realizing the only place an authentic perspective can come from is from inside the proprietors and food professionals. And then, finally, a restaurant called Coupage arrived. With the cooks having experience in Manhattan, and the owner already a successful restarauteur from Portland, the stage was set. The food? Korean French mix.
You may be surprised, but I hope that I will absolutely adore every restaurant I try. I’d much rather have a great experience than a bad one. I don’t enjoy being disappointed. Additionally, I would absolutely love having a restaurant that I really enjoyed around the corner from me. And finally, my favorite perspective on food is that of someone taking a very refined, minimalist, and modern technical approach to a very traditional cuisine. This doesn’t mean reinventing the food. Just using every evolved technique to make the single best examples of a culinary tradition that’s evolved over decades or even centuries. Cuisines like Italian, French, Japanese, etc. I love perfect examples of these cuisines, and often I find that people with a deep background in and respect for the tradition as well as an incredible facility with modern techniques and procuring the best ingredients do the best job of preparing that cuisine. Refined authenticity is probably the best way to describe it.
So you might be able to imagine my excitement when I heard that a Korean restaurant featuring chefs from a French restaurant in Manhattan (my second favorite food city in the world) were coming to cook around the corner from my house I could barely contain my excitement. But after three visits, Coupage is still not living up to the hopes I had for it. I’ve wrestled with this post for some time thinking on and off about it for literally months. Normally, if a restaurant isn’t one I recommend, I don’t write about it at all. Why waste all our time talking about a place I wouldn’t want you to go. What I’ve never done is write about a restaurant that I think could stand improvement and get very specific about what I think they should do to improve. There are many reasons for this.
The main reason I don’t give advice is because, what the hell do I know? These people are running a business. I don’t believe that I’m typical of most people who go out to eat, and I’ve never had to run a restaurant (not to mention that I’m not a particularly good cook). The combination of my inexperience, and their risk means it’s really none of my business. I don’t have to eat there, but do they really need me blabbing on about what they should do to improve so that I like them? But for Coupage I’m breaking that rule. They’re right next door to me. So I really have no choice but to offer my unwanted advice. I’ve decided that I will blather on about what they should do because I so desparately want them to be the restaurant I imagined. The most frustrating part is that I think they can be.
Let’s start off with our most recent meal there. It was pretty representative of the others we’d experienced. For a space that was tainted with the stench of failed restaurants the owners did a nice job dressing and recasting the interior of coupage. The place feels good. Feels like a restaurant you could enjoy going back to again and again. Refined, but comfortable. Our meal started off with Asian Clam Chowder – A Clear Broth with a Rich Smoky Flavor Enhanced by Rustic Korean Bean Paste and Smoky Bacon Foam. The soup was a bit thin at first but warmed to it after several spoonfuls. That said, it wasn’t super integrated. There was simply not enough flavor to go around. I had to go hunting for it like a needle in a haystack. And when I did I liked it. But the journey was arduous.
Next up was Wild Mushroom Bi Bim Bop – A Modern Take on a Favorite Korean Rice Dish with Crispy Napa Cabbage Salad, Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, a Soft Boiled Quail Egg, and Sweet Chili Sauce. This dish had a shot. A real shot at being the iconic dish that represented what I had hoped the cuisine would accomplish – a deep understanding of traditional flavors and techniques, refined to the point where the expression of the tradition is pure and unmistakable. The addition of the Mushrooms I thought was in concert with the roots of the dish and felt traditional even though I’d never seen it done this way. The stiff whole grain rice and the Korean Spicy Sauce were what anchored this dish. The thinly sliced musrooms were also a great element. There was a rustic Asian heartiness to this dish. The quail egg was cute, a nod to the traditional raw chicken egg put on top of Bi Bim Bap. And while clearly on path to the dishes I was hoping to eat, it still fell a touch short with the flavors again not being completely integrated (tasted more like disparate elements on the plate). It just felt somewhat jumbled even though most of the right pieces seemed present.
We then got the “Coupage” Beef Platter – Korean style Hanger steak, Braised Shortribs Served with Various European and Asian Dipping Sauces; Bearnaise, Blue Cheese Fondue, Soy Yuzu with Jalapeno, and Crudites. I don’t know fi I’m a fan of the multiple sauces. On the one hand I love the choices. But I also feel better if the chef just picks a direction and goes with it. As it happens, the bearnaise was bland and the blue cheese was uneventful. The soy yuzu however was bright, sharp, and tasty. The dish had big hunks of steak. Nice and red. A touch chewy. The compressed cubes of beef were a textural counterpoint. I tasted one of the onion bits and it was packed/bursting with flavor.
In the home stretch we got the “Coupage” Burger – Fresh House Ground Short Rib Lightly Seasoned and Grilled, with Seared Foie Gras, Red Onion Kimchi, Tomato Confit, and Truffle Perfumed Potato Crisp. Honestly, the burger was insanely good. Super oily in a good way and juicy too. Very very juicy. The savory flavors were rustic ad earthy with all the different meat going into it. The chips were truffley good. They came with chili ketchup, truffle mayo, and dijon mustard. Finally we ate the Shitake Cannelloni with Sunchoke cream, Sweet Chinese Sausage, and Creamed Swiss Chard. This dish had incredible contrasting textures, but honestly the flavors were too subtle in my opinion except for the bits of sausage dotting the landscape.
So we could have left well enough alone and not written about Coupage. Or we could have just written about how Coupage has potential but is inconsistent. Instead I will put forward the following theory: Coupage needs to pick. What is it going to be? Right now it’s a modern American restaurant with French techniques and asian ingredients providing bits of “interest” as they are sprinkled indiscriminately throughout the dishes. The exceptions being the Bi Bim Bap and the the Beef platter a little bit. The other option of course (and my personal preference) would be for them to focus on making an amazing modern korean restaurant serving a wide range of traditional Korean dishes refined to their core essence. Korean food is rich, delicious, savory, and bursting with flavor. We didn’t eat it this time but the Coupage Mac and Cheese, while refined and delicate, it’s flavor can best be described as subtle. Less charitably it would be called bland. Korean food isn’t bland. Korean cuisine can also have a rustic quality to it. Bringing the refinement and restraint of the mac and cheese dish to Korean cuisine could be incredible. But it must be grounded or better yet firmly and eternally rooted deep within the traditional cuisine, or else the result is just shallow.
I know the last thing the folks at Coupage want is my advice. And frankly, I’m not sure they’d be wrong to ignore it. The place looks full relatively often. I’ll close with the following: never mind that Coupage can be inconsistent in terms of presence of flavor, that to me is a function of their lack of focus, or rather the fact that they haven’t made up their mind about what they truly are. What’s important is that they have a vision in their head and deep conviction about their food, not just an idea or a “concept”. On the current path, their concept will have a short shelf life when the Seattle diners who often care more about the trappings of good food than actually eating good food move on to the next cool spot that opens nearby and Coupage is left looking dated. Authenticity is never tired, it’s timeless. And I know it’s selfish of me, but I’m hoping Coupage will turn the corner towards timeless cause it would be so great to have a truly fantastic restaurant that I could walk to.