My BFF (Best Food Friend) who is actually my lifelong best friend, has been recommending Cooper’s Hawk (https://chwinery.com/) to me for a while. It’s an upscale chain restaurant, and he has raved about the location in Doral, Florida (near Miami) before. I’ve been meaning to get back out to Waterford Lakes with my wife so we could try our local location, but between the heavy traffic and the sprawling, Fury Road-invoking parking lot, we typically avoid the east side of Orlando.
But my wife was hungry, and after going through the usual litany of all our regular restaurants, we decided to try something new and treat ourselves a little. Cooper’s Hawk is a winery on top of being a restaurant, but even though we don’t drink, the menu was huge and intriguing. If you do like wine (and going through my friends’ Facebook pages, it sure seems like most people love wine!), you should definitely check it out. It looks like they offer a huge selection, all from their own label, so you wouldn’t find any familiar wine brands there. But you enter through a wine retail store with a busy bar, and I’m sure oenophiles will find something to love on the way into the restaurant, or even while waiting for a movie at the Waterford Lakes Regal theater.
It was seriously hard to choose. The menu is close to the legendary Cheesecake Factory with regard to choices. There are steaks, seafood, chicken, and pork, Italian, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, burgers and sandwiches, and more. I strongly recommend studying the menu in advance, but I recommend that for most restaurants.
I’ve never been a pork chop fan. Most of the ones I’ve had are relatively bland and dry, especially compared to all the other wondrous things you can do with pork: a world of sausage, salami, ham, prosciutto, capicola, pulled pork, al pastor, ribs, cochinita pibil, roast pork with crispy skin, pork belly, pancetta, bacon, osso bucco, German eisbein, chicharrones.
But my wife loves a good pork chop because her family used to eat them a lot, so I wasn’t surprised she selected one of the two different pork chop dishes on the menu: a maple-mustard-pretzel-crusted pork chop, served with Mary’s potatoes (whipped with butter and cream), an assortment of oven-roasted vegetables (including mushrooms, my old nemesis), and crispy onion strings I knew I would be eating, because she hates onions and I love them.
When it arrived, the plating was beautiful, and the pork chop was the thickest either of us had ever seen! She thought it was the tastiest pork chop she had ever eaten, and even I, the pork chop skeptic, was absolutely blown away by the few bites she shared with me. Pure perfection, dear readers. She doesn’t even like mustard, but aside from a few bites that really startled her and cleared out her sinuses (she probably bit down on whole mustard seeds), she loved the flavor. And it was so tender and juicy, despite not being a fatty piece of meat at all. It was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever tasted, and I would totally order it myself on a future visit, as long as I could substitute the vegetables for another side. (Our lovely server assured us the kitchen can usually substitute anything, since everything is made from scratch in-house.)
As much as my wife is drawn to hearty steaks and chops, my greatest meat loves are usually cured, smoked, braised, or stewed in a sauce until rich and tender. I always love short ribs, even though I rarely cook them at home (although I should). Cooper’s Hawk offered a braised short rib dish, as well as another dish with gnocchi pasta in a short rib bolognese sauce that also included pancetta (yes!) and San Marzano tomatoes, the best tomatoes. When I make my own sauce at home, I use canned San Marzanos. It makes a difference! Anyway, they make everything from scratch here, even the pasta, so I was sold. And even though I was experiencing major cognitive dissonance by choosing that over so many other tasty-sounding dishes I love, I’m so glad I did. To paraphrase the old knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I chose wisely.
It was a better pasta dish than most that I’ve ordered from Italian restaurants, rich and hearty and extremely well-seasoned, with nice tomato chunks (sometimes I get turned off by huge, slimy tomato chunks in sauce), fork-tender short rib pieces, a bit of additional salty richness from the pancetta (a secret weapon I use in so many good recipes), and wonderfully chewy gnocchi dumplings. The white stuff on top is creamy burrata dolce, a fresh, buttery cheese made from mozzarella blended with cream.
I saw that a few of the dishes come with buttermilk onion rings, even though they weren’t listed on the menu as a side dish. I asked our server if I could order onion rings as a side, and she said yes, but they are big, so the order would only come with three of them. But since I have a little recurring feature I like to call RING THE ALARM! (AIR HOOORRRRRRN!), I had to try them. And guess what: they were magnificent onion rings. She wasn’t kidding when she said they were big. They were the size of sour cream glazed “old-fashioned” doughnuts! If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’.
The onion rings (more like onion bracelets!) were battered, not breaded (thank all that’s good in the universe), with a rich, thick, crispy golden crust that stayed in place, with the slightest hint of sweetness and not greasy at all. I’ve never had such puffy, fluffy onion rings, but they were a marvel to behold. They weren’t served with any dipping sauces (shame, because I’m sure Cooper’s Hawk has some good ones), just sprinkled with some kind of salty seasoning that I must admit made they way too salty. I think they’d be damn near perfect if you ask them to hold the salty seasoning. Normally I enjoy salty fried foods, but it was a little much and took away from how great they were, otherwise.
Well, we couldn’t go to such a nice new place and not order a dessert! I was stuffed and didn’t even finish my gnocchi, but my wife loves chocolate and really wanted to try the chocolate cake. It is made with Valrhona chocolate, with layers of hazelnut ganache and served with vanilla ice cream, all made fresh daily in-house. I had one bite of ice cream and one bite of cake, and even though I’d probably never order chocolate cake as my dessert, both were great. The cake was very moist and the ice cream was rich and creamy, not icy at all, and no greasy mouthfeel. My wife seemed to love it, but she finished the ice cream and brought the majority of the cake home.
A funny thing we do at every single restaurant we visit is for me to ask my wife, usually rhetorically, if her parents would like the place. Most often, I could answer the question myself with a big fat “no.” They don’t go out to eat as much as they used to, and her mom is a relatively picky eater. Great lady, I love her to pieces, but she likes what she likes, and one thing she doesn’t like is trying new foods! (My own parents and brother read The Saboscrivner, and they often comment on how they probably wouldn’t go where I go or order what I order, but I appreciate them along with all my other readers. There are dozens of us! DOZENS!)
But anyway, when I asked if her parents would like Cooper’s Hawk, we both agreed that they probably would. So a week later, when we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, we were able to wrangle them out of the house for a celebratory dinner there — the first meal the four of us have had out at a restaurant since her birthday the previous year!
My wife doubled down on the masterful pork chop, getting it as one of the Build Your Own Surf and Turf options, pairing it with pistachio-crusted grouper (one of her favorite fish). She loved both, devouring the grouper on the spot and saving most of the pork chop for the next day. It came with the same Mary’s potatoes and vegetables as last time.
My father in law ordered the same pistachio-crusted grouper and seemed to love his.
My mother in law ordered crab cakes, one of her go-to dishes anywhere, and swapped the fries and Asian slaw for Mary’s potatoes and excellent macaroni and cheese. She has high expectations for her crab cakes, and these did not seem to disappoint. They were mostly lump crabmeat, with very little filler. (She asked and they answered!)
And after recently reading an article about Nashville hot chicken, which I enjoyed so much on a trip to the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year, I decided to try Cooper’s Hawk’s version, served open-faced on a buttermilk biscuit with blue cheese slaw and a side of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, which was one of the better mac and cheese dishes I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Orlando. The slaw wasn’t creamy and intense with blue cheese like I was hoping; the multicolored shredded cabbage was mostly dry.
I think the hot chicken was perfectly good, but it didn’t have the intense crunch, flavor, or heat of Hattie B’s, so my quest continues. It was barely spicy at all, but Hattie B’s hot chicken was practically too spicy for me, so I think it would be a little much for most unsuspecting Cooper’s Hawk diners. It came with a lot of sliced pickles, and I ate them all. I’ve traditionally never been a fan of pickles, but I’m trying to develop an appreciation for them by sampling all the different kinds of pickles I can. I love almost all other pickled vegetables (peppers, onions, giardinera), so I figure it’s only a matter of time. Readers, feel free to recommend pickles, whether they’re store-bought or from certain restaurants!
I am fully aware this is an awful picture, despite bringing my “good” camera. Sorry. Mea culpa. I think my photography has been better in general lately, but pobody’s nerfect.
My wife and her parents are big dessert people, so we were all psyched to see what Cooper’s Hawk might bring out in honor of my wife’s birthday. This is what she got: a lovely chocolate-covered strawberry and a white chocolate truffle. She wasn’t really into either, so I got to enjoy both:
After that, they went to town and shared a few desserts:
The same good chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream:
Very good, tart key lime pie in a graham cracker crust (my mother-in-law’s choice, and I only wish I had taken more than one bite):
And banoffee pie, which is a rich pie made with bananas and a gooey toffee filling, all nestled into a graham cracker crust. Very sweet, rich, and heavy. I should note that the fresh whipped cream on all these desserts had vanilla bean specks in it, and it was delicious. I could easily and happily just eat a big ol’ bowl of that whipped cream with a spoon and consider it a swell, satisfying dessert.
Trust me, the fact that we got my wife’s parents out to dinner at a new restaurant, and that they liked it, speaks volumes right there. Dear readers, if your parents visit Orlando and they balk at anything too unfamiliar, this would be a fantastic place to bring them. It would be a great date night restaurant, a happy hour spot with friends, or a place to kill time before or after a movie at Waterford Lakes. It’s not cheap, but every single thing we tasted was remarkable, and the service was superb on both of our visits. And if you like wine, then face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot! If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the ambiance and upscale feeling of Hillstone with the expansive depth of the Cheesecake Factory menu (but better quality across the board). My Best Food Friend has never steered me wrong, and he was completely on the money with Cooper’s Hawk.