According to my big blue French dictionary, the word coupage refers to a blending of two things, as in the case of winemaking, for example, and also to the dilution of one thing with another.
Last night I had the good fortune of finding myself nestled in at a tiny four-top smack in the center of Coupage’s dining room, in Madrona, with three like-minded eaters. The evening began innocently enough: we surveyed the lively mural along one wall and the fun, gauze-wrapped hanging lamps, and I noticed that the deep mahogany finish on the chairs was exactly the one I’d tried so hard to achieve with my own dining set, but failed.
We started off with a bang. Our (wonderful) waiter had an unmistakable French accent, and by the time the water was poured we’d established that all four of us in fact spoke French, some more readily than others but all with serviceable accents. A plate of dressed-up sweet potato chips, cut into almost-transparent strips the long way so they curled like expensive Christmas ribbons when they were fried, landed on our too-crowded table, showering us with the aromas of truffle oil and Parmesan cheese. I watched as we each secretly dug for the chips with the most flavor (please! more truffle oil!), and proposed turning ordering our dinners into a community event.
The others readily agreed: we’d share everything. I breathed a huge internal sigh of relief, because for me, the perceived stress of deciding which new things to eat at a new restaurant often outshines the actual flavor of whatever I end up choosing.
Coupage’s food is a unique combination of French and Korean cuisines, to be sure, with a strong serving of what might ubiquitously be called New American. On the menu, Korean-tinged takes on French favorites (lemongrass-scented vichyssoise with a mustard-glazed crab cake, mache salad with a truffle-soy vinaigrette and a smoked maitake mushroom, stacked Korean-ish salade nicoise, and rack of lamb with spicy caponata) balanced creative versions of more traditionally American dishes (think clam chowder with Korean bean paste and bacon foam and crispy, spicy salmon “wings” with a bleu cheese and celery salad).
I liked the food. But, alas, my role as a sometimes-critic and penchant for giving criticism means that I like to, you know, criticize.
What bothered me about Coupage was that each and every dish we tasted seemed to lack exactly that ingredient which had lead me to choose the menu item in the first place. The texture of the lemongrass vichyssoise was spot-on smooth and silky, and light enough to make me understand why Mireille Guiliano, the author of French Women Don’t Get Fat, must have been happy with her leek soup crash weekend diet, but none of us could detect even the slightest hint of the promised lemongrass. The pine-needle smoked arctic char was soft and rich, a welcome change in flavor from salmon, but nary a coniferous whiff could be found. We—and I say “we” because the four of us ordered three courses each, and passed the plates around like baby pictures all evening—anyway, we were also disappointed that the mint julep sauce that should have accompanied the lamb rack chops, with their deeply-flavored crust and precisely medium-rare interior, was simply not there. The “smoked” maitake mushroom on the mache salad seemed grilled, rather than smoked; the bulbous mushroomy mass had a delightfully caramelized top and its big fleshy base (think artichoke heart) literally melted in my mouth, but there was absolutely no trace of smoke (which, in this case, was a good thing). The whole thing was sort of like that old SNL skit, where (was that Mike Meyers dressed as an older woman with a NY accent?) says things like “Duran Duran. It was neither Duran, nor Duran. Discuss.” Good flavors, but not necessarily the flavors advertised.
In the end, I found a most delicious menu at Coupage by reassembling the parts I liked most about all our choices in my head. Next time, I’ll start with the clam chowder, a clear miso-esque broth with deep, delicious bacon flavor (again, me with the pork problem), minus the cute manilla clams, which didn’t do much for me. Okay, so that makes it bean paste and bacon soup, but that’s fine with me. Then I’ll move onto the mache salad with that giant heavenly unsmoked maitake, topped with the moist, oh-so-crabby crab cake that came in center of the vichyssoise. My main course will be the crispy pork belly (seared to crusty perfection, which made it both full-flavored and slightly difficult to eat) or perhaps the lamb, I can’t decide which, served over the al dente Asian lentil pilaf with schezuan peppercorn jus, originally served with the pork belly but good enough to eat at any time of day, with anything at all, and a side of the soy-kissed Chinese long beans that came under the (slightly overdone) tuna on the nicoise. Eh voila!
Dessert was most successful: miniature fourme d’ambert grilled cheese sandwiches, garnished with (I think?) cured quince and a small frisee salad, reinvigorated my belief that one can happily fete the end of a meal without encountering a grain of sugar. Their riff on tart(e!) tatin, which combined soft, sweet apples with a buttery crust that first shattered, then melted in my mouth, just the way it should, sort of avoided what is in my opinion the crux of a tatin: there was never any challenging cooking/caramelizing/flipping involved whatsoever. Cheaters! But okay, it was fabulous anyway. The peppered (sushi) rice pudding was, as rice pudding almost always is in my world (except at Ray’s), addictively creamy, but I vote that Coupage puts the pudding’s poached kumquat and grapefruit garnish onto a plate of its own; the citrus combo is that good. I guess I’ll never know why our crème brulee never showed up, but we didn’t miss it.
In general, Coupage’s design is fun but definitely not timeless—they may soon wish that they’d mounted the deep red fabrics on the banquettes on spools, in the fashion of those old cloth restroom paper towel rollers that went around and around, so that they could change the color every so often. The oversized, almost-avant-garde plates and remarkable soup bowl (the one with the rim that reaches first up and out of the soup, then bends down to almost touch the table, like—sorry—like a dog dish) were fun, but too big for the tables and quite annoying to pass around (which, of course, not everyone will be doing).
And now, as I sit in a Starbuck’s across from where my snow tires are being put on, wishing I was back at Coupage listening to my new Frenchie friends rather than the actual French lesson that’s going on at the table behind me, I think this: blending and diluting are dangerously similar, in any language. Coupage’s mix of French and Korean should perhaps lean toward stronger flavors from each cuisine, lest it be watered down like the rest and end up with just a coupage de grace.
Learn more: http://www.coupageseattle.com