GRAND CRU: TALE OF THE LITTLE KITCHEN AND THE GRAND CHEF
“Good things come to those who wait.”
You’ve heard it time and time again, and maybe even had a time or two in your own life when this fortune cookie-worthy bit of advice came to fruition. You know, like when you went fishing with your Dad as a kid, spent all day at the lake getting eaten by bugs without so much as a bite and just when you reeled in your line as you got ready to go home, some suicidal catfish jumped on your hook. You still have that photo, right? Or, how about when you kept trying to stick your grubby little fingers in the pot of Grandma’s special recipe and you ended up meeting the business end of her wooden spoon? Remember what she said to keep your anxious little self in check until dinner time? Or, if you’re one of the lucky ones… when you and that person you had a crush on since high school finally went out, fell in love and ended up getting married.
Yeah, you get it and I’m sure you’re picking up what I’m putting down.
Well, I just had an example of that myself.
When I finally took the leap into writing about food and posting it out there on the big ol’ interwebs, I had hoped that someday, some fancy place with an international chef might want lil’ ol’ me to come check out their place and write about it.
It just happened!
Chef David Coppola from GRAND CRU recently reached out to me and did just that. He extended a gracious offer for me to come to GRAND CRU and have dinner as his guest. The first thing I did was ask (and I quote) “Chef, have you actually READ the stuff I write?” I mean, sure, people seem to enjoy how I describe my off-the-wall culinary adventures, but the thought of ME in a very nice wine-and-small-bites establishment is something akin to a bull in a China shop. I thought maybe he had me confused with someone else, but he assured me he did not. Okay Chef, you’ve been warned, so game on!
Speaking with the chef was like speaking to an old friend; just two regular guys talking. As we talked about food trends, his personal story and ingredients, we could’ve just as easily been talking about football, cars or how to make the lawn stay green year round. Simply stated, my kind of dude. I accepted the chef’s offer, freaked out over what someone wears to a place like GRAND CRU, realized my “Taco Trucks Matter” T-shirt and finest flip flops probably weren’t the best choice and wondered how this whole thing was gonna go down.
I arrived at GRAND CRU, located in Lumina Station on the way to Wrightsville Beach, fully expecting to find a room full of stuffy people named Chaz, Biff, Buffy and every other stereotypical “hoidy toidy” name, sipping wine talking about their $5,000 designer dogs or their Lladro collections, but it was quite the opposite. It had a very comfortable vibe, and while it was really nice, it wasn’t the kind of place that I felt weird at. And neither will you.
Is it nice? Heck yeah! Is it a great place to take your significant other for “date night?” Absolutely! But is it pretentious, too fancy or uptight for regular folks? Not in any way, shape or form. And much to my relief, there wasn’t one uptight Houndstooth jacket or ascot anywhere in view. Not sure if any of the patrons were named Biff or Buffy, but they all seemed pretty cool and normally named to me.
As you would imagine for a wine-and-small-bites bar, GRAND CRU has quite an extensive inventory of wines – everything from a $19 bottle of Argentinian blend to a $350 Napa Valley bottle of vineyard magic, so no matter who you are, there’s something there you’ll like. The bartenders are extremely knowledgeable about all of the options (I have no idea how the heck they remember all that stuff), so they’ll walk you down the road to finding the absolute perfect wine choice to go with your meal, even if you’re on my self-admitted “Two Buck Chuck” level.
I was served a cornucopia of culinary sorcery that I still have vivid great dreams about. Pear and Gorgonzola with crostini and a balsamic reduction started the night off and opened my taste buds into full reception mode and was followed by a a beautiful trio of truffled deviled eggs with caviar. Mmmmmmmmmmmm. Smooth, creamy and exquisite in every sense of the word, these little morsels tasted like what I’m sure a cloud must taste like… but with caviar on top! I started to realize that Chef Coppola was just toying with my palate. Okay Chef, bring it on.
There are very few things on this planet that I won’t eat. I mean, I’ve eaten some pretty crazy stuff throughout Africa, the Philippines, Norway and Tunisia that even Andrew Zimmern might shy away from, but besides Garbanzo Beans, beets are one food that I just can’t get into. Garbanzo beans can at least become hummus, one of my favorite things in life, but beets bring me no sense of enjoyment. Until Chef Coppola sent out a roasted beet salad, of course. I’ll be honest, when the dish arrived, I wondered how I was going to pull off acting like I actually liked beets. I figured the best thing to do was grit my teeth into a fake smile kind of like the one you used to throw as a kid towards your grandparents when they gave you underwear for Christmas. Then I threw caution to the wind, dove in head first and changed my opinion of beets forevermore.
Roasted beets, micro greens and Mandarin oranges walked hand-in-hand with goat cheese, candied pine nuts and a blood orange vinaigrette that not only made me eat my words, but made me eat every single luscious beet on the plate. Yes I just said “luscious” while referring to a beet. No shame here!
The beets and goat cheese were the perfect match of opposing texture and flavor, and the accompanying greens, oranges and pine nuts were the perfect accoutrement. The blood orange vinaigrette was just awesome on top of awesome and gave the dish an unexpected, but greatly appreciated note of citrus to accentuate this delicious departure from anything beet-related I’d ever come into contact with in the past.
GRAND CRU is still relatively new on the scene, having opened only a little over a year ago in what was previously the “Dirty Martini.” As I sat there soaked in culinary nirvana, I noticed lots of people walking by and peering into the place. As local musician Elliott Smith played the perfect, soothing musical accompaniment to the wine and food being served, I could only imagine that if the people walking by actually knew what was going on inside this newcomer establishment, they’d quickly detour from their plans and come in. Not to downplay the places they were obviously on their way to, but I just knew first-hand what these curious passersby were missing as they squinted to see what was behind the glass.
Ambiance at GRAND CRU was spot on. Flickering candles and smooth music inside is coupled with a roaring fire and lit trees casting sparkles of light across the water outside to make GRAND CRU a “most definite” place to go for a nice evening. Add in some drinks, great conversation with friends or your significant other and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.
When the entrees came out, I realized that Chef Coppola had taken my challenge and beaten me at my own game. Coriander dusted Snapper atop tri-colored quinoa and polenta with heirloom tomatoes and grilled green beans called my name and the perfectly choreographed flavors all melted together in delicious bite after delicious bite.
Petite Filet? Bring it! Take that cut of beef sent from the gates of heaven, cook it perfectly, add some Pancetta then apply a gorgeous red wine reduction and that’s what I had the honor of tasting. The accompanying roasted Brussel Sprouts were delicious and rounded out the dish nicely. Holy cow, this guy doesn’t stop!
Just when I thought I had completed one of the best meals ever served in the Port City, I got punched in the face with another example of “good things come to those who wait.” Okay, not GOOD things, but ABSOLUTELY BLOW YOUR MIND AWESOME things. Namely, dessert.
If you’re the chef at a place that stocks hundreds of wines from around the world, it’s a fair assumption that you can probably get your hands on whatever ingredients you want. GRAND CRU’s wines come from all over the planet and Chef Coppola has extended his shopping list worldwide as well. Although he prefers local purveyors for the food served at GRAND CRU, he introduced me to a dessert dish that he just HAD to source internationally.
Chef Coppola served up a baked brie (imported specifically from Denmark) with a Cointreau infused chocolate and Mission fig dessert that was every bit as beautiful as it was delicious. It was almost too artistic to eat, and the technical skills he used to prepare the dish made every bite a sublime reminder that amazing ingredients in the hands of a masterful chef can blow your mind.
As if this perfect example of decadence wasn’t enough, a Limoncello Raspberry Cake followed and resulted in my inability to craft any discernible English words, only “mmmmm,” “ohhhhh” and “ooooooh.” Limoncello soaked sponge cake with raspberry marmalade and lemon crème was artistically (and deliciously) presented with a raspberry miroir and white chocolate. My grasp of the English language is not sufficient to adequately describe how both of these desserts should be word-painted.
At the end of the meal, as I sat there feeling warm and happy inside with a “everything is great in the world” mindset, Chef Coppola and I met face-to-face for the first time. Remember that old adage that “looks can be deceiving?” Well, this mountain of a man came out and had he not been wearing a Chef’s jacket I would’ve thought that he was a GRAND CRU bouncer who was there to throw me out on my ear for some infraction that I had unknowingly committed.
Seriously, he’s about 12 feet tall and I’m sure he can probably throw NFL linemen around like all those decorative pillows you have on your bed that are “just for looks.” Okay, maybe not, but as I stood up to meet him, that’s how I felt until he smiled and extended the largest human paw I’d ever seen towards me to shake. There was NO way that this huge, strong guy had made the meal I just had. It was too refined and delicate; I mean there were little flowers and dainty artistic touches applied to dishes that did NOT “go” with the guy I was chatting with! He looked like he’d be throwing bricks around a construction site or logs at a mill instead of delicately placing microgreens and wildflowers on desserts. Looks CAN be deceiving, but you can’t argue this chef’s skills; they’re as large as he is!
When David Coppola was a young man, he knew he wanted to be involved with food in some way, having looked forward to Sunday dinners with his large Italian family as long as he could remember. He packed a bag, and set out to make a life for himself. Not by slinging burgers, working dead end jobs or drinking his way through college like most of us do, though. He headed off to learn about cooking throughout the countryside of Spain, then headed to Nice, France where he embraced French cooking and the notion that food should look every bit as good as it tastes. From there, harnessing his own heritage and sense of adventure, young David arrived in Sorrento, Italy where he spent more than a year learning about his family’s food heritage and obsessing over breads and dough while learning to perfect them.
Although he absolutely loved his international curriculum of food and life, Chef Coppola returned to the U.S. to be with family and proudly display what he had learned abroad as he returned to those heartwarming Sunday dinners. A request to help a family friend in his pizza business for “just a little while” turned into an 18-year career followed by corporate restaurant management and…
(Insert sound of screeching tires!) WHOA! STOP! WHAT?!?!?!?!
An internationally trained chef making pizza?!?!? You’ve gotta be kidding me, right?
With a warm smile and a boyish laugh, Chef Coppola talked about his family, food, and how feeding others is an honor, regardless of the venue. You can’t help but love this guy, and I quickly learned that he’s a good-hearted dude with deep family roots and one heck of a culinary pedigree that even includes being in the final stage of casting for the television show “Chopped” before a run-in with a kitchen knife put that adventure to rest.
As he spoke of his story and how important every step of the journey has been, I quickly became every bit as impressed with the humble chef who prepared my food as the amazing dishes themselves. He’s proud of the challenges he’s faced and the “path less traveled” that he’s taken to finally make it to GRAND CRU. With the support and encouragement of his wife, Chef Coppola threw down his corporate business cards, donned his jacket again and lucky for us, ended up back in the action end of the kitchen, where he obviously belongs. For those fortunate enough to have tasted his dishes, we’re all glad that his “road less traveled” led him right here.
Yes, Chef David Coppola, good things DO come to those who wait, and Wilmington is glad we waited so we can see all the good you’re putting on plates at GRAND CRU.
Go check out Grand Cru and taste some of the incredible dishes the big Chef in the tiny kitchen is preparing. He’s exactly where he wants to be and GRAND CRU is where YOU’LL want to be as well.