Based on the clarity of concept, the fittingly homey aesthetic, and the fact that nearly every seat in the dining room and on the sidewalk patio was filled on our visits, the Copper Hen is one of the more impressive outfits born of the now-ubiquitous local-restaurant Kickstarter campaign. Helmed by the husband-and-wife team of Chris and Danielle Bjorling, the French country cafe leans heavily on its bakery foundation, with nearly every dish on the menu containing something that Danielle has reared from butter, flour, and water.
Bjorling's style dispenses with fussy decoration in favor of a focus on simple flavors and natural ingredients, especially in her cupcakes, which we found to be a mixed bunch. The raspberry-vanilla cake had pure berry taste, but the muffin-like texture threw us off. The carrot cake itself was a bit bland, but the cream cheese frosting on top was ideal — rich, tangy, and not too sweet. The soapy rosewater taste in the special seasonal cupcake overwhelmed the more subtle ginger. Had the ratios been reversed, this might have been our top pick but instead the winner was the plain chocolate: moist, springy, and airy with an almost malty flavor to it.
Though the cupcakes appeared to be the popular order among other patrons, the bakery items that made the most lasting impression on us were the cinnamon rolls — almost like a sweet, glazed dinner roll rather than a hunk of bread, covered in that excellent cream cheese frosting — and the tender buttermilk scone, served with velvety, bright homemade lemon curd. Bjorling's breads are also worth mentioning. Daring and distinctive, they range from a nicely crusty baguette, to nutty semolina-based boule, to sweeter-leaning breads like a cardamom-spiced braid and the glossy milk and honey loaf.
Strangely, for all the farm-to-table swagger promised in their initial publicity push, there was little to no mention — in writing on chalkboards or even verbally from employees — about any of the actual local purveyors Copper Hen uses. In a city where people consider "Shepherd Song" a prefix to the word "lamb" and are proud that our own Stickney Hill has become synonymous with chevre, why not be bold and blatant about the cheese, meat, and produce that goes into your dishes? It's not that we question the good intentions of Copper Hen, but we do wonder whether they've ditched the farm-to-table part of their concept.
For now, Copper Hen comes across as sure-footed in the bakery case, but remains a little wobbly when it comes to the cafe component. Part of the problem stems from confusion over whether this is a counter-service spot or a sit-down, full-service restaurant. Customers are funneled to the counter to order, but the register was frequently abandoned as employees tried to do it all — fill up beers (both the beer and reasonably priced, generously poured wines are well-chosen), deliver piping hot pizzas, clear dishes, and run credit cards, all at once. When food was delivered, runners took orders for additional items and more glasses of wine at a number of tables around us, making it appear that full-service was an option. The staff members were doing their best to bridge the gap, but the frazzled frustration between kitchen and front-of-house was palpable.
As fast-paced as the feeling was around us, the dinner menu was stocked with slow-food favorites. If you like the crusty bits in the corners of an oven-baked mac and cheese you'll appreciate Copper Hen's version, which is cooked in a miniature cast iron skillet for maximum edge-to-edge crust. Though the pasta managed to keep its al dente bite instead of getting gummy and overcooked, we were disappointed by the stringy sauce and the exorbitant $14 price tag. They might be using expensive cheese, but ultimately the dish just didn't feel luxurious. After hearing a few fans rave about the chicken pot pie, declaring it "life-changing," we had admittedly high expectations for this dish, which delivered big time on the creamy, thyme-tinged filling with moist shredded chicken and popping green peas. Where it fell flat, literally, was in the puff pastry, which was thick and anemic, likely suffering from a combination of humid weather and not enough time in the oven.
On the sunnier side, we enjoyed Copper Hen's unique pizza crust, which had a soft chewiness and a little bit of grit on the bottom. The fig and goat cheese combo was a little too sweet overall, but the "Classic," made with a slightly acidic tomato sauce and sharp Pecorino, was light and lovely. Though the beef patty on the cheddar ale burger was very unevenly cooked (usually the rare part is in the middle, not at one side of the outer rim), the luscious "Whiz" made with Indeed beer saved it. It could save everything. It could certainly replace all or part of the sauce in the mac and cheese and make a lot of people very, very happy indeed. The burger comes with a side of greens, but for maximum indulgence order the crispy smashed fingerling potatoes. The peppercorn crème fraîche that comes on the side is like the fanciest, most delicious Top the Tater you've ever experienced.
Weekend brunch features just a handful of options, but they're good ones. The basil blueberry Belgian waffles, served with crispy bacon, were full of flavor and would have been perfect if something had been done — either a little extra fat in the batter or time in the iron — to make them a bit crispier. The Farmer's Breakfast was killer: dense bread-pudding French toast with softly whipped cream, scrambled eggs, caramelized root vegetable hash, and house-made fennel sausage. Mimosas flow freely, and can be made bottomless for a mere $9.
The beautifully renovated space that Copper Hen calls home is undeniably charming. Everything from the flour-sack towels used as napkins, to the wavy wooden cutting boards and mismatched cutlery, to the chinoiserie-inspired swatches of wallpaper just begs to be Instagrammed. They may need to reconcile their counter service setup with their customers' need for tableside attention, but like the cookware that inspired it, the Copper Hen feels substantial and certainly has the bakery base to back it up.