by Max Brantley
A funny thing happened last week. A couple of the Times' eaters tried out the new Little Rock branch of the New Orleans-flavored Copeland's in Shackleford Crossing about the same time. One wasn't too impressed. That review is running in this week's edition. But the other guy loved it. He wrote his review not knowing one was already in the can.
Read the favorable Copeland's review on the jump. And enjoy a photo of something that both reviewers agreed is a hallmark of the place -- massive platters of fried seafood.
Redemption of the ‘C-word’
Copeland’s gets chain dining right
Not a very nice word is it? Kinda drags its way across the palate like Jacob Marley’s ghost. Even the words it commonly gets paired up with aren’t very pleasant: Pain, rain, stain. Chained up. Chained down. Chain smoker, chain gang, chain reaction, chain of fools (okay, we like that last one, but only when Aretha Franklin is singing it).
Which leads to the most horrible use of the word, at least from the viewpoint of a foodie: chain restaurant. I don‘t know about you, but for this reviewer the phrase has come to represent everything bland, prepackaged and dull about food. While there’s something to be said for that late night box of fries from McDonald’s or that neon-red slushie from Sonic, our experience with chain restaurants has overwhelmingly led us to expect the worst from them; lackluster service, boring or outright horrible grub, and décor that ranges from “Alabama flea market” to “naugahyde hell.”
Then again, the best thing about being a critic are those rare times when you get a real surprise. As a reviewer, it’s the hope that keeps you keeping on. Copeland’s definitely fits that bill. A chain restaurant that seems to actually care about the food that hits their tables, the restaurant -- chain or not -- is a truly great addition to the Little Rock restaurant scene; one of the first in ages that I’m actually excited about going back to, even if it is on my own dime.
Spacious and well appointed, done up in gaslight and stained wood, the Little Rock Copeland’s has an intimate feel that usually alludes most chain joints. Inside, it really feels like the kind of place you’d like to take a date for a casual night out. From an interesting menu of appetizers, we decided to try the toasted brioche cheese bread ($6.49). For an entrée, Companion No. 1 settled on the Copeland burger with a side of onion strings ($9.99), while Companion No. 2 and I, traditionalists to the core, went for po-boys; fried oyster ($10.99) for me, shrimp ($9.99) for her.
While the cheese bread was tasty -- soft wedges of toasted bread, covered in a blend of cheeses and served with diced, marinated tomatoes -- it was really nothing to write home about (next time, we plan on trying the crawfish bread; a loaf stuffed with artichoke, spinach, sautéed crawfish, Monterey jack and a spicy sauce, then baked) Much, much better, however, were our entrees. Companion No. 1 had nothing but good things to say about his burger; a half-pound of beef, expertly grilled, topped with bacon, cheddar and Monterey Jack, and served on a soft roll with a wash of sweet n’ peppery Tiger Sauce from Louisiana. All agreed, however, that the real masterpieces were the po-boys: foot-long loafs of toasted French bread, loaded with scads of fried seafood and served up with lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and a creamy remoulade sauce. Served with your choice of sides (Companion and I had the fries and onion strings respectively, both excellent) and maybe even a little overly generous as far as the portion size goes, one sandwich and side is probably big enough for you and a friend to share, even if you’re both hearty eaters. Companion and I agreed that with a some hot sauce dashed on for a little kick in the pants, they were easily the best po-boys we’ ve had since the last time we were in New Orleans.
Though we were stuffed to the gills by that point, we’d promised ourselves that we’d at least sample something from Copeland’s dessert menu. After a few laps around the parking lot, we decided on the cheesecake Napoleon, with the Kahlua almond fudge topping. At $5.99, plus $2.00 for the topping, it was pricey. Basking in the afterglow of our entrees, however, we had high hopes, especially when told by our waitress that all the cheesecakes and other desserts served at Copeland’s are made fresh in house.
In a word, the dessert was magnificent. Without even a hint of hunger to blame it on, I found the cheesecake Napoleon to be one of the best desserts I’ve ever had anywhere -- a large, creamy wedge of cheesecake, sandwiched between two slices of buttery cake, topped with fresh whipped cream and sitting in a puddle of white chocolate fudge. Like the best desserts, it was much more about nuance than sickly sweetness; a complicated little movement of textures and flavors. Between the three of us, the prodigious helping was gone amazingly fast. On the plus side, though: whenever this reviewer inevitably makes the mistake that gets him sent to the electric chair, I know what I’ll be having for dessert that day (yeah, it was that good).
While we walked in suspicious, towing the baggage of a long string of crummy chain restaurant meals, Copeland’s quickly changed our minds about the evils of Big Box dining. Prices can be a little on the high end. But when you take into account their friendly service, spiffy décor and menu of carefully prepared and deliciously flavorful food, what’s a few bucks between friends?