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The Food Experience

Copeland's works hard to offer enormous variety

At Copeland's of New Orleans, every table is emblazoned with the restaurant's name in large gold letters -- useful, I suppose, should you suffer a memory lapse and not be able to remember where you are. And the pillars here are painted a curious mottled mauve that reminded me of legs in which the blood isn't circulating properly.

Copeland's is all bold strokes. Maybe too bold. Big and brash and full of garish colors, it draws heavily on Mardi Gras, represented here in posters and the restaurant's gold and purple livery. The place, I was told, accommodates some 270 people, which surprised me. There's so much hubbub, so much frantic activity, I would have thought it would seat twice that many. The point of all this kineticism, I suppose, is to convince people who might not otherwise be aware of it that they're having the time of their lives. But there is something coercive about this. I don't care to be told by others that I'm enjoying myself. Determinations like that I prefer to make for myself.

Though my first meal here was not entirely successful, much of the food at Copeland's is relatively good. One gets the feeling, though, that food is not this restaurant's top priority. What Copeland's seems to want to do is provide its customers with an "experience," of which eating is just a part. If you don't like what's on your plate, the thinking seems to be, you can always contemplate those mottled pillars.

From the outside, the place looks like a movie theater. Red and blue neon strips are much in evidence, and over the main entrance looms an art deco gable. This restaurant -- inside and out -- demands your constant attention. "Look at me," it clamors. "It's I who am the show here. And don't you forget it."

The menu, drawing on the cuisines of both the Creole and Cajun traditions, took me all of ten minutes to wade through, and it quite wore me out. In all, I counted 109 items. Do we really need this many choices? I don't think so. This is hardly a menu at all. It's more in the nature of an encyclopedia.

To get things rolling that first evening, we ordered Bayou broccoli ($5.50), fried balls of broccoli, bacon and cheese. What a letdown. These spheres the size of kumquats had been heated superficially. Inside, they had frigid centers. Simultaneously, we each bit into one, and simultaneously our expressions froze. It was one of those times when I regretted the strictures on spitting in public. But that did it for the broccoli balls, as far as we were concerned. Then and there, we made a pact: Never again would we so much as mention them.

My companion that evening doesn't eat meat, and while the appetizers presented no problem, there was not a single entree, with the exception of the salads, that didn't violate the vegetarian canon. Luckily for us, our waiter suggested the eggplant pirogue, slices of fried eggplant served with crab claws. If we wished, the dish could be declawed, so to speak. (It may only have been an oversight, but the absence of crab claws notwithstanding, we were charged the full menu price of $11.95.)

I ordered the shrimp and redfish creole ($11.95), served with carrots and broccoli. Those vegetables gave the impression they were getting on a bit. But I'm glad to have been of service. If it weren't for me, they'd have ended up on a geriatric ward. Everything else, though, was great: the shrimp -- I counted a generous 13 of them -- the succulent morsels of redfish, and especially the sauce, which, without so much as raising its voice, managed to make my mouth glow.

To finish, we ordered the Mile-and-a-Half-High Pie ($6.95) simply because we wanted to see it. This ice cream and angel cake combination, we'd been told, was a visual feast, a "phenomenon" -- something on the order of the Eiffel Tower or Eartha Kitt. Enough for two, the menu warned. So we asked if we might have just a sample. But the kitchen wouldn't hear of it. We would have all the Mile-and-a-Half-High Pie allowed by law or none at all. Mile and a half high, indeed! This dessert was puny. Nine inches at the very most. Though I will say this for it: It did teeter a little. I'm big on teetering. But as for taste -- the ice cream was rock hard, and the cake was nondescript! I don't recommend it.

My second visit -- for lunch -- two days later was a much happier experience. The place was less crowded and less kinetic. And the food was distinctly better. Our Gumbo Ya-Ya ($3.95 a cup) had lots of shrimp and scallops and, in the words of our waiter, lots of attitude as well. It was delicious, but even more important, it was dark and murky and slightly sinister. There was just no telling what lurked beneath its placid surface. For all we knew it might have concealed the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The delightfully sweet deep-fried onion mum ($5.95) -- "mum" as in chrysanthemum -- was all spikes. It looked like a piece of coral or a mad mollusk that would snap shut and take my hand off if I tried to touch it. As it happened, I proved more than a match for it.

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