At new Copeland's of New Orleans, the ambience is thicker than etouffee

August 05, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

If the idea of a casual '30s-era supper club appeals to you, check out Copeland's of New Orleans. Slip into a spacious booth as a pianist romances the two-level dining room with a medley of jazz classics.

The glossy, inlaid-pattern tables, the deco trim illuminated in pink lights, the cozy darkness of the cigar bar, the Mardi Gras masks in the entry -- it's hard to look anywhere and not find wonderfully rich details in the place. What makes that even more surprising is that Copeland's is a restaurant chain, with 25 locations south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and a dozen more under construction.

But if the decor puts preconceptions of chain restaurants to rest, the food doesn't. I'd go back, but mainly for a bowl of Cajun gumbo ya ya with shrimp and scallops. That was the one dish that lingered in my memory for days afterward. The dark, earthy flavor of the slow-cooked soup, the velvet-smooth feel of it, the mound of perfectly cooked long-grain rice in the center, the heat underneath . . . just describing it makes me hungry.

Go get a bowl, or even a cup, which is bowl-size, by the way. Round out your meal with a fresh, crisp Caesar salad, covered in a pleasant, innocuous creamy dressing. Finagle a flaky biscuit from your server, and finish with bananas Foster, a Big Easy tradition that's re-created perfectly at Copeland's: sliced bananas baked with rum syrup and cinnamon, topped off with melting vanilla ice cream. Trust me, you'll like this meal.

I wish I could say the same about crusty, overcooked oysters, so heavy in dark cornmeal breading that they hurt the roof of my mouth, or the thin shrimp etouffee that lacked the body and deep color of authentic renditions. Much worse was something called the crawfish Bayou platter, a broiled catfish fillet covered in a salty, strange seafood stuffing and two sauces -- crawfish cream and eggplant Creole, we think. It was hard to tell what was what on the plate. More straightforward dishes like a grilled rib-eye steak might be the way to go at Copeland's.

Our friendly waitress said the artichoke and spinach dip was her favorite appetizer, so we gave it a try. Deep-fried bow-tie pasta tasted better as dip scoopers than we thought they would, and though the dip lacked true creamy richness, we managed to polish it off. Dark batter-fried crawfish tails were better. Tender and fat, they were paired with a thin horseradish sauce that was so good I'd try it as a salad dressing.

We needn't have been leery of ordering the sweet potato bread pudding, which sounded so heavy. The pecan-topped pudding was closer to a square of moist, light custard.

Want to suggest a restaurant for reviewing? We welcome your input. Send e-mail to kathhigham@aol.com or write to Kathryn Higham, Newsroom-Fifth Floor, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

Copeland's of New Orleans

177 Jennifer Road, Annapolis

410-571-0860

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner; jazz brunch on Sunday

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $3.25-$8.45; entrees, $6.95-$19.95

Food: **

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: ***1/2

Ratings system: Outstanding:****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

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