Comforting, yet fiery

Copra's menu offers lots of choices, some with plenty of Jamaican flavor

Sunday Gourmet

July 11, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Pick a food trend, any trend. You'll probably find it at the new Copra on North Charles Street. OK, no Asian accents. But there are small plates, comfort food, expensive appetizers, inexpensive entrees, salads that are meals, sandwiches that are panini, brick-oven pizzas, roasted vegetables, chicken Caesar salad, death-by-chocolate cake and -- ta-da -- creme brulee.

How can it miss?

Well, for one thing, it helps if your stomach has an asbestos lining when you eat at Copra. This is the spiciest food I've had that wasn't advertised as spicy on the menu. Oh, there are hints. Jack's Ass Kickin Wings are probably going to provide a bit of heat.

But consider the Caesar Salad With Citrus-Crisped Won Tons. (I take that back about no Asian accents. Still, they're a very small one.) I asked for chicken with the salad, but I didn't expect it to be jerk chicken, so fiery I had to pick it out. And until I tried the Eastern Shore Rockfish Casserole I never realized Chesapeake Bay food rivaled Jamaican dishes for tongue-searing heat. The mild, flaky fillet is laid on a bed of crab, tomatoes, corn and chorizo, but I don't think the sausage would add this much fire.

Baby crab cake sandwiches on miniature potato rolls are flavored with so much curry powder it's hard to taste the crab -- or much of anything -- until after a glass or two of water. Penne with spinach, basil, tomatoes and a delicate cream sauce would be a winner if the "sauteed chicken" weren't more jerk chicken.

I can only imagine how spicy the couple of dishes that have asterisks beside them must be.

It turns out that the owners of Copra have Jamaican fusion restaurants in three other cities. Copra doesn't happen to be one -- upscale comfort food probably describes its menu better -- but the influences are there. Sweet little mussels, for instance, are punched up by being steamed in Red Stripe Lager, imported from Jamaica.

The menu is the same at lunch and dinner. At dinner, for instance, the pleasant thin-crusted white pizza with fontina cheese, shrimp, onions and fresh tomatoes is an appetizer; it also does very well for a lunch. Most of the dinner entrees cost well under $20. One of the most popular, according to our waitress, is Mama Scott's flavorful meatloaf, the restaurant's bargain at $11. It's gentrified a bit with "tomato marmalade," but the gravy and garlic mashed potatoes bring it back down to earth.

Copra's strip steak is a fine piece of beef, but it costs twice as much as the meatloaf, and has the same brown gravy (OK, Guinness Stout demiglace) and mashed potatoes. Broccolini was substituted for the promised marinated vegetable salad.

Service here is very good, attentive without getting too personal, and our waitress was knowledgeable about the menu and the wine list. But I managed to floor her by asking for some bread. Is this really so unusual?

She rallied beautifully, though, and finally returned with several thin slices that looked as if the kitchen had sliced some of the crab cakes' potato rolls to make them, then grilled them in the brick oven. I decided not to ask for butter. Why push my luck?

A restaurant that specializes in comfort food had better have bread pudding on the menu, and Copra does. It's an interesting variation, studded with fresh seasonal fruit. I thought it was fabulous; others might feel it wasn't heavy or sweet enough. They should consider instead the cream cheese poundcake with ice cream and chocolate sauce, the black and white brownie a la mode or the coconut creme brulee.

I've left the best till last, which is Copra's decor. It's high-style minimalist, with gorgeous warm wood and cool slate tiles, lots of flat-screen TVs in the downstairs lounge and a dominating bar upstairs. It's noisy as heck, of course, but -- hey -- it wouldn't be the new It place to be without the noise, would it?


Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 313 N. Charles St., Baltimore

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $8-$18; entrees: $11-$22

Call: 410-727-6080

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