Restaurant Review

Copper Canyon

Pat Tanner praises the "finesse and artful presentation" of the Tex-Mex classics at Copper Canyon in Atlantic Highlands. Not everything, however, is at that level.

Courtesy of thecoppercanyon.com.

Several factors set this very personal statement apart from other Southwestern/Tex-Mex restaurants across the state. Foremost is its superb collection of about 150 premium tequilas, which makes it a must for any agave aficionado. Likewise, beer drinkers will be pleased by the Mexican choices. Cocktails (especially tequila-based ones) are pitch-perfect. Another distinction is the design of the dining room and lounge, a full-bore homage to Mexico’s famed Copper Canyon (four times larger than the Grand Canyon), complete with stuccoed walls conjuring its blue sky, coppery peaks and brown earth.

The theme, executed by Thomas Hauser Designs, is further played out with copper table tops, a checkered black-and-copper floor, and floor-to-ceiling wood shelves filled with tequila bottles. Framed art by the chef’s three children and long, white-cased French doors (leading to outdoor seating) provide needed relief. Stenciled on the glass of each door is a copper horseshoe. These serve as the restaurant’s main signage. (Look for the Blue Bay Inn, of which the restaurant is part.)

Mostly, though, what makes this restaurant notable is its finesse and artful presentation of Tex-Mex classics like nachos, tostadas and taquitos. Perhaps that is why Michael Krikorian, the head chef and owner, was a James Beard semifinalist this year for best chef in the mid-Atlantic region.

But what is frustrating is that Krikorian’s dishes succeed only half the time. The ones that do—like flavorful guacamole with red onion, cilantro, jalapeño, lime and housemade tortilla chips—are worth every penny of their often startlingly high price ($12 in this case). The same excellent chips accompany smoky, piquant, fire-roasted tomato salsa that sets you back a mere $2.95. Both are must-haves. Also worthy are smoked-salmon nachos topped with minced fish mixed with chives and avocado, crowned by a disk of jalapeño and a tiny dollop of crema. Meal-size quesadillas—starring either grilled andouille or grilled jumbo shrimp—are memorable, in part for the smoky char on the lightly grilled tortilla.

It’s baffling, then, to be served tuna-loin taquitos with no discernible flavor and chorizo spring rolls ruined by an overly sweet chili sauce (although their bed of Asian slaw with toasted sesame oil is outstanding). Or a clunky chili relleno—one big poblano filled with an inexplicably bland mixture of goat cheese and white truffle oil. Fish tacos, too, fall short, with over-breaded, overly mild fish left too long in the deep-fryer. Most disappointing are $27 caramelized scallops on a bed of what is billed as risotto but is more akin to Mexican rice, overcooked at that.

In stark contrast stands a sensitively executed tomato soup—a creamy (no cream) purée with a mere hint of saffron accented with lump crab and a wisp of truffle oil (and a bargain at $7.50). Desserts can go either way, but both caramel-pecan ice cream pie and crumbly, not-too-sweet Canyon cheesecake stand out.
There are also many middling dishes: chicken tinga tostada and grilled pork tacos come to mind. Both rate high on flavor but low on texture or presentation. This is clearly a restaurant where it’s worth the effort to find what works, then stick with it. Perhaps the optimal way to dine here is in the lounge, which has its own ever-changing menu of small plates.

Krikorian opened the restaurant in 1998, then moved it to its current location just across Atlantic Highland’s main drag in 2004. Over that time, the restaurant developed a reputation for haughty service. That, I am happy to report, has made a 180-degree turnaround. Krikorian credits the new manager he hired about a year and a half ago. “I also let some servers go,” he says, “and my new manager brought with her some folks with a different perspective.” On one occasion, we made detailed inquiries about tequila, and our server, Mike (“Mac”), proved not only knowledgeble but wrote out a list of his favorites and where to buy them locally. Another time, on a jam-packed Saturday night in the really loud room, Amy handled the persnickety child at our table with kindness and patience.

This restaurant has so many things going for it—now, even warm and responsive service—that if the kitchen could increase its batting average, Copper Canyon would become a truly worthy destination.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American - Tex-Mex
  • Price Range:
    Moderate

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