Review of Copeland’s Restaurant (New Orleans)

Copeland’s has been part of the New Orleans dining scene for about a decade and a half now. But among serious diners it doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

It’s probably the look that throws people. The five local Copeland’s restaurants (there are many more scattered around the country) have what is now the outmoded, corny fern-bar look reminiscent of far less good competitors like TGI Friday’s and Bennigan’s.

But from day one Copeland’s has had two legs up. First, they use fresh product almost exclusively. Given the amount of fish that’s served here, that’s really doing something. Second, almost the entire menu has a distinctly Louisiana taste.

Perhaps a bit too much of it. The menu goes a little crazy on the Cajunisms, and the recipes tend to be on the very salty, peppery, and smoky side. But if you’re a skillful diner, you can navigate through these obstacles on your way to a reliably good, moderately priced meal.

Nothing will be unfamiliar. Al Copeland, whose reputation for possessing a golden palate is borne out in fact, is the Michael Bolton of the restaurant world. He lets other chefs and restaurateurs set the new standards, and he translates them into forms that can be mass-produced in a popular, reproducible restaurant.

When Copeland’s first opened, the dominant culinary force hereabouts was Paul Prudhomme. So it was that the original Copeland’s menu–which largely survives to this day–was full of blackened dishes, pastas with creamy, spicy sauces riddled with tasso and seafood, and intense flavors in general. That flavor palette gave rise to the most commonly-heard complaint about Copeland’s food: that a lot of it tastes the same, and that the taste is too salty and spicy.

The criticism is valid, but you can get around it by asking the server to put in an order to tone down the spices a bit. Although the kitchen works by formulas produced in Al Copeland’s spice plant on Earhart Blvd., the cooks are amenable to adjustments to your taste.
I almost never get an appetizer or a soup here. Not only are they not as good as the entrees, but there’s really no room for them unless you split one a few ways. The salads, on the other hand, are very well made and titanic in size. Their only flaw is the penchant of the kitchen to scatter grated Cheddar cheese all over the place, which generally murks up what would otherwise be a fine salad.

My favorite salad here is the Thai chicken salad, made with big chunks of white meat, some crunchy vegetables, and a dressing made with that interesting sesame-oil flavor.