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Copper Canyon
51 First Avenue
Atlantic Highlands, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 291-8444

By The Artful Diner
November 19, 2007

Let's begin with dessert... It's the wrong color. The Key lime ice cream pie, decked out in an eye-catchingly brilliant green, is absolutely, positively, and categorically the wrong color. Key lime, as every foodie is aware, should exhibit a pale yellow hue. But Copper Canyon's verdant variation -- offered up in the waning days of summer -- causes one to entertain the sneaky suspicion that chef/proprietor Michael Krikorian's kitchen calendar has gone gaga, erroneously prognosticating the sudden appearance of St. Paddy's day out of season.

Such a flagrant dessert deviation somehow crystallizes my ambivalent feelings with regard to this establishment. Copper Canyon does have a good deal to recommend it -- and I did have several enjoyable meals here -- but, somehow, in a number of areas, it never quite lives up to its potential. And, since we're already on the subject, let's consider the food...

On the positive side, the homemade chips accompanied by fire-roasted salsa ($2.95) are excellent. The chips are perfectly textured and addictively seasoned, and the salsa has just enough kick to tantalize rather than torment a sensitive palate. In the negative column, the Southwestern spring rolls ($8.50) are hard & brittle rather than crisp & flaky and appear to have spent an inordinate amount of time sunbathing under a heat lamp. Once you pierce the adamantine shell, the filling of chorizo, black beans, and jack cheese is surprisingly bland. Squiggles of chili sauce do little to ameliorate the situation... ditto the pillow of Asian slaw, which looks & tastes suspicious past its prime.

Like the aforementioned chips and salsa, the guacamole ($8.50) makes a first-rate starter. Spruced up with jalapeño chilies and tincture of lime, it is lush & lumpy and just zippy enough. Companioned by more of those seasoned homemade chips, this is one combo that is impossible to resist.

The arugula/spinach salad ($9.00), on the other hand, is good but not, in my view, at all outstanding. The greenery is more than generous -- perhaps even a bit too generous -- and embellished with bits of rather fatty bacon and pumpkin seeds. The basil-serrano chili dressing, however, is a real winner.

Entrées prompt similar mixed emotions. The grilled chicken quesadilla ($19.00), for example, is very good, with caramelized onions, baby spinach, and chopped tomatoes adding immeasurably to the party. Conversely, the grilled pork fajitas ($23.50) failed to set off any bells or whistles. The strips of pork were definitely on the dry side, and the ramekin of serrano-tomato salsa sported the color and taste of a rather odd tomato sauce. Bottom line: I've tasted infinitely better.

The fish tacos ($16.50) are ultimately quite moist and flaky... unfortunately, you have to make your way through a surfeit of thick, soggy breading to reach your goal. The stars of this show, however, are a generous dab of that fabulous guacamole and an excellent rendition of pico de gallo. The tinga toastada ($17.00) -- a toasted tortilla topped with a thin layer of refried black bean paste and then piled high with chicken strips, baby spinach, and the usual accoutrements tossed with a red chili sauce -- is, in my view, generic at best.

Desserts ($9.00), apart from the verdurous Key lime ice cream pie, are a bit of an anomaly. The Southwestern cheesecake, for instance, is a complete misnomer, as it is simply a New York-style cheesecake... though undeniably delicious. And the tequila flan is a "flan" (baked custard akin to crème caramel, and generally made with eggs, cream or milk, gelatin & vanilla) in name only. Its consistency so closely resembles cheesecake that I at first thought our server had confused the order and delivered the cheesecake rather than the flan.

And speaking of the service... it could use a bit of sprucing up. During one luncheon visit, even though the restaurant was the next thing to empty, our server was so intent on instructing her trailing trainee and chatting it up with the bartender that she completely neglected to fulfill our request for two additional glasses of wine.

And during dinner... I know that wine rituals can be overdone, but our server that evening had not a clue. Even in the lowliest of chains, offering up nothing more quaffable than Algerian bilge, the waiter/waitress generally knows enough to open the bottle and pour a touch into your glass, allowing you to sample your selection. Not so here. Our server totally ignored this little nicety. Popping the cork, he began pouring into my glass at the speed of light; and certainly would have filled it to the brim, had I not halted him in midstream.

Part of the problem, of course, is that members of the staff apparently have precious little opportunity to practice their oenological proficiency, as wine appears to be entirely superfluous to the restaurant's modis operandi. You don't even get the wine list unless you specifically request it... and then it arrives on a single sheet of paper. What does arrive, contiguous with the menu, is a nicely bound volume elucidating Copper Canyon's 150+ tequilas and other potent potable libations.

There is absolutely no question that the bartender builds some first-class margaritas and mojitos (most about $9.50 a pop), all highly recommended. But if you happen to be in the market for a suitable vintage to tame some of the cuisine's spiciness, the 2003 Kris Pinot Grigio ($35.00) is an eminently respectable choice.

Copper Canyon does have a good deal going for it. I just wish that the servers were more adept, the copper-esque dining room less noisy when filled, and that Michael Krikorian's kitchen delivered more consistently. Be that as it may, you still can't go wrong if you settle in at the bar, order up a dynamite margarita, and team up the fire-roasted salsa or guacamole with a basketful of those outrageously irresistible homemade chips.

Cuisine: Southwestern
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 12:00 noon - 4:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Sat, 4:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Street parking; nearby municipal lot
Alcohol: License; extensive list of tequilas and specialty cocktails
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.restaurantnewjersey.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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