51 First Avenue
Atlantic Highlands, Monmouth County, New
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
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
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
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.
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
Parking: Street parking; nearby municipal lot
Alcohol: License; extensive list of tequilas and specialty cocktails
Handicapped Accessible: Yes