Photographs by Philip Martin
Copper Grill’s Signature Sweet Hot Burger comes with thick “millionaire’s bacon,” bacon jam, pimento cheese, arugula and sriracha.
Thursday, January 4, 2018
Copper is a noble element, associated with Aphrodite, the love goddess (mother of Eros/Cupid) whom the Romans called Venus and the Babylonians Ishtar. This is fitting for this most sensuous metal, with its warm glow and conductivity -- copper delivers heat and electricity.
Being noble, copper doesn't rust like iron. Instead it oxidizes, acquiring a thin and satiny patina over time. This patina is usually described as green, but every patina is a little different, ever evolving, depending on the particles in the air it contacts. If you look closely at it you can see patches of black and dark blue, subtle permutations of olive, milky white, gray and purple. As copper ages, it gains texture and character; it becomes more itself and less like anything else in the world.
Address: 300 E. Third St., Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Ten years is a long time in a life of a restaurant. Most die young, closing within their first year. If the restaurant is an independent one, not part of a national or regional chain, first-year mortality rates approach 90 percent. Another 70 percent or so are gone before their fifth birthdays.
Copper Grill in downtown Little Rock has been around long enough to be taken for granted. Long enough to have become something like an institution and to have developed a reputation as a solid if not quite superstar player in the local culinary field. Most people who like it seem to like it for what it isn't -- stuffy or expensive -- and quite a few of its regulars report a rather narrow focus on the menu. They have a favorite entree or two.
It's also known as a good destination for a business lunch, for, unlike a lot of alternatives, it is quiet enough that conversations can be conducted even when the joint is busy. And the menu accommodates salad eaters as well as knife-wielding carnivores. It's an easy walk from almost anywhere downtown. Everybody likes it well enough and the waiters are professional table readers.
On the other hand, it has never been a prime supper destination for us -- it's a 'tweener in turns of ambience, with a smart-casual feel that doesn't quite rise to romantic date levels but removes it from the funky River Market league. A friend who ate there often when she lived downtown describes it as being like a high-end hotel restaurant.
The decor might be described as aggressively neutral, accented with woods light and dark, glints of its patron metal and tasteful modern fixtures (and one quirky mismatched table). There isn't much about Copper to remind you that you're in downtown Little Rock, and for some people that might be a positive.
Because there's nothing wrong with a restaurant that gets out of the way. And Copper seems to understand its purpose is to provide the stage, not the play itself.
On recent visits we've found the food to be very good, even approaching great in some instances, but not distractingly so. For instance, the grilled Faroe Island salmon ($19) might have been cooked a skoosh too thoroughly, and its accompanying pineapple salsa might have benefited from a slightly spicier kick, but these are quibbles of a very particular sort.
Generally better is its pork chop ($19), garnished with a nice apple reduction, and its version of the ubiquitous shrimp and grits ($18.90). Or best of all, what the menu styles as MB's Special Blend Meatloaf, a $17.90 item which raises the plebeian dish to foodie fetish levels with its proprietary ration of Angus chuck to sweet sausage.
Copper excels at this sort of comfort food -- the snacks and small plates section of the menu offers a few fancied-up variations on nostalgia-tinged dishes, including two different types of mac and cheese. If in the unlikely event you're trapped downtown during a snowstorm, you could have a splendid time munching on these high-calorie tapas.
Lunches at Copper are generally delightful; there's always a nice crowd and the menu is even briefer than the mercifully streamlined dinner one. Meat eaters can't go wrong with their cheeseburgers, offered in a relatively straight-up version -- the Copper Grill Cheeseburger ($10) -- or the Signature Sweet Hot Burger ($12.90), garnished with slabby "millionaire's bacon," bacon jam, pimento cheese, arugula and sriracha. (But not enough sriracha -- our server cheerfully provided extra in a sauce boat.)
In the past, I've had some excellent fish tacos there -- at the moment they have grilled shrimp tacos ($12.50) which aren't quite as satisfying (it's a textural thing) but are still tasty, served with a peppy jicama slaw. The best seafood item on the menu might be Copper's light, crispy catfish ($17 dinner and $12.50 lunch) served with the slaw, jalapeno tartar sauce and a portion of the restaurant's excellent french fries.
That "MB" on the menu stands for Mary Beth, as in Mary Beth Ringgold, the restaurateur behind Capers and the successful revival of Cajun's Wharf. While some profess a strong preference for Copper over Capers, we find it the middling option. A meal at Capers can be exquisite; at Copper you can have a spirited political discussion and a cocktail that, while it mightn't be quite the equal of a drink poured at the Capital Bar or South on Main or Big Orange, is mixed with a kind of urbane confidence.
They don't flinch when you ask for an Old Fashioned made with Michter's. And while the bar has a fairly extensive wine list, the by-the-glass carte is reasonably priced and solid, with Elouan Oregon Pinot Noir for $11, Conundrum's friendly red blend for $8, and Mudhouse, a bright young Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, for $8.
If you go, prepare to take your time. While the service isn't always slow, on both of our most recent visits our server apologized for our waits. Apparently on the evening we chose, there was a large party that was commanding a lot of attention; on our lunch visit the server seemed to be patrolling the three-quarters-full dining area all by herself. It didn't present a problem on either occasion (and we appreciated the server acknowledging our patience), but we wouldn't choose Copper as a place to eat before hitting a show.
I suspect our evening waiter was trying to make it up to us when he brought our dessert -- a warm brownie topped with vanilla ice cream ($5.95). It was almost too large for two of us to finish. If that was a regular-size portion, well, the desserts are very generous here. Though I'd still rather have another glass of wine.
In its 11th year, Copper Grill is just starting to acquire its own distinctive patina; it still feels inchoate. But that's probably a good sign; the restaurant actuarial tables indicate that if a place makes it to its 10th birthday it has a pretty good chance of sticking around awhile. There are a lot of things to like about the unfussiness of Copper, and there's nothing amiss there that seems incurable.
Consider that Aphrodite was the wife of Hephaestus, the god of fire and smithery, whom the Romans called Vulcan. When he was not called to manufacture weapons and dwellings for the gods, Hephaestus taught men the arts, including how to forge copper, how to heat it until it becomes malleable and ductile, capable of being hammered into sheets and stretched into wire.
Something might yet be made of this Copper.
Weekend on 01/04/2018
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