Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Almost Famous

Copeland's Famous New Orleans Restaurant and Bar is the best Cajun food you can get ... in Johnson County.

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I don't pretend to be an expert on the cuisine of New Orleans, though I've visited that city -- legendary for its Cajun and Creole dishes -- twice and barely survived an orgy of eating both times. On the more recent trip, I was still chomping on a warm beignet as my plane took off from Louis Armstrong International Airport. On the good advice of locals, I had visited a half-dozen of the nicer joints while I was there. But no one had said anything about Copeland's Famous New Orleans Restaurant and Bar, the 21-year-old chain of restaurants owned by Popeyes Chicken founder Alvin Copeland. In fact, I didn't know it was famous until one of the Louisiana-based operations turned up in Johnson County.

That location, opened by former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith (a New Orleans native) and his wife, Sheri, in 1996, is the first Johnson County restaurant to successfully serve traditional Creole and Cajun dishes. Does anyone remember the places that didn't make it, such as the Magnolia Café, the Bayou State Restaurant and Brewery, or the Big Easy Café? If the local Copeland's deserves any notice, it's for outlasting many of its restaurant rivals -- Cajun-style and otherwise -- on a stretch of 119th Street that's seen restaurant concepts come and go faster than Paris Hilton changes boyfriends.

The restaurant's computer-generated receipts are printed with a very broad claim: "The Ultimate New Orleans Experience!" That had my eyes rolling, but I suppose it could have a slight ring of truth if the words "in Overland Park" were added to it. How does a restaurateur pull off an entire "experience" in a suburban shopping center, especially when it involves re-creating a 286-year-old city that has cast its spell over generations of writers and painters? Copeland's misses the mark on a number of levels, starting with a brassy interior décor -- heavy on the Mardi Gras masque motif -- that doesn't evoke the spirit of New Orleans as much as a cheesy Times Square gift shop.

And the music? I thought New Orleans was famous for jazz. On my first visit to Copeland's, for its much-touted Sunday brunch, the soundtrack was soothing enough (Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett) but too generic for a theme restaurant. On my second visit, a 1970s disco song was playing as I walked through the front door. Al Hirt must have been rolling in his grave.

I was ready to roll into the poorhouse after that brunch, which set me back $60 (including tax and tip) for two people! The prices for this off-the-menu brunch are straight out of the French Quarter, even if the food quality isn't.

I started that meal with a "cup" (served in a big bowl, actually) of spicy gumbo, which was loaded with scallops and shrimp but barely warm. Why the kitchen felt the need to garnish it with an old, inedible crab claw is beyond me. The stringy meat in the claw was practically black; I wouldn't have eaten it even if pirate Jean Lafitte were forcing me to walk the plank.

Things improved slightly when my fluffy five-egg omelet arrived, stuffed with a combination of molten cheddar, sweetened apple slices and bits of chopped bacon. But ultimately it sounded a lot more savory than it tasted; this wasn't a breakfast dish but a kind of dessert soufflé. My friend Bob was disappointed with the so-called beef-filet eggs Benedict, topped with a stingy little triangle of overcooked beef that didn't bear a remote resemblance to a filet. The poached egg looked oddly preformed, as if it had been artificially manufactured, and there wasn't a drop of Hollandaise sauce on the thing. Priced at $14.99, the dish was as costly as some dinner entrées, and it was spectacularly awful.

It wasn't as dreadful, though, as the chewy, unpleasant wedge of "hash browns" (dubbed "Copeland's Steakhouse Famous Hash Browns" on one of the restaurant's two dinner menus). When I complained to our server that the leathery spud cake was inedible, he said, "If we're slow, they sit in the kitchen window too long and don't taste too good." Huh? Then why serve them at all? Later, a manager gave me the same "in the window too long" mantra, as if it were an acceptable rationale. News flash: It isn't.

The one bright spot during that ill-fated brunch was the warm "Soon To Be World Famous Caramel Apple Bread Pudding." The hefty, custardlike slab deserved to be famous and was priced accordingly; it was a nice finale to a second-rate meal.

But like the city of New Orleans itself, Copeland's undergoes a personality change at night: The place looks better, the service is superior and the food hits all the right notes.

The evening I arrived for dinner with Bob and Carol Ann, we were thrown off by Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" playing over the sound system. "I don't know what I expected to hear," Carol Ann said. "Maybe 'Zydeco Party'?" Once we were seated at a vinyl-sheathed table, we were further disoriented by two different dinner menus, one offering traditional Louisiana dishes, the other a straightforward list of steaks and fresh seafood. "Am I here to eat or to read?" she asked.

The savior of the evening was our server, Tom, a handsome soccer player and future MBA candidate (although he needs to slow down his delivery -- he talks faster than a used-car salesman). After announcing that the kitchen was out of crawfish that night, he deftly steered us away from the dishes he didn't particularly like (including the horrific "famous" hash browns) and made lots of wise suggestions. "You'll like the Magnolia Mushroom appetizer," he insisted.

The starter proved to be a good omen for the rest of the meal -- a huge portabella mushroom cap, grilled and heaped with tiny shrimp, mushrooms and chopped tomato, then doused in a garlicky white-wine sauce. And our salads were decent. (I don't understand why the hot biscuit served with dinner entrées can't be offered during this course, though.)

Carol Ann was nearly overwhelmed by her generous portion of tomato-basil chicken, which arrived bubbling under a surprisingly spicy tomato sauce. And fussy Bob, the beefsteak connoisseur, gave the highest marks to the center cut of filet -- a real filet this time -- topped with melted butter and a swirl of caramelized onions.

I asked Tom whether the menu's claim that the baby back ribs were "imported from Denmark" was true. He didn't know, so we watched him walk over to a manager, who nodded and said, "Yeah, they're from Danish." That was good enough for me, and I must say that the ribs, slathered in a slightly sugary sauce, were succulent and tender. Later, another manager explained that "European pork is much higher quality" than the plebian pig meat here in the Midwest. Remind me to order some all-American ribs the next time I travel to, uh, Danish.

We encountered more confusion when we asked whether Copeland's desserts were made in-house. "The ones that aren't," said one manager, "are homemade but baked in a commissary." As if that made sense. Tom assured us that the Creole-style cheesecake was indeed created in the local kitchen. It turned out to be a silken, luscious wedge of what in any other restaurant would be called New York cheesecake. Perhaps the pecan-cookie crust was supposed to give it that "Creole" touch.

Afterward, I was reminded of the late, great Ray Charles. "I never wanted to be famous," he once said. "I only wanted to be great." Copeland's Famous New Orleans Restaurant should aspire to the same ideal.

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