Where I Was
Copper Canyon in Atlantic Highlands, NJ
Thursday, April 26, 6:07 p.m.
Where I Sat
As I veered right to enter the bar, I stopped dead in my tracks. It was 6 on a Thursday night and the bar was vacant—exquisitely empty, with the bartender and servers gathered at the far end chatting in a hushed tone. It was serene, like the end of a yoga class. I was giddy. Happy to have a choice of any seat in the house, I avoided my usual go-to corner seat and chose center stage where I could soak in all the details.
Who Served Me
Sara with “no h,” who has worked here on and off for over 12 years! Black button-down and jeans is the uniform of choice. She bounces over with a friendly smile and asks “will you be eating?”
“Yes!” I answer, perhaps a bit too eagerly. Sara brought the menus and place settings. Small triangular plates with silverware atop a paper napkins. (Cloth may have felt more appropriate given the price point).
Bartender’s Favorite Bite
When I got into my usual query mode, I made the mistake of not specifying small plates. After all, aren’t there enough foodie folks reviewing the full monty? Sara’s response was immediate and unequivocal: “The steak! It is the best steak you will ever eat! It’s the perfect cut, a NY strip, that is made with a rub of some kind served to perfection and comes with potatoes, too. It doesn’t need any sauce or anything – just plain. It’s juicy and sooooo good!”
She also said, “The owner-chef makes all of his own spices, rubs, dressings, sauces. He makes them in his own kitchen and brings them over fresh everyday. They are amazing.”
The Vibe & My Vantage Point
As I mentioned, my seat offered me a full view of the entire bar. To the right, the bar ended at the back-of-house area, leading to the bathrooms and back into the dining room. The lighting was perfect for the experience (although not ideal for photography). The black, speckled granite disappeared into the space allowing my eyes to set on the box-matrix, multi-shelved bar, crowded with more bottles than I was willing to count. Every shape and size with the spot perfectly shining to reflect what felt like a sunset off the various shapes and sizes of the mostly tequila bottles. The bar seats 15+ comfortably plus includes some tables and a very cool copper banquet at the very front with windows facing First Avenue. And I love that the bar sits completely separately from the dining room: darker and offset from the bright paint and airiness of the dining room proper.
What Quenched My Thirst
In honor of Cinco de Mayo being upon us, there was only one choice—a margarita!
Tequila reposado infused with jalapeño chilis, fresh lime, agave
Served on ice with salt of coarse (see what I did there?), the drink was, at first glimpse, like any other margarita on the “rocks,” lime wedge sitting atop the salty rim. Looks can be deceiving, as I confirmed with this far-from-ordinary margarita. I’m not sure why my tongue is always so surprised by the intensity of a how the salt cuts to my taste buds almost without warning. But once I got past the texture, flavor of the salt, my taste buds rejoiced in the limey, sweet, hot depths of this tasty ‘rita. And I mean hot: spicy like the promise of a good jalapeño, yet delicately sweet without the irritating orange-twang of Cointreau, the heat on point. It was so good, in fact, that I drank the first one enthusiastically as if being timed. The need for a second occured within 10 minutes, tops.
What Fed My Soul
Tuna and Avocado Empanada, $16
Sushi rice, avocado oil, black bean puree
Holy mother of insanity! This gorgeously seductive dish did not disappoint. So unexpected a combo—this Mexi-sushi business seemed insane at first look but then, wowza. I entered into this dish with some skepticism. The healthy kind, that reasonably questioned who thought it a good idea to mix raw tuna with black beans. But what I know for sure is that being a great chef is part science, part seductress, a little bit magician, and mostly just being a dogged experimenter, unafraid to make so many mistakes that you finally stumble on something sensational. Maybe this was simply genius? I know not, but what I do know is that this was a completely immersive extravaganza for the mouth.
Honey-Chipotle Shrimp, $16
Baby bok choy, guajillo chili
I have to be honest, I have a very tenuous relationship with shrimp. I’m a bit of a shrimp snob and will quickly turn my cheek if the dish isn’t perfectly prepared. Can never be fleshy, never be mushy. I loved the simplicity of this dish yet I was somewhat still wary, given my shrimp thing. Still, I went for it based on the simple fact I had no clue whatsoever what a guajillo chile was.
For those who don’t know a guajillo from a serrano pepper, the guajillo chili is a dried mirasol chili, which is often used in Mexican cuisine. It’s considered mild to medium. When the dish arrived I was psyched. I could tell by the curl of the shrimp, only possible when butterflied, that it was cooked just right. The shimmer of the shrimp conveyed the depth of the honey glaze gorgeously, the charred edges of the shrimp comingled with the chilis and tiny circles of freshly chopped scallion adding depth and layers to this already eye-catching plate.
Shrimp was mounded on top of the deep green, slightly wilted baby bok choy which sat on—surprise!—some sort of dressing, resembling that of spicy mayo. I was sure to take my first taste in full stack form, ensuring every ingredient layered onto my fork. First I had to stab deeply and swish in the light orangy-spicy-looking layer at the bottom, then came the baby bok choy, with was at once crisp and soft. Then came the chilis and the gorgeous shrimp. POW-BANG to the taste buds. You could tell immediately the shrimp were incredibly well seasoned with one of the secret spice rubs that Sara described. The heat came from the spice and the guajillo—I was in love. Sweet, spicy, savory, crunchy: taste and texture worked in perfect harmony.
Beef Short-Rib Tacos, $15
Homemade tortilla, queso guacamole
The experience at Copper Canyon continued to surprise and delight me with this absolutely top-notch taco. Two on a plate arrive heaping with vibrant colors: the red of the tomatoes, the green of the avocado, the blue of freshly made tortilla, the white of the queso cheese, and the subtle purple of the diced onion found inside the coarsely presented guac. Don’t quote me but I’m pretty darn sure the the short ribs had a little bit of a mole sauce over them and under the guacamole, adding a rich chocolatey magic essence. I wish I had more to say but it was so freaking fabulous it was gone in three bites. I could have easily ordered a second plate but had one more dish to get to.
Crab Cake, $18
Colossal lump crab, peppers, panko-coated chipotle chili sauce
A crab cake like none I’ve ever had before—not in Maryland, not in South Carolina, nowhere! Simple, surprising, scrumptious, this was a crab lover’s trifecta. The simple part was this crab cake delivered—colossal lump crab was the primary, almost singular ingredient. A massive departure from most bready-filled, almost-tunafish-consistency kind of crab cake so often on the plate. These delightful meaty cakes were lightly dusted in a seasoned panko, maybe with even a little Dijon snuck into the crumbs. The single crab cake sat atop a simple drizzle of sriracha-style, Dijon-ish sauce that brightened the whole experience and brought it up one more notch in my book. I’m usually not a crab cake lover but will definitely be ordering it next time I’m back here.
Beyond the Bar
This self-proclaimed, “official restaurant of the Blue Bay Inn,” Copper Canyon is a delight. Crowded in the summer months as folks come off the ferry and head in for a cocktail or beer before they regroup with their families. During my visit, locals wandered in and out as I sat at the bar. The place offers a friendly vibe and good music. And they’re available for private parties.
When to Show
Open for dinner: Monday through Saturday at 4 p.m.
Know Before You Go!
Prices, hours, and menu items are subject to change. Please check the restaurant’s website for the latest information available.
51 First Avenue
Atlantic Highlands, NJ 07716
This article was not paid for, nor influenced by, the restaurant/bar featured in this column.