downtown eatery highlights Arkansas freshness
S easonal produce in Arkansas means everything from corn to cantaloupe and snap peas to peaches. The spring and summer months are particularly bountiful, and perhaps no downtown eatery is focused more on utilizing those fresh offerings than new restaurant The Avenue.
Part of The Waters hotel, The Avenue is nestled in the historic Thompson Building at 340 Central Ave., directly across from Bathhouse Row. There, Chef Casey Copeland is bringing his culinary philosophy to diners through menu offerings that let his quality star ingredients shine, with a backup chorus rooted in freshness.
“I want to be able to showcase what Arkansas has to offer,” he said, naming several vendors in the state who supply him with not only fruits and vegetables, but also some of his proteins.
And he’s taking the idea of “keeping it local” one step further, with work taking place that will allow him to grow his own produce on the backside of the building, including micro-herbs, flowers and tomatoes, along with beehives for fresh honey.
For that project, he plans to collect rainwater for the outdoor garden, and will be composting from kitchen scraps, saying he’s all for “anything that we can do as a whole to give back to the community and to take care of the ecosystem.”
Copeland shows a heavy Southern influence in his flavors, but utilizes cooking techniques from all over the world. He likes to use whatever is in season, then twist up a dish The Avenue restaurant has historic Hot Springs photos hanging on the walls around guest tables. with notes from Asia, Italy or South America, which he said “keeps it fun and fresh” for him, and those who visit the restaurant.
“I do enjoy switching it up very regularly,” he said, evidenced by the fact that The Avenue only opened in February, and Copeland was already creating dishes for a new menu in March. He said the intention is to keep seasonal staples listed for now, but they won’t remain all year long.
“I’ll keep those in a little notebook on the side for this time next year … and that will give people something to look forward to.”
He plans for both monthly and seasonal changes. And by “season,” he’s referring to growing seasons, not just winter, spring, summer and fall, since some foods have a short peak of just a few weeks, like strawberries, while others continue for several months, like winter squash or lettuces.
The handcrafted cocktail menu also showcases fresh produce, like herbs, fruit compotes and housemade simple syrups. He said including those items “really keeps the drinks fresh and bright.”
Copeland has additionally partnered with Hot Springs artisans, offering local products like Red Light Roastery French press coffee to his guests.
The 29-year-old chef received formal culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, Texas. He’s honed his skills at establishments including Little Rock’s SO restaurant and the Clinton Presidential Library, and was awarded the title Iron Chef Arkansas in 2015.
He was already familiar with the Spa City, having worked as executive chef at Hot Springs Country Club, but his creativity is blooming with this position at The Avenue, where he can experiment with the fine dining flavor combinations he’s passionate about.
Copeland said he was deeply inspired by a meal at New York’s famed Le Bernardin, where Chef Eric Ripert has mastered the art of elevating a food’s flavor with Zenlike simplicity. For his work at The Avenue, he’s held on to that experience, and strives to give diners opportunity to taste the essence of what he’s serving, without aggres- sive seasoning or heavy sauces.
He said, “I want you to taste that sea scallop — I don’t want you to taste something else,” and for that method to work, Copeland relies on the best ingredients, whether it be protein or produce, and allows them to take center stage with only accents of flavor to boost their natural characteristics.
“I want to treat the ingredients with care, and present them to the guest in a way they haven’t seen before,” he said.
The Avenue features tapas, or small plates. This style is popular around the country, but hadn’t taken foothold in the Hot Springs area until now. This way of dining not only grants guests a chance to taste more than one dish, but also affords a more pleasing aesthetic when it comes to plating.
One example is his aforementioned seared sea scallops, which arrive to the table with the beauty of a painted masterpiece. Shape, color and composition are all displayed in a manner most pleasing to the eye.
Playfulness is also part of his ideology, shown in creations like “Quacker Jacks,” made of house-cured duck bacon, Spanish peanuts, duck fat popcorn, and caramel.
This has been Copeland’s first project from the ground up, and his efforts join with those from Sous Chef Joshua Garland and everyone else in the kitchen to make almost all items in-house, including breads and charcuterie.
The Avenue is open from 4-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4-9 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday. Reservations can be made by calling 625-3850.