HER Eats

down­town eatery high­lights Arkansas fresh­ness

The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Contents - By Lorien e. dahl

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.

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