I admit, the world was a bit foggy by the time I set foot in this provincial French bistro. We'd been whirling around for Flagstaff for 16 hours at that point, hiking and strolling and hitting up every venue we could in the short time we had. Coppa Cafe was the last stop of the day, after some pizza and Tower Station IPA's at Mother Road Brewery.
I guess that made it more surreal. The critics and restaurant reviews I'd seen speculated whether this was the best restaurant in Arizona. But it looked like a coffee shop! The brightly-lit room was dotted with vintage chairs and mini antique tables that looked like they'd been sourced from an estate sale. At the front of the room, there was a counter with a soda machine (I swore they had RC Cola!) and a rack of classic European desserts.
When our genial server sat us down, he explained that Coppa Cafe's chef Brian Konefal had worked at one of the most highly-renowned restaurants in the country Eleven Madison Park, which has a rare 4-star review from the New York Times. His wife Paola Fioravanti is a classicly-trained pastry chef. They met during culinary school in Italy, and worked together around the world, finally moving back to Brian's former home of Flagstaff to open Coppa Cafe.
The changing menu here featured elevated provincial fair; mostly Italian and French bistro dishes from the white tablecloth restaurants of lore. Steak frites with Arizona grassfed sirloin, canneloni pasta with mushrooms foraged from nearby, and housemade cheeses?
The server brought out a platter of bread, set inside a wreath of frosty juniper needles. The butters on there, they blew me away. Both of them were green. The lighter one, our server explained, was just olive oil and ponderosa pine needles, whipped together until the mixture had formed a mousse. The firmer spread had been infused with the earthy flavor of nopales prickly pear cactus.
We dipped the bread in these miraculous butter mixtures, and ordered more to have with our locally-raised beef tartare, finely chopped pieces of raw beef that had been aged for 60-days and formed into a loose log; Arizona sashimi? I could taste the minerality in the beef. It filled my mouth with a savory fresh flavor.
The meal was a bit of a doozy. We didn't eat any main courses, just appetizers: finely blended potato apple soup that had been distilled to its sweet essence, a bright pink risotto made from local farro grains and housemade smoked blue cheese, a mound of lamb belly tripe that tasted like 12-hour stew.
Meanwhile, I spotted customers sipping from all manner of oversized gas station cups. When I got up to go to the bathroom, It was one of those hallways where you could see into the back of the kitchen, but not in a fancy kitchen-on-display sorta way. More like a casual Chinese restaurant.
Why am I telling you to go to this place? Well because it was one of the most exciting meals I've had in recent memory. There's something thrilling about the juxtaposition of high and low, because after all isn't that what restaurant culture is all about? We just see the high, and the chef behind the curtain sees the low. They see everything: the insane hours, the physical and mental toll of giving your life to a steamy kitchen, the incredible amount of resources it takes to raise this cow for a plate of raw beef tartare?
And sometimes, a restaurant says "screw it!" Let's do something different ...
Coppa Cafe is at 1300 S. Milton Road in Flagstaff, Arizona. Hours are 3 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 5 to 9 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays for brunch. Call 928-637-6813 for more information.