I approach art, food and live music with an epicurean appetite that borders on insatiable --- which is why, as I sit here munching on the artisan lavender flat bread graciously provided by Jim Copening, chef at Bradenton Village of the Arts’ upcoming restaurant Arts and Eats, I think I might finally understand the concept of Christmas in July.
Yes, it really is just that good.
Copening co-owns Arts and Eats with his wife, artist Donna Slawsky. Once it’s up and running in August, the restaurant will double not only as a gallery for Slawsky’s pique assiette mosaic art, but also as a small, intimate venue for local bands --- a trifecta of taste, sight and sound that only further emphasizes how rapidly the village is growing as a hub for arts and culture in Manatee County.
Copening and Slawsky were living in the mecca of bohemian art and cuisine, New York City’s Greenwich Village, when they visited Florida and fell in love with a somewhat quieter artist community, Bradenton’s Village of the Arts.
“We were amazed to come here and discover all these people who were living and working in their galleries right here in the village,” Slawsky recalled. “We had a great life in New York, but it was time for a change."
The couple moved to Bradenton in June, 2011. When they discovered an old-Florida-style wood frame bungalow nestled directly in the center of the village at 1114 12th Street, they knew it would be the future home for Arts and Eats.
“We saw a great opportunity to open up a place where we could both do what we love,” Copening said. “She could do art, and I could do food. The location is perfect, so it just made sense.”
The structure, which was built in 1925, is currently a mess of bare-bones walls and tarp-covered floors --- but it’s a mess that draws from a deeply ambitious well. Contractors from Suncoast Builders are braving the sweltering summer heat to transform the building from a residential space to a full-service restaurant.
By the time the restaurant opens its doors to the public in August, it will be fully renovated to satisfy ADA guidelines and will feature a sophisticated kitchen, as well as indoor and outdoor seating and an outdoor area for live music. While the contractors renovate the building, Slawsky is working around the clock in her studio to create her intricate and gorgeous signature mosaic table tops and “off the wall” pieces that define the “Arts” half of Arts and Eats.
Meanwhile, Copening is generating a buzz around the neighborhood every Friday and Saturday when he sets up a table in Arts and Eats’ front yard and peddles his homemade artisanal rustic breads. Flatbreads flavored with spices such as lavender, curry and Herbs de Provence; artisan breads such as roasted garlic and cranberry walnut; and even gluten-free blue sage cornbread provide a tantalizing hint of what’s to come when the restaurant opens.
A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, Copening worked primarily as a private chef to the epicurean elite in New York City, where he also spent time as a server in prestigious restaurants such as Sardi’s, Aquagrill, Esca and Bar Americain. His diverse culinary background shines in the constantly evolving menu for Arts and Eats, a smorgasbord of flavor and style that draws from a variety of international cuisine.
“My goal is to create a menu through which you can connect different parts of the world,” Copening explained. “Global, continental, worldly --- whatever you want to call it doesn’t matter --- it’s an effort to touch base with all the cuisines that are out there and expose people to an array of international flavors.”
Highlights from the extensive and diverse menu include Grouper with White Miso Sauce, Swiss Chard and Sesame Rice; Garlic Goat Cheese Ravioli with Basil Cream Sauce, Parmesan Cheese and Roasted Pine Nuts; Pan Roasted Chicken Breast with Quinoa Vegetable Pilaf and Cider Gravy; and Chimichurri Grilled Rib Eye Steak with Asparagus and Fries.
The food that goes into the dishes at Arts and Eats is as fresh and local as the menu is diverse and worldly. Copening takes a farm-to-table approach, purchasing in-season local produce from the King Family Farm and adjusting menu specials based on whatever fresh ingredients catch his eye during any given trip to the downtown Bradenton farmer's market.
“If I see great scallops in the market, I’m going to get them and serve them up in the restaurant. I may only be able to pick up enough for six dishes, so it’ll be first come, first serve --- but it will be farm-to-table fresh,” he said.
Copening emphasized the flexibility of the menu at Arts and Eats, explaining that if a customer approaches him with a special request and gives him time to track down the ingredients and develop a recipe, he’s willing to make the dish next time that customer visits the restaurant. He is also highly adept in adjusting specific items to satisfy special dietary requirements and making substitutions for diners with food allergies.
As an example, Copening referenced an Indian spice called asafoetida that he uses as a substitute for diners who are allergic to that ubiquitous spicy vegetable that appears in countless dishes around the world: garlic.
“If it's not something I made from scratch myself, it’s not on the menu,” Copening explained. “I make provisions, not only in the menu, but in my method of cooking to ensure that I can eliminate ingredients from a dish and substitute others in their place. There isn’t a dish on the menu that can’t be modified to the customer’s satisfaction.”
In addition to their flair for art and cooking, Copening and Slawsky are both musically-inclined. Copening plays bass for Elephant in the Room and Slawsky is an accomplished classical pianist and folk singer.
“We’re looking to accomplish a three-prong effect with art, food and music in one setting,” said Copening.
“We hope we can help bring people into the Village of the Arts because it’s just such an amazing place,” Slawsky added. “Bradenton is known as the Friendly City and it’s touted as a place of culture and heritage, but it’s shocking how many people don’t even know the village is here. It’s time to change that. This area is a gem and it needs to be shared with the community.”
Arts and Eats is scheduled to open in August. In the meantime, follow the Facebook page for updates on the renovation progress or stop by during Friday’s Village Art Walk to catch a taste of what’s to come.