Whatta concept!

At theme-choked Canyon Cafe, a few things actually rise above the kitsch

All of these ambient implements are flawlessly constructed, deftly selected, and otherwise seamlessly orchestrated, like a series of mind-blowing special effects from Industrial Light and Magic. But just as cinematic trickery does not a film make, atmospheric brilliance does not make a dining experience, as most artifacts and "architectural surfaces" taste lousy. Somewhere, simple things like good food and professional service have to figure into the equation.

On first impression, Canyon Cafe's menu holds promise. Housemade soft poppy-seed bread sticks served with a ramekin of softened cream cheese blended with picante sauce was a light, refreshing alternative to either nude bread sticks or those same stalks slathered in butter. The Sedona spring rolls, however, left me cold, or at least left the roof of my mouth gummed-up. These egg-roll-like compositions of a flour tortilla stuffed with chicken, spinach, red cabbage, poblano peppers, and onion were dry and cakey on top and disconcertingly soggy on the bottom from a puddle of chipotle barbecue sauce that perhaps should have been served in a side dish as a dip. Things were rescued for a stretch with the South Texas tortilla soup, which cut through the conceptual fog with a rich stock of chicken and tomato. It floated a mixture of sweet and spicy peppers, onions, parsley, cooked tomatoes, and shreds of red, blue, and standard-hued tortillas strips dusted with crumbles of queso blanco, a Mexican white cheese similar to a fresh mozzarella. The ingredients blended in a smooth, tangy mixture with a firm spice kick.

The blackened salmon Caesar--in reality more grilled than blackened--kept the rescue mission in groove. The salmon was silken and flaky with a rich flavor harboring a thick strand of smoke. The tangy dressing deviated from traditional Caesar only in that it was slightly thicker and was charged with an infusion of cilantro.

Then things started to slip. The tomato fettuccine with smoked jalapeno sausage, grilled asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms, and julienned summer squash was plagued by dramatically overcooked, gummy pasta and a severe lack of moisture. (Cooked in a chicken broth, it was without sauce). But the red chili and cilantro ribeye was perhaps the poster dish for garbled attention to detail resulting from thematic overload. Ordered medium-rare, the steak arrived conscientiously well-done--a cross between floral foam and burlap. On the next try, the meat was so red and quivering, I thought it was going to start grazing on the garnish. It was finally delivered in some semblance of medium rareness, and the flesh proved gristly and short on salacious meat richness. Plus, despite the advertised seasonings, it didn't have much punch. The fries were fairly good, however, though you would have expected an imaginative dusting of seasonings. Nonetheless, a double-muffed steak is a serious infraction in Texas.

A dish I suspect the Canyon Cafe PR machinery had in mind when it waxed on about "a twist between old and new" is the Southwest pot roast. It was nothing short of stunning, deserving a signature dish designation for the next press kit. The meat is rubbed with a mixture of chili spices and flour before it's seared and slow-roasted for five hours. The process yields a moist, chewy roast spiced with a rich brown sauce--a surprisingly effective balance between comfort and excitement. It's served with chunky mashed potatoes sparked with green bell and jalapeno peppers. This side stood up well to the piquant roast.

Almost as successful, the chili-rubbed tuna, though not delivered rare as asked, was moist and tender, with a satiny, melt-in-mouth feel. Subtle smoky layers added complexity while the chilis punched it up. A chipotle sauce gave it some tang, and a sliver of avocado provided a cool creaminess. But a side of grilled veggies--zucchini, yellow squash, red bell peppers, and onions--were mushy and unappealing.

A dessert that perhaps stretched the Canyon Cafe theme well beyond its limits was the banana burrito. A banana in chocolate sauce wrapped in a tortilla and then baked, it was thoroughly suffocating. It's riddled with coarsely chopped pecans, asphyxiated in more chocolate sauce, and flooded in caramel sauce. Topped with a scoop of ice cream and garnished with two strawberries that were starting to rot, this construction was so chokingly sweet, the banana served no purpose other than as a tortilla spool; you certainly couldn't taste it.

Canyon Cafe is part of a 17-unit chain (five Sam's Cafes, 12 Canyon Cafes) scattered in Texas, Arizona, California, Missouri, Colorado, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. Purchased last June by Apple South Inc., a Georgia-based casual-dining conglomerate that's also the largest franchisee of Applebee's restaurants, the company will convert its Sam's Cafes into Canyon Cafes over the next several months. And it no doubt will do quite well. But somehow a clearer, cleaner focus on food, instead of a muddled fascination with concept, might have yielded far more exciting results.

Canyon Cafe. 17808 Dallas Parkway at the North Dallas Tollway and Briargrove, (972) 267-0506. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Readers with comments may e-mail Mark Stuertz at markstz@juno.com.

Canyon Cafe:
Sedona spring rolls $4.95
South Texas tortilla soup $3.60
Tomato fettuccine with sausage $11.50
Red chile & cilantro ribeye $15.95
Chile rubbed tuna $13.95
Southwest pot roast $10.95

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