Whatta concept!

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

Over the last few years, regional cuisine has evolved beyond mere food. Today, the focus is less about what's on the plate and more on "theme." A cuisine is developed, primped, tweaked, tested, and cross-dressed with other regionally influenced grub until it becomes the basis for a restaurant concept. Then the theme is heavily marketed via well-greased PR machinery that packages it in words like "concept," "innovative," "fusion," and "distinctive," while layering on meaningless statistics such as "our executive staff represents over 100 years of combined industry experience" to glaze it with credibility. (Hell, Burger King probably has more than a million years of combined food industry experience among its management staff, but that doesn't make their Whoppers any more digestible.)

Cajun food is an illustration of this process. Emerging as a highly specific cuisine centered in Louisiana, the food received national attention as a hot, eclectic culinary style. Other chefs around the country quickly picked up on its distinct zip and folded some of its elements, such as blackening, into their menus. From there it graduated to the "hot" concept stage, and chains grasped it as a new marketing tool. Now everything is blackened, and Cajun-spiced this and that is everywhere.

Launched by Sam's Cafe founder Jack Baum, Dallas-based Canyon Cafe, a small chain, is swimming in the "hot" concept phase of this evolutionary progression. And it's evident from their corporate propaganda that they are having a hard time keeping their heads above the slurry of concept babble. "We started with Sam's Cafe in Dallas in 1989, and we are excited to see it evolve into our award-winning Canyon Cafe concept," a press release quotes Baum as uttering. Then there's this: "The combination of a red-hot management team and a unique, southwest-of-anyplace-else menu earned Canyon Cafe the honor of being named one of the country's most exciting concepts in 1997..." I asked corporate executive chef Travis Henderson what exactly this award-winning concept was, and specifically, what "southwest-of-anyplace-else" meant.

"It's kind of hard to define what a Southwestern restaurant is," he explains. "We're kind of making our own niche as we go along. And it's basically a confluence of different kinds of cooking...We try to pull from old traditional Mexican cooking as well as New Mexican Sonoran style and then incorporate a little Native American with a little Texas in there as well...we try to incorporate those items into fairly comfortable foods...but we jazz it up a little bit to make it something a little out of the ordinary." Clear as chipotle sauce.

Then there's this cogent press release quote from none other than Henderson himself: "We are pioneering uncharted terrain between avant-garde Southwestern and Native American cuisine. The menu reflects a twist between old and new..." When I asked him how all these abstractions translate into a plate of food, he responded: "That's a good question. Well, hopefully that with our new menu creativity, that being some things you haven't seen before coming in, and pairing them with some of the older style dishes, like with pork chops and pot roast and things of that nature." President Bush couldn't have said it better.

The press packet makes several references to this elusive Native American influence. Yet there is no clear indication as to its manifestation or how it shapes the menu. "We tend to put fresh grilled products, instead of prepackaged things...on the menu, corn being one," answers Henderson. According to these criteria, my high school cafeteria had Native American influences too. Especially on fresh-fish Friday.

As you may have guessed by now, I'm not one who passionately embraces venues absorbed in themes and contrivances. This is not to say there aren't fine thematic restaurants featuring regional cuisine, of which Rooster is one example. But this clouded Canyon kitsch is a little too much restaurateuring by way of concepts and buzz words for my taste. Yet what's truly amazing in light of all of this muddled focus is that the whole concept doesn't completely collapse under the weight of its thematic load. In fact, some of the menu actually works quite well.

The first thing you'll notice as you move from the parking lot to the entrance of this hip pueblo by the tollway is a pair of what Canyon Cafe calls its "mammoth signature torches," sort of like a pair of rusty woks on elaborate light pole pedestals that have been lit up with Molotov cocktails. Upon entering this roundish restaurant, you'll see "softly troweled" walls in rich mauve hues and putty tones cluttered with scores of "authentic" New Mexican and Native American artifacts--battered shutters, assorted baskets, pots and plates, even a dug-out canoe. It's arranged with the same thematic sensibility applied to 1980s fern bars when the walls were crusted with old stop lights, rusty license plates, antique telephones, beer signs, Dodge Dart hub caps, and prehistoric bicycles. Other touches include sections of wall created with Arizona sandstone and a sunken, canopied gazebo-like contraption in the center of the restaurant constructed of hand-stripped ponderosa pine timbers.

The semi-circular bar has an arc of these timbers near the ceiling, fanning out into the restaurant like a series of rimless spokes. In the center of that gazebo is a water-filled stone well with a network of gas jets breaking the surface, flaming up into a huge pounded copper dome chimney vent--firewater as thematic high drama.

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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