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But Cox swears things have mellowed since those heady days, when the throngs of glittered gazers and grazers seemed inexhaustible and endless national magazine blurbs hailed it as the quintessential Texas dining experience.
It's hard to nail what sparked the change. Maybe the complaints grew deafening. Maybe business started sloughing in dramatic chunks. Whatever the reason, it's remarkably easy to get a walk-in seat on a Friday or Saturday night these days and be treated with grace. But Cox says the once incessant buzz of Star Canyon's unapproachable exclusivity was always little more than a paunchy misnomer. He insists this aloof Centrum jewel was always penetrable, at least for those who knew how to work Star Canyon's strict reservation system that crosses diners off the reservation book 15 minutes after their scheduled time. So as long as diners were willing to be seated before 7:30 or after 9 p.m., or wait in the bar for a few minutes to scavenge tables unclaimed by late-comers or no-shows, getting a seat was no big deal. This seems true, even now.
Star Canyon also cut out its lunch service roughly 20 months ago. But Cox insists the move grew out of the necessity to focus resources and personnel on AquaKnox. Incessant customer requests and internal pressure led to its re-emergence in early September. And like most successful lunching experiences, it's founded on a newly forged menu instead of downscaling or reshuffling the dinner menu.
It has salads (cowboy Cobb, warm spinach and red onion, Southwestern Caesar) and sandwiches (barbecued beef with pickled onions, cilantro pesto chicken salad, burgers) in the seven- to 10-dollar range, and entrées (pizzas, pasta, hickory-smoked pork loin, pan-seared salmon) that don't creep much higher.
The cowboy Cobb ($8.50) kicks. Egg, lettuce, roasted peppers, jalapeno jack cheese, and charred tomatoes merge into an articulate confluence of flavors and textures: tangy dressing, clean, creamy avocado, briskly sweet roasted peppers, a cluster of crispy bacon bits, smoky chunks of moist chicken, crunchy tortilla strips. This flips Cobb on its ear -- the apparent tongue-in-jowl intention.
Chipotle shrimp cocktail ($6.50) nearly hit these same levels. Lettuce shreds with corn, avocado, diced onion, and tomato, brushed with tangy heat threaded through slivers of sweetness. The only drawback was the shrimp itself, which suffered a bit from mushiness.
Not so with the chicken enchilada ($10): crisped sheathes gooed with cheese and laid out on a barbed-wire-bordered plate dribbled with pepper oil and dotted with bits of tomato and cannellini beans.
The enchiladas illustrate the deft touch left on these little dishes. What could be heavy and lumbering is light and fleeting. What could be coarsely gunked is smooth and graceful with just enough rusticity to keep the edges sharp.
Star Canyon's lunch menu, the work of executive chef Matthew Dunn, sparked a couple of kitchen changes. Sous chef Paul Clark, who was originally slated to assist Star Canyon executive chef David Woodward in Las Vegas, was pulled back to Dallas after just a day there to help launch Star Canyon's lunch (brunch should hit sometime this month).
How's Vegas doing? Great, Cox predictably says. But some Dallas sources who have made a visit say it's moribund, while Star Concepts' other new Vegas venture, the casual Taqueria Cañonita featuring authentic Mexican cuisine, is sizzling.
Cox counters that reports of a Vegas stumble are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the restaurant and the climate. Summer is slow in Vegas. The Venetian Hotel in which both restaurants reside was plagued with delays at opening. Still, Cox says expansion and development of Star Concepts' restaurants will continue, at least for the next year. He's in the process of nailing down details on a Dallas home for Taqueria Cañonita, though he won't say where. And AquaKnox will shed its lounge later this year and reopen as a casual "sixties pan-Asian" restaurant called Fish Bowl.
"We don't want these concepts to get diluted," Cox stresses. "The nation is littered with restaurants where the two or three guys who created the original are growing one a month. They turn around in 18 months or two years and see they've lost the original concept they designed. That's our greatest fear."
Nothing ages you faster than a concept that's run out of gas. That's not the case with Star Canyon.