Attitude adjustment

Despite a profitable merger with Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, Michael Cox still works in the trenches at Star Canyon. Gleefully, it seems.
Jon Lagow

Michael Cox is 40 years old, and that's hard to swallow. His face is full and smooth, his movements infected with adolescent bounce. He shows none of the harsh etchings the restaurant business often mercilessly carves with its acidic stresses and pointed pressures. It seems there should be at least a few tired lines, conspicuous strands of gray, a modest hairline recession, something.

Cox is the guy who started out as a waiter in Stephan Pyles' Routh Street Café, the guy Pyles tracked down in Philadelphia a few years later to help raise cash for his Star Canyon vision when all Pyles could manage to scare up was $50,000. Cox responded by pulling in the considerable resources of TCBY Enterprises President Herren Hickingbotham. Since then, Cox has been content to bristle in the shadows, pulling administrative levers while Pyles poses for the cameras.

It's not hard to see how Star Canyon struck with such searing force when it opened in 1994. Back then, the Dallas restaurant market had no fizz, no boldly novel juice. Places like Actuelle and Calluaud's and Routh Street had shuttered. The economy wasn't exactly receding, but it wasn't virile either.

Star Canyon stylishly charged onto this landscape with well-bred cowboy duds: a hand-tooled leather bar, chandeliers dangling from strands of barbed wire, wavy snake door pulls, and plywood ceiling tiles branded with the names of Texas towns.

Pyles' fierce inventiveness and nascent star power coupled with Cox's nuts-and-bolts shrewdness didn't hurt matters either. Nor did the bone-in cowboy rib eye in pinto-wild-mushroom ragout stacked with a silo of red chile onion rings, a Texas snicker at trendy tall food. In fact, the whole thing seemed a chic twist on Texas ranch rubes, one that never wallowed in cheap irony. There was too much imagination bubbling like a kettle of wood-fired beans for that.

Yet despite the little heaps of loot that must be swelling Cox's wallet after Carlson Restaurants Worldwide swallowed his and Pyles' restaurants (Star Canyon and AquaKnox) to form the Star Concepts division some 18 months ago, Cox still works the Star Canyon trenches. Gleefully, it seems. On a bustling Friday night, it's Cox at the host stand managing dining-room inventory. It's Cox who tells me that butt demand exceeds seat supply before he offers three options: wait in the bar for a table to empty, capture a table on the patio, or take a seat at the counter in front of the kitchen.

He's dressed in black from head to toe with slacks that flirt with flood levels. He looks like a college kid picking up shifts to pad his beer kitty, or maybe to puff up his black book. When we opt for the counter, he flashes a boyish grin.

Behind the counter, cooks work in relaxed fury, inelegantly assembling elegant plates with food-packed fists. Clumsy grabbing maneuvers morph into slow, refined movements as they close in on the plates, as if they were encapsulated by a bubble of viscous fluid.

I watch a cook assemble my arugula and grilled quail salad ($11), a scrap of bird in each hand. He plows into another cook briskly wiping the last dribbles of Caesar salad dressing from an aluminum bowl with a large romaine leaf, a piece of green that ends up on a salad plate.

The quail meat is nearly dropped. But the salad transcends its clumsy beginnings with juicy, cleanly flavored meat, even though the flattened clump of arugula in the center of the plate looks like a bad case of bed head.

I chew on slices of coriander-cured venison ($22) while watching another cook make a shallow puddle of black bean sauce in a bowl. The venison is red, mild, and outrageously silky, like plush little ruby rugs of sushi-grade tuna. The cook grabs a cohort by the arm, points to the bowl, and draws lines in the air with his finger just above the black bean plash. Then he grabs a plastic bottle of crème fraîche and quickly remakes his finger tracings in white over the black muck. Sous chef Paul Clark, who barks orders and serves as traffic cop in front of the counter, stops by, wax pencil in hand, and asks how we're enjoying the show.

This is so different from the Star Canyon I remember, the one I swore I would never voluntarily set foot in again after my first visit in 1995. Then, the seating hosts flashed sneers instead of smiles, and moved with smug gestures that seemed choreographed and rehearsed.

And the old service was even worse. I ordered a bottle of Fall Creek Granite Reserve. But our server arrived with something else. After I pointed out the error, he vigorously argued with me, insisting that I had indeed ordered what he brought as he pulled the cork. When Pyles made his dining-room rounds that night, graciously greeting his guests, I barely suppressed the urge to splatter his white chef's coat with flicks of pintos and wild mushrooms.  

"A lot of times the staff and the management get caught up in the success of the restaurant," says Cox, explaining the insufferable snobbery that once flowed from the Canyon. "It takes on a life of its own. Servers sometimes reverse the tables and want to be able to tell the guests what to do. People even thought we were limiting people who came in depending on their zip code or the car they drove and things like that."

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.

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