What? No dried rabbit on a stick? Tenaya's Indian touches are all theme, no food.
What? No dried rabbit on a stick? Tenaya's Indian touches are all theme, no food.
Jon Lagow

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There's a seminal point reached in life's greatest endeavors -- art, sex, drinking Miller High Life -- where the experience is so profound, so touching on so many levels, it becomes transcendent. The act and the actor become one, and the interplay dissolves into something greater than the sum of its parts. For these rare and blissful moments, feeble expressions have been coined in an attempt to convey the profundity -- terms like "magnum opus," "Champagne of beers," and "banged his/her lights out."

The same is true of theme restaurants. There is that point where the theme expresses itself so succinctly, with such profound subtlety, it ceases to be a theme. It becomes...well, you're not exactly sure what it becomes, and this compelling mystery just adds to the beauty, driving the experience deeper into your soul.

That is what Tenaya aims for. What is Tenaya? "Tenaya is a unique Native American theme restaurant located in the Las Colinas Development, Irving, Texas," explains the press release. So right off the bat, Tenaya throws a compelling paradox at you: a lump of Native American culture settled in a fabricated corporate community sewn together with an aborted monorail system.

According to the menu, Tenaya was named for a descendent of the Miwok Indians and the last great chief of the Yosemites. These Indians considered the abundance and richness of the land a gift from the spirits. "Every element, animate and inanimate, spoke if listened to and delivered messages of harmony inherent in life," the menu elaborates. "Tenaya's legacy and that of his ancestors' lives, breathes, and blows in the Pohono of Kisskissa Meadow..."

Honoring the Miwoks' "eyes wise, souls open, and ears understanding," Tenaya has a Pohono room with audiovisual equipment, private phone lines, and a patio. There's also the semiprivate Kisskissa room, which invites further Miwok reflection. And the Fun Room has plush leather couches and chairs and an Indian rifle in a glass case above a large gas fireplace. On one Sunday afternoon, with an outside temperature pushing 95 degrees, long tongues of flame flared from those gas jets.

But it's in the menu where Tenaya really becomes transcendent. Everything is at once Native American, and New American. The Native American influence becomes a ghostly appliqué, like a temporary tattoo. There are arrowheads and salsa (chips and salsa), Yosemite shrimp, bow and arrow rib eye, and Miwok chicken -- chicken breast, fresh mushrooms, and linguine. Linguine?

Sometimes potent symbolism is so elusive, it becomes fathomless to those not sufficiently prepared to enter a transcendent state. Ponder this. There is no buffalo, cattail pollen flapjacks, wild rice, or venison hash on Tenaya's menu. But there is an exuberantly fresh Cobb salad ($9.95), and a classic Caesar ($6.95), a thing with no Worcestershire, lemon, anchovy, or garlic flavors peeking through. Yet it still managed to sneak hints of mayo onto the palate through its tepid creamy dressing. You'll also find onion rings ($3.95), thin, crisp tangles of thyme-infused batter coating onion threads just enough to let the sweetness seep out.

Tenaya puffs ($6.95) -- a mixture of cream sauce, smoked chicken, cheese, and mushrooms wrapped in a delicate pastry and baked -- challenge the spirit. Because no matter how hard you listen, no matter how long you wait for messages of harmony or live, breathe, and blow in the Pohono of Kisskissa Meadow, you won't find a fleck of smoked chicken or a speck of flavor.

Still, this leaves the mystery of the linguine and the general conundrum of a Native American-themed restaurant with little, if any Native American influence on the menu. But like the sound of one hand clapping, this riddle demands time, patience, and logic knocked on its ear to understand.

"We've had a little bit of a mix-up there with some people who wanted Indian food," says Vice President of Operations Austin Jourde. "Our food is certainly not American Indian cuisine. I think our food is much better than that. Would you want dried rabbit on a stick and some berries and nuts or acorns?"

Or deer liver fried in porcupine fat? Of course not. You want a bland shrimp po-boy ($8.95) served on fresh-baked bread with lettuce, tomato, and a slathering of rémoulade. But in the spirit of receiving harmonic messages and a Pohono breeze, you don't want the rémoulade to be detectable. Or how about a smokehouse brisket sandwich ($6.95), pulverized meat mush in a sweet sauce with a smoke flavor that's so subtle, you'll wonder whether maybe it hyperventilated in the Kisskissa Meadow? Tenaya does have great fries, though: thin, delicate, crisp, and hot. And they shrewdly don't refer to them as French.

Yet you may be wondering, in the spirit of souls open and ears understanding, how Tenaya's Native American theme manifests itself. "Well, we have some artifacts," explains Jourde. "We have some decor. Sometimes we play Native American music over our sound system. We have lots of portraits, blankets. Some of it is more mainstream stuff you'd see at a Southwestern-type shop."

And just in case this doesn't suffice, Jourde says they even commissioned a bronze sculpture of an Indian maiden named Loyia, who just happens to be Tenaya's wife. She stands in the lobby carrying a basket full of acorns.

The handsome mountain lodge-type structure -- rendered from river rock, Colorado ledge stone, and cypress timbers and paneling -- is filled with assorted spears and arrows mounted on the walls. Rawhide window coverings hang from metal curtain rods fashioned in the shape of long arrows. In a raised section near the ceiling stands a sculpture of an Indian Chief -- Tenaya maybe -- with an arrow locked in his flexed bow. A few feet away, a previously launched arrow is imbedded in a ceiling plank.

"We picked the name Tenaya just pretty much because we like the ring of the name," admits Jourde. "We're not trying to put ourselves aligned with any one group of people. We were very interested in the culture and heritage of the American Indians. We just kind of like American Indians in general."

This is the level of enthusiasm that led Tenaya to offer daily wild game specials. The one we tried was, I guess, a Native American version of surf and turf. It included grilled marlin in a creamy, rich seafood-saffron sauce and an elk chop in a sun-dried blueberry cabernet sauce ($28.95). The dense fish was flavorful, but was perhaps overwhelmed by the richness of the sauce. The firm elk was grilled exquisitely rare, with a black-red ruby center and a rich, gamy -- but not unpleasant -- taste, a flavor somewhat thwarted by the sweetness of the sauce. Jourde says they've also served a wild game mixed grill with rabbit, elk, and...kangaroo.

Wild game specials, like all Tenaya entrées, come with a choice of two sides from a selection that includes stuffed tomato, baked potato, rice pilaf, mashed potatoes, and grilled vegetables in a maize husk. Stuffed tomatoes, fruit that has its insides scooped out and sautéed with bread crumbs and spices before it's transplanted, sprinkled with cheese, and broiled, was a bit mushy and pasty. Grilled vegetables in a maize husk -- jicama, carrot, and squash -- were tasteless. So was the rice pilaf. And it seems odd here that there wasn't at least a prick at Native American dining authenticity by including American wild rice, the seeds of the long-grain marsh grass that grew near the Great Lakes and were harvested by the local Indians. It's a little like developing a French restaurant that serves meatloaf and Vienna sausages with little French flags in a Jell-O mold. But this might be Tenaya's subtlety skirting the top of my head.

That subtlety also shows up in the Cajun salmon ($10.95, lunch), a thing that doesn't seem as Cajun as it does Caribbean, at least if flavor has anything to do with it. The fish is carpeted with a sweet mango chutney of onion, pineapple, and bell pepper. But at Tenaya, what you call it is more important that what it actually is. Still, the fish proved moist, flaky, and tasty, though the accompanying vegetables -- cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, and onion -- were virtually flavorless and were either undercooked and hard or overcooked and mushy.

Slices of house-cured pork tenderloin ($17.95) with apple-raisin chutney were smoky-sweet with firm crust and moist meat and a good portion. And the apple crisp ($5.95) was warm, chewy, and good.

Jourde says that a land and real estate developer, whose name he would not reveal, owns Tenaya. It turns out the owner is Jeston W. Alley, of Tenaya Investments Inc. He also operates a company called Shoshoni Development Inc., and he plans to expand the Tenaya concept to Atlanta; Denver; Seattle; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Orlando or Naples, Florida.

Hopefully, in these places the thematic thrust will be more lucid, because the strategy of locking a restaurant into such an abstract concept is difficult for the untranscended to grasp. It's a little like the quintessential Grateful Dead fan, a twitching dervish who gets off on himself getting off.

Yet in reality, the idea of a Native American theme restaurant that largely eschews Native American cuisine is not a nagging problem. "We got the plank salmon. We got the wild game. I don't know how much more we need to do," defends Jourde. "When I go to Outback Steakhouse, they don't have kangaroo on their menu. But we got it here."

Can anyone say Champagne of beers?


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