Restaurant Reviews

Review: Blue Canyon Kitchen, Tavern & Wine Bar

Blue Canyon Kitchen is one great wail of kitschy vigor, so loud your ears ring. Aspen logs, fully barked, hang from the ceiling. Tables are ringed with chairs made from pruned sticks and branches and are upholstered in fake fur. Hollowed-out aspen stumps hold arrangements of pussy willows.

Prime steaks sizzle over smoldering wood, which could be pecan or mesquite. No one seems sure. Tenderloins, New York strips, "kobe-style" sirloins and so on. We took on the cowboy rib eye, bone-in, a coat-button of smoked blue cheese maple butter shrinking into a slow run drool in the center of its golden reddish char surface. It is loose, a little chewy, more raw than medium rare with no mouth-watering flavor or inspiring tenderness—an underachieving steak. A strip of waxy paper gets caught in the teeth. Stick butter packaging perhaps.

Strange that in all of this frontier kitsch there isn't a species of game to be had; no quail or elk or venison, not even wild boar sausage link. Steak is the only hoofed food. There is an organic-raised breast of chicken. Still...

That there is so much seafood here could be an ode to its location on the shores of Lake Ray Hubbard. It shines for the most part. Sure, there are some falls from the saddle. Lobster corn dogs, two craggy logs as ugly as hog snouts, are heavy coats of spongy batter swaddling thick chunks of lobster meat. They're crisscrossed near a smear of banana pepper coulis and three perfect dots of conventional cocktail sauce for dipping. This would have worked much better if the coating were thinner, crisper, more of a whisper than a blaring monologue. Lobster withers under such ridicule.

There is a trio of tasty tuna tacos in crisp wonton shells with Asian slaw—small strips of glistening-clean beet-red tuna crowned with a dab of wasabi cream as light as sea foam. The shrimp cocktail is more culinary study than conventional appetizer. Three plump shrimp, hooks seated upright into hollowed-out lemon halves, their tails thrust vertically into the air, rest in an avocado horseradish cocktail sauce studded with diced tomato—a gentle mangling with Southwestern rope.

This kitchen craft is the work of chef Scott Coffman, a short wiry cackle of energy who looks not more than 17. He drops off an amuse bouche of seared scallop near loosely woven streaks of mango chive vinaigrette. It's an artistic spasm: crust in perfect yellow dinginess, gritty, glistening sections breaking off into irregular disks and pylons. The sweetness is vibrant and muscular, quickly displaced by that cogent marine bitterness reminding you of the sheer pregnancy of the oceans.

Even before Blue Canyon hit Rockwall, there were Blue Canyons in Missoula and Kalispell, Montana, in addition to the company's home base in Twinsburg, Ohio. It's a partnership between corporate chef Brandt Evans and hoteliers Val and Robert Voelker. This Texas example overlooks the lake, near the soon-to-be opened Hilton Bella Harbor Hotel in a Mediterranean-style resort complex that includes retail shops and a dozen-screen movie theater—glorified strip mall at its most Californian. The watercolor marina and the tangerine sherbet sunsets almost make you forget the traffic hairballs you had to negotiate to arrive in this slab of shake and bake serene.

The restaurant is divided Fearing's-like into an assortment of drinking and dining spaces; a tavern with chairs upholstered in skins and a rearing horse in ice; a great room with a fireplace and high-backed chairs; and an open kitchen with seating around a polished granite counter where you can view the Blue Canyon meat rub and seasoning gift sets. There's a lighthouse-like turret of a wine bar detached from the mother ship, where neon blue bar lighting adds a Vegas brushstroke to the Ray Hubbard sherbet.

The wine list is relatively short for a restaurant with a stand-alone wine bar hinged to its conceptual DNA. And the servers know precious little about the selections, one even admitting that she's not able to compare and contrast the nuances because she is just shy of legal drinking age—the hazards of recruiting staff in the suburbs. But all you really need to know, ultimately, is that the list is bound in a swatch of floppy red leather and that it urges you to drink upstream from the herd.

Still, there are more than a few rich Chardonnays to tempt matches with the vanilla rum Alaskan king crab legs. The vanilla rum seems to harass the crab more than enhance it, so you almost need a muscled Chardonnay for dispute resolution.

Cedar plank Tasmanian salmon, worked over with a root beer glaze, is undercooked, nearly gelatinous. Plus the root beer glaze was more of a corrupting influence than a complement. Seafood such as salmon and shellfish have their own labyrinth of rich flavors that shouldn't be shouted at. Murmurs and breathy whirs are all they need to perk their own natural flavors; subtle frames to bring various strains into full view.

Mahi mahi, minimally fussed with, exquisitely seasoned, is a fish that flakes off beautifully. It's accompanied by a crock of risotto, blissfully detached from haute postures with peasant injections of ham, peas and bread crumbs; a smooth creamy dish transformed into rustic rib-stick.

Deviled eggs are fussed up with crab and topped with a Spanish olive slice that looks like a dilated eyeball startled by trooper spotlights after a hard night of rum. It rests in a disappointingly dry, stiff yolk whip. Our tuna carpaccio with gazpacho somehow turned into the sashimi big eye tuna with a green papaya slaw, though it wasn't sashimi either. It's a big hunk of fish loin seared so that the clean, tender raw is several layers deep down.

Trout crusted in pulverized pretzel and bathed in whole grain mustard butter is by far the most successful Blue Canyon composition, if you don't count that beautifully ham-handed risotto. A fried basil leaf crowns a sprawl of pearly trout, fanned and sloping and pocked with a birdshot of capers. The fish blankets a bumpy miscellany of red potatoes and wilted spinach in pesto.

Spiced nuts and shards and fragments of chewy, brittle bacon make the Bibb lettuce wedge a turn of brilliance on this steakhouse cliché. Fluffy fans of leaf drip murky blue cheese dressing soiled with nut and bacon 0crumble adding a maple-smoke musk to the complexion.

For dessert we finished with sorbets: berry and mango, scooped into ice cream cones, arranged in a stilted row over a long narrow plate. House-made? No, says our server, house-prepared. House-scooped, perhaps.

No matter, these Blue Canyon kinks grow on you if you relax and let them. The kitsch may make you wince a little, but if you fix your eyes on the calm Ray Hubbard shimmers, you'll find this New American cuisine shot through a Smith & Wesson via Ohio is more alluring than disconcerting. And you can't refuse that offer.

2101 Summer Lee Drive, No. 109, Rockwall, 214-771-3512. Open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$$-$$$$