Mouth by Southwest
Many moons ago, Food & Wine magazine called up a bunch of us so-called food professionals and asked a staggering number of questions that required far too much thinking on the spot. Where would we eat our last meal on earth? Whom did we think was the greatest chef of the century? What did we think was the most tired-out dining trend?
I never thought these answers would get published, but they're in Food & Wine's July issue. None of my replies quite made the list, which doesn't surprise me -- when the survey folk asked me to predict the next culinary direction, I said "Interplanetary cuisine." (I told you it was too much thinking on the spot.)
Still, I was interested to see that 27 percent of those polled thought Italian food was the most worn out. At the moment I couldn't agree more -- Italian restaurants outnumber portobello mushrooms around these parts. But then again, ask me again five years from now, when most of them will have gone gills-up. A real dearth of Italian food would probably change my mind.
This phenomenon has been known to happen before. Take, for instance, Southwestern cuisine. Several years ago I would have cited it (along with Creole/Cajun food) as the regional fare most likely to beat the palate to an exhausted pulp. I had absolutely no interest left in any possible combination of chile peppers, corn, beans, cilantro, tomatoes, and whatnot. I couldn't have cared less that a highly regarded Southwestern restaurant, Canyon Southwest Cafe, had recently opened on East Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Despite the chorus of praise from my colleagues, I couldn't bear to visit.
Nearly half a decade later, Canyon has not only survived a dying trend, it continues to flourish. One of the reasons for this, of course, is the fact that it's the only Southwestern spot in the area. Another is its subtle decor: The L-shape dining room never overwhelms you with coyotes and Kokopellis but hints at the region with wrought iron sconces and broken-tile floors. Seating is limited, though, so call for reservations, especially if you want to sample the restaurant's aged tequilas in a comfy booth instead of at the contemporary, neon-lit bar. If you dial too late in the day, you're likely to hear a message on the answering machine, listing the dinner times still available -- 5:30, 6, or 10 p.m.
But the main reason for Canyon's enduring popularity is the peerless creativity of its current executive chef, Chris Wilber. Suddenly I'm hungry again -- for, well, chile peppers, corn, beans, cilantro, and whatnot. You can satisfy your craving for all the aforementioned ingredients with a single appetizer, the grilled chicken quesadilla with jalapeno Jack cheese, roasted corn, cilantro pesto, and black bean-mango salsa. If you're looking for something more unusual, however, check out Wilber's broader European influences. In another quesadilla starter, he combined prosciutto and Brie to excellent effect, adding the textural component of grilled cremini mushrooms to the filling. Fire-roasted peppers garnished the flour tortillas, which had been cooked on a griddle and cut into four delectably oozing triangles. Our only complaint was that the butter had been allowed to brown too long before the quesadillas were pressed into it, which turned some sections darker than a snowbird.
Mushrooms also enhanced the French-inspired escargot appetizer, an earthy combination of meaty snails and plump creminis sauteed in a vibrant port-wine sauce. The escargots' only Southwestern note came in the pan-fried red-chile corn cake that served as an intriguingly nutty base. More typically Tex-Mex was the starter of house-smoked duck over tortilla chips. Not calling this dish "nachos" may be one of Canyon's only pretensions. Still, the crisp corn chips, studded with chunks of lightly smoked duck, black beans, and marinated tomatoes and scallions and topped with melted mozzarella cheese and ancho chile creme added up to one of the better examples of nachos I've tasted in a while.
Wilber continued to dance around Southwestern convention by utilizing mozzarella, rather than cheddar or Monterey Jack, in his grilled shrimp-and-scallop burrito entree. The overstuffed flour tortilla spilled a wealth of tightly curled shrimp and sweetly succulent bay scallops onto the plate, along with grilled bell peppers and onions. The burrito was paired with a cool roasted-corn salsa invigorated by a touch of toasted cumin. A chipotle cream sauce tying the whole thing together was just a bit too salty to be called perfection.
On the other hand, the beauty of the filet mignon simply could not be debated. Three inches thick, the beef was a gorgeous medium-rare, as soft and buttery as the poblano pesto-infused goat cheese spread on top. Its zinfandel jus made a pretty palette with a side dish of purple Peruvian potatoes, mashed with chives, and an assortment of sauteed baby squash.
If Wilber's menu has a fault, it is his repetition of ingredients. The poblano pesto that tops the filet and accompanies a smoked-portobello appetizer appears yet again as a rub for the undeniably tender and accomplished mustard-tinged pork tenderloin entree. Goat cheese is in danger of becoming pedestrian when it's spread on a steak, sprinkled on a fresh and crisp organic-lettuce salad, stuffed into a grilled chicken breast main course, and crumbled over a tequila-jalapeno-smoked salmon tostada starter. Smoked duck turns up in one of the most popular and interesting dishes, the Indian ginger linguine, as well as in the nachos. And roasted corn accompanies practically all the fish main plates, from pan-simmered red snapper to blackened yellowfin tuna.
In fact, fish fillets, while beautifully treated, didn't always work cohesively when combined with side dishes. Pistachio-crusted dolphin with a coconut/curry/shiitake mushroom sauce was light and ideally suited to the flaky fish. But a wild rice/roasted corn pancake, which allowed the dish to adhere to the Southwestern theme, felt forced.
Wisely, pastry chef Peter Voto doesn't overdo the concept by serving up odd sweets like chile-infused ice cream or black bean mousse (which has been known to happen in other restaurants). Instead he bakes a moist bread pudding, jeweled with cranberries and walnuts, and pairs it with simple vanilla ice cream, making this dessert a necessary diet evil.
If I were to make one recommendation for improving this restaurant that succeeds despite the downswing in its cuisine's trendiness and excels despite its lack of local competition, it would be for Canyon's management to anticipate the crowds the place consistently draws and simply stock up on food. Our server kept coming back to the table to tell us each thing the kitchen had run out of. The production of a meal here was otherwise flawless -- but still, who wants to have to take that 5:30 reservation in order to nail down a dish of smoked duck over ginger linguine?
Canyon Southwest Cafe. 1818 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-765-1950. Dinner nightly from 5:30 till 11 p.m.
House-smoked duck over tortillas
Filet mignon with poblano-pesto goat cheese
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