Wilber pushes it further in our direction by tilting his menu ever so slightly toward seafood, from snapper and grouper to shrimp and oysters. There's a fantastic appetizer of shrimp tapas ($15), a flatbread topped with grilled Florida shrimp, tomatillo drizzle, a scattering of creamy-sharp Spanish manchego cheese, and roasted chili peppers. If you snag a seat at the bar while you're waiting for a booth, you can order snacks like this one to whet your appetite or the equally exquisite blue-corn-crusted oysters, fried and served in their shells ($16), beautifully crunchy on the outside and pudding-like within. A little pool of cilantro cream puddles underneath them, and the whole deal is accompanied by a whispery-light green salad tossed with roasted corn and chili vinaigrette. Both the tapas and oysters are a lesson in texture and color — vivid on eye and tongue, with a buttery umami that fills your mouth with happiness: real party food. A party is exactly what you're here for. I spotted no one during my last two visits who wasn't having what looked like the time of their lives.
As noisy-crazy as Canyon is, the place still exudes coziness. Earth and wood tones are dashed with the occasional spot of electric blue; the lighting is low except for peaks of intense glitter shimmering on the designer tequila bottles posed on the back of the bar, as if to say: Drink me. Wooden wine warrens have been tucked here and there into the walls overhead. Draped in an elegant white tablecloth, our booth had the feel of semi-privacy in the midst of mayhem. And the servers passing gracefully through the thrum were highly knowledgeable and just damned nice. The hostess at the door, overseeing an elbowroom-less location that would send any normal staffperson into a frothing tizzy within 15 minutes, treated us with benign geniality. We might as well have been the only customers in the place, instead of just two of many dozens.
Wilber calls his menu "modern Southwestern with Asian, South, and Central American influences," and he's scattered a few dishes, like the wasabi ginger beef with soba noodles and carne asada, around to ground that claim. But the best dishes here are squarely in the Southwest tradition. Bison skewers ($17) are cooked to a perfect turn, tender and rare on the inside, coated with an inspired rub redolent of Indian spices, a fresh tomato salsa with jalapeño on the side, and a rich red chili crema to drag the meat through.
On our first visit, I raved that Canyon might be the best restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, and a little research at home confirmed that New Times had voted it just that in our 2001 Best Of Broward-Palm Beach issue. The flavors Wilber uses are potent reminders of what can be done to your taste buds: Everything pops. On a second visit, although the food was just as good, I started to quibble. Those flavors did indeed shine from every dish, but they'd started to shine in the same way, whether the dish was chicken or fish or steak — the creams and the chilies and the corn, the salsas and the pestos, were beginning to run together. Even the organic chicken with toasted almond red chili mole ($24), a meal that ought to have confounded all the other flavors we'd sampled, tasted like more of the same (and the chicken was overcooked).
I don't know how you'd get around this problem as a regular customer, exactly, because even the divine red snapper fillet (roasted Peruvian potatoes, toasted corn, marinated tomatoes, $25) would start to seem a little dull after too many repetitions. The beef tenderloin burrito ($24), very fine as it is — overflowing with strips of tenderloin, red peppers, and mushrooms — is ultimately just gussied-up street food. I have nothing bad to say of the salmon fillet cooked on a Mexican cast-iron comal (a flat, heavy pan); it was nicely prepared with a melting center, but only the chili potatoes that came with it linger in memory. I started to wonder if the wilder and more potent the flavors, the harder the chef has to work on upping the taste sensations to keep customers on the edge of their seats. Would Canyon begin to bore in the long haul?
Wilber hardly seems to want to become some sort of mad food scientist — the menu over Canyon's 12 years has shifted only slightly, little tweaks to celebrate each new year. And the crowd keeps on coming, throwing back those prickly pear margaritas (it's hard to imagine how my appetite for these could ever flag) and spooning up the last remnants of white chocolate bread pudding (it comes in a vat the size of a powder-room sink and tastes like the best sex you've ever had). If Wilber and pastry chef Dean Roman had done no more than create one perfect cocktail and an even more idiosyncratically delectable dessert, their work on this planet would have been well done.