Red-hot and Blue: Blue Canyon Kitchen & Tavern

Blue Canyon Kitchen * Tavern

The arrival of winter got you down? Let me prescribe a session at Blue Canyon Kitchen * Tavern. Executive chef/co-owner Brandt Evans will elevate your mood (as he torpedoes your diet) with big portions of full-flavored fare. And if the food isn't enough to buoy your spirits, you'll be cheered by the yuletide decor featuring a collection of gingerbread houses designed and built by local preschoolers. Whatever the season, the restaurant's splendid setting atop a rocky ridge in Twinsburg, the gorgeous views across miles of rolling woodlands and the stunning interior space work together to chase away even the darkest mood.

The restaurant has been red hot since opening last June, so if a dose of Blue Canyon therapy is indicated, be sure to plan ahead "— well ahead for a weekend session.

Within months of opening, the restaurant's owners realized it was doubling its projected volume; almost 4,000 square feet of additional space is now planned for next spring. That's hard to grasp, since Blue Canyon is a big place: The restaurant seats about 250 in four dining rooms, along with another 100 in a space for private events. (Evans enlarged his kitchen staff, too, and bumped Larry Coffman to executive sous-chef.)

Seeing it during a typical dinner hour these days, with nary an empty chair to be found, it's difficult to believe that developers Bob Voelker and his brother Val tried and failed to coax a number of upscale restaurant chains onto the site. Guess who gets the last laugh?

Exterior and interior design are patterned after the grand lodges of the National Park system "— think Ahwahnee at Yosemite or El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. It's casual, tasteful, elegant and restrained, without a hint of dimestore-cowboy kitsch. There's a lot of wood, with huge fieldstone fireplaces and lofty ceilings crossed by massive log beams. Antler chandeliers, Western paintings and upholstery fabrics in bold colors and patterns provide the finishing touches. Tables are just bare pine, but they glisten with bubble-light barium crystal stemware, oversized serving platters and hammered silver flatware. As if to underscore the casual mood, servers are clad simply in jeans and blue shirts. It all adds up to an extraordinarily comfortable and soothing ambiance "— one in which you won't feel out of place whether you show up in jeans or a blue pinstripe suit. The menu reflects this something-for-everyone attitude. Says Evans, "I could be turning out a hamburger one minute and truffled foie gras with quail eggs the next."

Try to reserve (well in advance, of course) a table in the "Great Room," if possible near the floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a view across hills and dales almost as far as the Pennsylvania border. Not that seating in the other rooms, with such names as "The Tavern" and "The Porch," signal banishment to restaurant Siberia, but for a full-strength dose of the Blue Canyon experience, you'll want the Great Room.

Wherever you sit, you'll be treated to chef Evans' remarkable food. It's hearty, solid, mostly American fare that's perfectly suited to the surroundings. Evans, a Culinary Institute of America alum, developed a reputation as a creative and innovative cook while serving as executive chef of Kosta's, a one-time Tremont hot spot. He's had to rein in some of his more creative flights of fancy in the transition from a tiny place like Kosta's into a big, high-volume restaurant like Blue Canyon, but even in a kitchen preparing upward of 700 meals on a busy Saturday night, he still manages to turn out some remarkably inventive and labor-intensive dishes.

For example, almost every restaurant in town serves its own version of fried calamari as an appetizer. Most are lackluster and boring. Evans coats his with polenta (cornmeal) rather than the commonplace batter or breadcrumbs "— a great idea "— then successfully dodges cliché a second time by serving the succulent cephalopod in a puddle of ginger-flavored sweet soy sauce rather than the ho-hum marinara dipping sauce that too often completes it elsewhere. The coating is light and crisp, the calamari sweet and tender, the sauce so tasty you'll be tempted to scoop it up with a spoon ($7.95).

On one visit, in the heart of clambake season, we were lucky enough to be offered an appetizer special of about a dozen top-neck clams, steamed to perfection, swimming in a luscious blend of clam broth, butter and roasted corn. What a treat! The clams were tender, with just enough sea-saltiness to tingle the palate and offset the sweetness of the corn kernels. We mopped up the broth with bread, all the while wondering how we'd ever save room for our entrees ($10).

Other appetizers worth sampling include Blue Canyon's housemade potato chips, topped with a velvety sauce of Maytag bleu cheese ($6.50) and the deservedly famous lobster, tomato and crawfish bisque ($3.95 per cup).

One of Blue Canyon's specialty flatbreads makes a good first course for two or a light meal for one. These are thin-crusted pizzas, baked till crisp in the restaurant's wood-burning oven. Prices range from $8.95 for three-cheese topping to $12.95 for a Cedar Center-meets-Murray Hill pizza topped with lox, horseradish cream and scallions. On one visit, we tried a tasty mixture of wild mushrooms, asparagus and goat cheese. The creaminess of goat cheese provided an ideal textural contrast to the crispness of the crust, while the succulence of the mushrooms offset the crunchiness of the asparagus ($10.95).

Entree salads include Canyon Caesar ($7.50 for the basic salad, plus $3.99 for shrimp, salmon or chicken). Chicken salad with grapes, guacamole and goat cheese comes in at $8.95. A simple salad of mixed greens with housemade maple-balsamic vinaigrette dressing will add $3.99 to your bill. But if you haven't already stuffed yourself on bread and appetizers, the bibb wedge salad is a treat well worth the $7.50 tariff. One forkful of tender bibb lettuce, studded with crunchy bits of bacon, crumbled Maytag bleu cheese, spiced pecans and maple-balsamic vinegar dressing, reminded me of the philosopher who tasted ice cream for the first time and decided anything so good had to be a sin.

Seafood entrees include salmon, snapper and yellowfin tuna two ways (wrapped in bacon and stuffed into a spring roll). A house specialty is trout crusted with crushed pretzels and served with caper butter ($16.95). In another dish, luscious sea scallops are seared golden brown and served in a buttery sauce dotted with roasted corn kernels and smoked tomato bits ($16.99). Sides vary with seasonal availability; all are carefully selected and skillfully prepared. On one autumn night, scallops were accompanied by a tangle of perfectly seasoned spaghetti squash and a mound of buttery mashed Yukon gold potatoes. Winter sides will include pumpkin-and-sage gnocchi and a creamy sauce flavored with toasted pistachios.

Beef tenderloin ($19.95) is indeed tender and perfectly cooked. Wild mushrooms, a savory bread pudding flavored with bleu cheese and a garnish of crunchy onion rings complete the dish. Beef short ribs are braised until drop-off-the-bone tender in a rich gravy redolent of root vegetables. The meat is moist and succulent, picture-perfect on its golden pillow of soft polenta. A sprinkling of fried parsnip shavings, crispy and sweet, provides the perfect finishing touch ($17.95).

The chef particularly recommends his veal shank ($21), braised for six hours with mushrooms and root vegetables, as "the perfect entree for a winter evening."

Pasta entrees surprised us with perfectly cooked al-dente noodles rather than the mushy mess we've come to expect. Treat yourself to linguine with Maine lobster ($19.95). The perfectly cooked pasta is dressed with a butter and lemongrass sauce, generously studded with enough lobster meat "— from claws and tails "— to provide a morsel in every bite.

Desserts are the work of pastry chef Susan Geul, whose twin sister, Betsy, bakes all of Blue Canyon's buns and breads. It won't be easy to save room for dessert, but you really should. Geul's banana/walnut strudel, served with Mitchell Brothers ice cream, is one of her standout creations. Luscious bananas and walnuts are shrouded in layer upon buttery layer of phyllo dough and laced with caramel.

The mixed-fruit crisp is another winner, topped with a crunchy layer of oatmeal and granola, and served warm with a dollop of ice cream. Chocolate-caramel cashew cake alternates layers of chocolate cake with fresh caramel, toasted cashews and coconut. All desserts are priced at about $6.

Blue Canyon Kitchen * Tavern, 8960 Wilcox Drive (at I-480 and state Route 82), Twinsburg, (330) 486-2583. Hours: Lunch: Mon-Fri 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.; dinner: Mon-Thu 5 - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 - 11 p.m., Sun 4 - 9 p.m.; Sun brunch 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. The restaurant is easily accessible with dining rooms and restrooms all on the first floor.

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