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Nature Calls

Blue Canyon Kitchen * Tavern offers woodland dining without the taxidermy.

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Atmosphere and banana strudel are two of Blue - Canyon's finest attributes. - PHOTOS BY WALTER NOVAK

Eat your hearts out, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. You lucked out on the geysers, mule trips, and miles of spectacular vistas. But Northeast Ohio is hot on your trail: Not only do we have an honest-to-federal-tax-dollars national park, now we have the laid-out lodge to go with it.

Admittedly, the Blue Canyon Kitchen * Tavern is located not quite inside the bounds of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but its soul is definitely in the right place. Perched high on a Twinsburg ridge overlooking miles of Ohio woodlands, the recently opened restaurant is a log-and-fieldstone beauty, with room for nearly 300 patrons. (No overnight accommodations, though; for that, wander down the hill to the Hilton Garden Inn.)

Co-owners Bob Voelker (developer) and Brandt Evans (executive chef) said they wanted to create a marriage of natural beauty and "awesome" food, and after almost four months of operation, they are well on their way to accomplishing just that. We'd guess that the "natural beauty" part has come relatively easy: The setting is remarkable, with nearly 180 degrees of rolling, tree-covered countryside visible from the floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as from the tables perched on the sunny, three-season terrace.

Indoors, the rambling structure contains another five dining areas, ranging from the rustic "porch" to an elegant, cathedral-ceilinged Great Room. Decor details, such as flooring, paint colors, upholstery fabrics, and table surfaces vary from room to room, but the entire space is unified by a tasteful western theme that includes fieldstone fireplaces, exposed log beams, and oversized paintings of moose, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep, for an ambiance that recreates the feel of the great National Park lodges. Reproductions of Remington and Russell bronzes have been strategically positioned, a black baby grand awaits live performances in the tavern, and while the requisite antlers do find their way into a number of lighting fixtures, we're pleased to report that there is not a single stuffed-and-mounted critter, folksy wall plaque, or cigar-store Indian in sight.

Table appointments are as upscale as the surroundings. Featherweight barium-crystal stemware is by Schott Zweisel, oversized platters sparkle like mountain snow, and the hammered-silver flatware spans the divide between rusticity and refinement. Admittedly, amid all this Ralph Laurenish luxe, the blue-jean-clad servers seem vaguely out of place. But the clientele -- lots of white-collar business types at lunch and the full complement of well-dressed suburbanites at dinner -- mostly makes up for it.

We're guessing, though, that the "awesome" food part of the equation has been more of a challenge: During four recent visits, the kitchen still had its ups and downs.

Both Voelker and Evans come with impeccable credentials and experience, including training at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Furthermore, when he ran the kitchen at the former Kosta's in Tremont, Evans pretty much knocked the socks off regional diners with his spirited, sexy cuisine -- so we know he's got mad skills. Therefore, if we had to guess, we would say that the uneven food results from the restaurant's own success. Open daily for lunch and dinner, as well as Sunday brunch, the place has been pounded from day one. (Even now, would-be guests considering a Saturday-night visit are advised to book a table at least two weeks in advance!) And when a newly assembled staff has to crank out as many as 700 covers on a Saturday night, plate-by-plate perfection simply isn't going to happen overnight.

In fact, given the differences between big Blue Canyon and the tiny, chef-driven boîte that was Kosta's, it doesn't seem unfair to wonder whether Evans's intimate, sensual style can translate to this high-volume setting. Still, there's nothing wrong with the concepts behind most of the dishes, a labor-intensive assortment ranging from homemade soups, salads, burgers, and flatbreads to top-quality seafood, steaks, and chops. When the food fails to delight, lackluster execution -- not lack of ambition -- is typically the culprit.

Take the braised short ribs, for example. Robust flavor and fork-tenderness not withstanding, an excess of fat moved the beef from beyond "rich" to downright greasy. Worse, the bed of "soft" polenta beneath the short ribs was lumpy and dry, with none of the promised flavor of smoked Gouda.

Similarly, two thick slabs of boneless smoked pork loin, in a Sunday-night special, were overcooked and chewy. Too bad, because the accompanying blend of mashed parsnips, rutabagas, and Yukon Gold potatoes couldn't have been more tantalizingly earthy, and a final stroke of perky black-pepper sauce was an inventive tap dance of flavors. (In fact, we hope this dish makes it onto Evans's fall menu, which is scheduled to debut shortly. Just be certain to order the pork cooked medium rare.)

The generously sized à la carte salads also proved to be a mixed bag. The zesty Canyon Caesar, for instance, was a smart twist on the classic, with bite-sized cheddar-cheese "biscuits" standing in for the usual croutons, and the dark, forceful presence of chipotle peppers emboldening the dressing. On the other hand, a simple mixed-greens salad was a bore, with an irrelevant "maple-balsamic vinaigrette" that tasted like neither, and while the scattering of sugar-cumin-and-cayenne-spiced nuts packed an amusing punch, there weren't enough of them to banish the overall blahs.

We had no cause for complaint among the starters, though. To wit, pumpkin-and-sweet-potato bisque (one day's soup du jour) was a beautifully creamy distillation of the season, with its russet color and sweet-savory flavor notes. Flawlessly seared scallops, too, paired up sumptuously with a hearty but well-balanced ragout of roasted corn, maple-flavored bacon, and black-eyed peas. Meanwhile, a small, six-slice flatbread "pizza" (enough for two as a first course, or one as a light meal) made a crunchy, crusty nosh, dotted with roasted-chicken shreds, crumbled bacon, and ricotta cheese on a base of zesty barbecue sauce.

At midday, a luncheon-sized portion of satiny macaroni and cheese -- robust, but not heavy -- was massively flavorful, thanks to truffle oil, flecks of black truffles, and a surprisingly delicate sauce of Asiago, fontina, and goat cheeses. But a croissant-mounted chicken salad, seasoned with fresh tarragon mayo and tossed with red grapes, rated mixed reviews. On one visit, the croissant was stale and battered, the poached chicken dry, and the grape bits in short supply. Yet on a return visit, the croissant tasted buttery fresh, the chicken was moist, and the fruit bits were abundant.

Service, too, still hits some rough spots. An evening spent at the tavern's cozy bar, nibbling on flatbreads and drinking potent but pricey cocktails (including the $8.25 French martini, with vodka, bubbly, Chambord, and pineapple juice), was a pleasure, largely thanks to the friendly, attentive bartenders. And a dinner server in the Great Room proved to be conscientious and customer-oriented. On the other hand, we might as well have been invisible during a weekday lunch on the terrace, when our uninterested server literally walked off in the middle of taking our order! Her subsequent appearances were rare and unpredictable, forcing us to shout across the room to get an iced-tea refill. Later, to inspire her to present our bill, we had to stand up and begin to put on our jackets. By that time, though, we were already almost 45 minutes beyond our allotted lunch hour.

Regardless of what comes before, however, we recommend that you save room (and time) for dessert. Pastry chef Susan Gould bakes everything -- buns, breads, tarts, cakes, and assorted fruity confections -- in-house, and her creations are well worth the caloric splurge. Among our favorites, consider the banana-and-walnut-filled phyllo "strudel," served with sleek banana ice cream from Cleveland's own Mitchell Brothers, served on a plate garnished with broad ribbons of caramel sauce. Alternatively, the delicate, double-layered chocolate cake, filled and frosted with cashew-studded caramel and finished with toasted coconut, rates a resounding "Yum!"

Doubtless, even Fred Harvey would have been impressed.

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