At some point in the careers of musicians, poets, artists, chefs, and any other creative professionals, they must all face the inevitable question of “do I go with what makes the best business sense or do I go with my artistic intuition?” Thankfully, this decision in the career path doesn’t always represent a fork in the road. The most successful paths will have found balance between the two.
On the business end, Culinary Institute of America graduate Brandt Evans has found a great formula for success for his Blue Canyon Kitchen & Tavern restaurants. Evans’ business partner (and CIA classmate) Bob Voelker is CEO of Gateway Hospitality Group, a company specializing in concept-focused hotels with meeting and banquet space. To quote Chef Evans, “On the weekends, the business takes care of itself. People always want to go out to eat on the weekends. It’s the weekdays that you really have to worry about.” Chef Evans will have nothing to worry about with strategic locations of the Blue Canyon restaurants placed in close proximity to Gateway properties. Weekday patronage will rely heavily on business travelers. Yes Rockwall, you too will be the site of a grand conference hotel facility soon.
As happy as I am that Rockwall business travelers will have additional dining options, as a food writer I was more curious to find out whether Chef Evans has a creative soul and a worthwhile brand of cuisine to offer to the DFW area. Local media reports of Chef Evans proclaiming his newly opened Rockwall location of Blue Canyon will be the #1 restaurant in Dallas and other such proud statements had me skeptical, must be the innate snarkiness of a food lover. But, as with all new restaurants, I would wait a couple of months after the grand opening, then venture out to Lake Ray Hubbard to see and taste for myself. Then, suddenly, I too was faced with a difficult decision.
I was invited for a private tasting at the new Blue Canyon in Rockwall. I certainly wanted to meet the Chef in person and form a non-media-influenced impression for myself. But at the same time, I struggled with the ethical implications of reviewing the overall restaurant experience based a private tasting (call it paranoia, I do work in a public service sector in my 8-to-5 life which requires annual ethics training). I agreed to the private tasting with the understanding that time would be reserved for an interview with Chef Evans. I would not rate Blue Canyon based on the private tasting since the overall experience would not reflect that of an average patron. But rather, I would use the private tasting as a chance to investigate the creative soul and culinary talents of Chef Evans by sitting down, chowing down, and chatting with him for a couple of hours.
My private tasting was at 3:00pm on a sunny afternoon when the restaurant was closed to the public (the Rockwall Blue Canyon is currently only open for dinner). Blue Canyon’s lakefront location gives a perfect panoramic view of the glittering sunlight reflecting off of the water. “Night time,” says Chef Evans, “that’s when this view really comes to life.” Sorry Chef, I have to disagree. I’m willing to bet the west facing view is most spectacular at sunset.
Inside, the restaurant is lodge rustic meets modern chic. Sexy, curved booth seating accented by lounge-inspired bolster pillows lines one side of the main dining room while the freestanding tables boast oversized wooden chairs. A glass enclosed rotunda in a separate structure across the breezeway serves as a wine bar, where the entire food menu is available for nibbles or a full meal.
Blue Canyon offers a fair wine list with twenty some by-the-glass options. The wine list includes Chef Evans’ private Blue Canyon label wines from various wineries around the world. At the time of this tasting, the BC label wines were not yet available at the Rockwall location due to licensing/permitting issues. The Rockwall Blue Canyon menu is seafood heavy with a decent number of steak options. But more on the food later. First, who is Chef Evans?
Brandt Evans Q&A
DC: You define your cuisine as “Creative American Cooking.” Can you describe how your approach is distinct within or different than the popular genre of New American cuisine?
BE: A lot of the trend with fusion cuisine tends to be confusing. Things are being combined for the sake of fusion and they don’t always make sense. My food makes sense. It’s food that you’re familiar with, but Blue Canyonized for that extra touch.
DC: Of the chefs you’ve worked with, who has been influential and why?
BE: Everyone. It’s hard to single out a single influence. Working with Charlie Palmer at Alva’s was a great experience because of the New York restaurant scene. The Four Seasons in Philadelphia was like boot camp for young chefs. They didn’t care what you knew, you were going to do things the Four Seasons way. I learned a lot about hospitality at the Four Seasons, something that is overlooked a lot at restaurants nowadays.
DC: Are there regional differences reflected in the menus of the various Blue Canyon locations?
BE: Definitely. The menus are widely different. The signature dishes like the pretzel crusted trout stay, it’s like a jazzed up version of the ball park experience. The Rockwall menu is definitely more seafood focused than the other menus.
DC: Is there an ingredient in particular that you feel is under-utilized or under-appreciated?
BE: Under appreciated? Salt and pepper. Proper seasoning is so important, it’s the bond between all your other flavors. Under utilized? Maybe… cauliflower.
DC: Can you tell me about your private label line of wines? What inspired you to start the collection?
BE: I love wines. I have a gift for wine and food pairing. I’m no Robert Parker but I know what I like. We started with the German Riesling and it just took off from there. When I’m blending these wines, I’m blending them specifically to complement one of my dishes. When I host special wine dinners, the only wines we use are the Blue Canyon ones because they were made just for my food. It’s like the ultimate wine and food pairing experience.
DC: What does success mean to you? Is it to further expand the Blue Canyon brand? To be a TV chef?
BE: Success means growing opportunities for my staff, growing my culinary tree. I think it’s cool to see someone grow up through my restaurants and end up chef de cuisine or executive chef somewhere big. I’m a firm believer in “paying it forward.” My staff inspires me because I make crucial decisions everyday to make sure everyone gets by all right.
DC: Given the opportunity to eat at a Dallas area restaurant other than your own, where would you go?
BE: I haven’t had too much time to eat out since we’ve been tied up with the opening, but I really enjoyed my meal at Local. I would love to go to Jasper’s, I love the “backyard gourmet” concept. Also the Dallas Fish Market, I’ve heard good things about that place.
The more I chatted with Chef Evans, the more I had to put aside the foodie purist attitude. Chef Evans isn’t here to blow your mind with liquid nitrogen cooking techniques or to serve you a cut of meat so rare and luxurious that it’s sold by the ounce. That’s not his style. As a chef, he wants to create legacy and mentorship within his establishments. Case and point: Scott Coffman, Executive Chef of the Rockwall Blue Canyon, has been with Chef Evans for 8 years and started out doing dishes. As a business owner, Chef Evans wants to create a restaurant with upscale comfortable food that business diners would enjoy after a long day of meetings and families can enjoy together on weekends.
“It’s important that my restaurants are family-oriented,” says Chef Evans, “I have a young daughter and guess what? She tells me where to go to dinner when we go out. I don’t get to make that decision, she does.”
Parents would be happy to know that not only are children more than welcome at Blue Canyon, the kids’ menu entrees are only $4.95 and include choices like lobster mac ‘n cheese, mini kobe beef burger, mini sirloin strip, and organic chicken tenders. Looks like Rockwall’s going to be cranking out some little foodies-in-training.
To me, it looks like Chef Evans has found the balance between the Chef and the Business Owner inside him.
But enough about the chat. What about the food?
Ceviche 3 Ways: Tuna with Asian BBQ sauce, scallops with coconut and fennel, Tasmanian salmon with watermelon, ginger, and caviar, and popcorn with truffle oil. The scallops were definitely the standout on this dish, a creamy tender bite that actually reminded me a lot of the hamachi ceviche at Stephan Pyles. The Asian BBQ sauce was too cloying sweet to succeed as an acidic ceviche base. On the other hand, the Tasmanian salmon was a bit too acidic for my taste, though the sweet-ish caviar served as a nice balance factor. Popcorn with truffle oil was a nice touch (and really makes me wish this combination could be an option at the movie theatre), though by the rich nature of the truffle oil, didn’t really serve its purpose as a palate cleanser.
Yellow Fin Tuna Tacos: This creative Asian spin on a traditional fish taco was one of my favorite bites of the afternoon. The crispy fried wonton wrappers provided great texture contrast to the sashimi style tuna and the wasabi cloud (mousse) on top provided that extra zing. Don’t overlook the seaweed “slaw” on the bottom either, a refreshing, simple bite between the more complex flavors of the taco.
Lobster corn dogs: Deep fried lobster on a stick with banana pepper sauce and cocktail sauce. I really like the concept behind this dish, the visual presentation keys in on the traditional corn dog with mustard and ketchup. Eating it, however, was less elegant (and not a great visual). I struggled with separating the lobster corn dog into two bites (as it was too big for one giant bite). I liked the corn dog with the banana pepper sauce, but probably won’t be eating this on any business lunches. Rather, this tasty and “hands-on” appetizer calls up nostalgia and brings out your inner child.
Asian BBQ Shrimp and Lobster Fried Rice: Though I loved the presentation of this dish, sadly to say this was the disappointment of the afternoon. The large shrimps on sticks were impossible to eat in any sort of civilized manner, and again the cloyingly sweet Asian BBQ sauce overpowered the shrimp. The dish became all about the sauce. The lobster fried rice fell absolutely flat with a limp, almost greasy, texture.
I have to say at this point during the tasting, I wasn’t sure what Chef Evans considered “Creative American Cooking” as most of the dishes I had tasted were Asian-influenced. But thankfully, the second portion of the tasting showed a different (and more familiar) style of cuisine that Chef Evans has seemingly mastered.
Duck 2 Ways: Duck breast and duck confit with a balsamic-cherry reduction and smoked tomato corn spoon bread. The pinkish duck breast was seared on the outside to form a crispy coating to contrast the tender breast meat. Confit was fatty, rich, and tender. Top both with a little sauce, and I was in a calorie-induced duck euphoria. The smoked tomato corn bread dressing on the side was a perfect compliment to this dish, grounding it with some comfort and familiarity. It’s like Thanksgiving turned haute couture, and I wanted all of it.
Seared Sea Scallops: Scallops in a roasted bacon vegetable broth. I didn’t actually see this item on the Blue Canyon menu but it was another favorite. I don’t normally order scallops at a restaurant because there’s a great risk of it being too dry, or too chewey, or too bland, or too whatever. But Blue Canyon seems to have a way with scallops as these were crispy on top and bottom but tender inside, and the dish came together with the familiarity of the roasted vegetable bacon broth. Somehow, this haute seafood dish turned out the same kind of comfort as a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup. Chef Evans mentioned in our conversation that he really enjoys classic flavors like that of mirepoix, and that appreciation came through loud and clear in this roasted vegetable bacon broth.
Kobe Style Texas Sirloin: 10 oz Texas sirloin (Kobe style) with Blue Canyon house steak butter with mushroom ragout and creamed corn. I wish had remembered to take a photo with this steak cut open as it was lush red perfection on the inside with a even coating of gray on the outside. The house steak butter did a nice job of seasoning the steak (not that the juicy steak needed any extra moisture). Mushroom ragout was good but quite unnecessary on this dish. Rich creamed sweet corn provided that comfort factor that I’m starting to realize is the key to what draws people to Chef Evans’ cuisine.
Bone-In “Cowboy” Ribeye Steak: The mushroom ragout makes much more sense with this 18 oz ribeye with smoked blue cheese maple butter. Ribeye was a nice pink in the interior and again, really juicy. At this point in the tasting, I was fairly “steak’ed” out, but my companion, the meat and blue cheese lover, was ecstatic about this dish.
Blue Canyon Burger: Do you have that one picky eater friend who is scared of any food vocabulary outside of chicken tenders and hamburgers? Worry not, the Blue Canyon burger is a frill-less creation of juicy ground beef patty and aged cheddar (the “craziest” ingredient in this true classic) stacked high on a buttered bun. It’s safe enough for the picky eater, and also juicy and tasty enough for the burger aficionado. Fries were of the pomme frites style. Skinny and lightly flavored, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, you can’t ask for more from a French fry.
Peanut Butter Bread Pudding with a Strawberry Jam Ice Cream with Macerated Fresh Berries: In short, PB&J deconstructed and reinvented. Since I generally prefer lighter, less sweet desserts, I usually avoid peanut butter flavors since it can easily be overdone. But the not-too-dense bread pudding here was just the right amount of peanut butter-ness for me with a pronounced peanut flavor rather than a pronounced Reese’s flavor. Add to that the strawberry jam ice cream topped with a small wedge of peanut brittle and the fresh berries in syrup, and it really was the best PB&J I’ve ever had. I think sometime during this course, I had finally understood Chef Evans’ cuisine. His food is comforting in a way that reminds you of your childhood. The food is fun, creative within a certain comfort zone, and uses upscale ingredients in key places to make them better than grandma’s version (err, except my grandma is Chinese and her fried rice is killer good, but you catch my drift).
S’mores: peanut chocolate ganache and a housemade marshmallow on top of a graham cracker crust with a caramel sauce. It’s not quite as “reinvented” as the PB&J dessert but follows the same concept. The feeling is again familiar but creative.
White Chocolate Mousse Bomb: White chocolate mousse inside a chocolate exterior with white chocolate sauce and raspberry coulis. This dessert didn’t make much impression on me one way or the other, primarily because I’m just not a big white chocolate fan.
By the end of this tasting, I had almost forgotten about the rocky beginning points and fell in love with the comfort cuisine with a twist (or as Chef Evans puts it, “Blue Canyonized”). I love that the upscale comfort at Blue Canyon isn’t about adding luxury ingredients for the sake of trendiness, but rather incorporating familiarity with classic flavors and maintaining creativity by presenting that flavor in a new form or combination. I love that I can go here and feel like a kid eating what is essentially a corn dog and a PB&J sandwich but pleasing my adult foodie tastebuds at the same time. Some classics, like the Blue Canyon burger, remain in their true form for those times when we simply don’t want any frills. Though I did love the tuna tacos with the wasabi cloud and seaweed slaw, I found the majority of the fusion portion of the menu a great discrepancy both in theme and taste from the rest of the menu. I can only hope that with time, the fusion becomes less confusing and finds its identity the way the creative comfort food has.
Oh, and that #1 restaurant proclamation? “Taken out of context,” says Chef Evans, “I want to be the best for Rockwall and my staff. I have good relationships with other chefs and don’t need that drama.”
Blue Canyon Kitchen, Tavern, & Wine Bar
2101 Summer Lee Dr
Rockwall, TX 75032