Higher Ground at Canyon
We were finishing up our meal at Canyon when an older gentleman at the next table said to his server, “Get me the manager.”
When Rich Mead, chef and owner of the restaurant, came around, the customer started on him almost immediately. “You’re new in town,” he growled, his finger in midwag, “so let me give you a bit of advice.”
Mead, a tall man with a sly comedian’s grin, stood there and braced himself for the worst.
The older gent railed against how the setting sun had shone through the windows and directly into his eyes. “I had to move from there and there and, finally, here, to this seat.”
“Yes,” Mead said calmly and apologetically. “We’re getting shades installed next week.”
Unmollified by his answer, the older man continued, “Then the entrée came out before I finished my salad, so I sent it back. I don’t want my food to get cold.”
Mead nodded and apologized some more. His anger dissipating, the customer went on to tell Mead that his waiter didn’t clear the empty dishes fast enough. And finally, when he seemed to run out of things to complain about, he drove home his earlier point: “I figured you want to know, since you’re new here.”
With remarkable aplomb, the owner thanked the customer for his input, promised to talk to his servers, and then laughed off the tension with a hearty chuckle as only Mead could. He even offered to comp the guy some dessert. The man waved him off; he’d simmered down by then, disarmed at Mead’s affability.
What the customer didn’t know was that Mead cut his teeth as the chef at Newport Beach eateries Sage and the recently shuttered Sage On the Coast. Yes, he was new in town, but Mead is as seasoned a restaurateur as any. And then there was his stint at the IRS before he cooked professionally—must be where he developed that thick skin.
Canyon, his new place in Anaheim, is a migration inland for the chef, following the recessionary trend that saw other coastal cooks such as Takashi Abe of Bluefin and Mark Norris of White Horses head for higher ground. But unlike Norris, who abandoned his entire fine-dining menu for diner fare, Mead has made a move that seems mostly geographical. Yes, he’s lowered the prices a bit, but this restaurant is just as dimly lit and expensive-looking as a swanky Newport Beach steakhouse, and the food appears largely unchanged.
Mead’s signature herb-roasted half-chicken still has that coveted skin turned to a chicharrón. It’s so well-rendered it separates itself from the meat. With a swooping curl and gnarled crunch of a kettle-cooked potato chip, it tastes of pure poultry-ness.
He also still offers the Korean-style barbecue short ribs as an appetizer—charred, unctuous planks of sweetly marinated beef begging for rice and kimchi, flanked instead by a freshly dressed, brightly flavored slaw. On the same list of small plates, he adds a green-bean tempura, lacy, crispy things meant to be plucked by fingers and dipped into a stinging mustard-based sauce.
A salad of apples, dried cranberries, candied pecans and greens gets electrified with pungent crumbles of Gorgonzola. But it’s surely too early for the greens to have come from the on-site garden Mead commissioned out back: Canyon’s been open scarcely a month, barely time to grow a single sprout.
If there’s one noticeable change from how he did things at Sage, it’s that Mead now offers the option of two portion sizes for some of his higher-priced entrées. The smaller (but still sensible) chile-crusted lamb rack, for instance, comes with four lollipop-sized medallions—more than enough to dip into a ramekin of jalapeño jelly, a sauce that tastes like salsa verde mated with a jar of marmalade.
He still calls its side of scalloped potatoes “potato lasagna”—probably because the goat cheese he uses warrants the uppity name. And he also still favors grilled corn as his main vegetable component. In the lamb dish, the charred kernels get mixed with green beans. In the Louisiana-style barbecued pork back ribs, the corn is served plain along with a crispy-breadcrumb-crusted block of baked macaroni and cheese.
With everything, Mead’s use of bold flavors is just as reliable as his demeanor. Even without the lamb’s jalapeño jelly, the dish carried a subtle fire. And the char-burnished pork ribs, though a bit dry, came alive thanks to a vinegary, syrupy, zippy sauce.
Indeed, it was after the older gentleman finished his rant that I realized he’d made no complaints about the food. And then there was the other reason why Mead may not have been fazed throughout the entire incident. I saw it, too: The man’s plate was clean.
Canyon Restaurant, 5775 E. Santa Ana Canyon Rd., Anaheim, (714) 283-1062; www.canyonrestaurantoc.com. Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; and for dinner, Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only.
This review appeared in print as "Higher Ground: Rich Mead moves the successful formula for Sage a bit farther inland with Canyon."
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