That's right, the burly and virile author who lived and worked in Kansas City in 1917 and has a condominium building named for him on Ward Parkway. (He wrote part of For Whom The Bell Tolls while sitting at a table in the Kansas City airport's Four Winds restaurant in 1949.)
Hemingway was the paternal grandfather of actress Mariel Hemingway, who was born in 1961, four months after the novelist shot and killed himself. She married documentary filmmaker Stephen Crisman. Still with me? In 1986, about the time Mariel was filming Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, she and Stephen opened a restaurant -- a steak and seafood joint named Sam's Café, in New York City. They opened a second Sam's Café in Dallas; Texas restaurateur Jack Baum later bought it and spun it into the chain of Southwestern-style restaurants called the Canyon Café. By that time, Mariel and Steve were on a quest for peace and out of the restaurant business.
In 1997, Baum sold his 13-unit Canyon Cafés Inc. to a major franchisee of Kansas City-based Applebee's restaurants, then known as Apple South. But Apple South, after divesting itself of Applebee's restaurants and renaming itself Avado Brands Inc., unloaded all of its McCormick & Schmick's and Canyon Cafés. The Canyon Café chain didn't fare well under corporate ownership and dwindled from 19 restaurants to 11 in 2002. That's when Bruce Lazarus, the former Canyon Café chief financial officer, and his partner, Douglas P. Czufin, took back eight of the Canyon Cafés -- including two remaining Sam's Cafés in Phoenix -- and started reworking the concept.
"We decided to take the restaurants back to a chef-driven concept," Lazarus told me by phone from the Canyon Café in St. Louis. "We also decided to embrace the Mexican heritage behind Southwestern cuisine."
That meant out with the breadsticks and pink cream-cheese dip, and in with the chips and salsa. But there would be no ordinary pedazos de la tortilla for the Canyon Café's upscale dining rooms. Instead, there's now an assortment of blue corn chips, puffy wonton chips and topaz-colored sweet-potato chips, all heaped in a black wire basket and served with a moderately warm salsa and a slightly more fiery green tomatilla dipping sauce.
On a recent visit with ravenous friends Ned, Martha and Bob, we greedily devoured at least two such baskets, marveling at the sweetness of the yam chips and the tangy seasonings on the wonton crisps. Bob, the perpetual spoilsport, said he still missed the breadsticks, but only because he loved that weird salsa-and-cream-cheese dip that accompanied them. He was the only one, though -- I always thought it tasted like processed Kraft pimento-cheese spread.
Now that the Canyon Café is "chef-driven," the artist in this particular kitchen, George DuPree (formerly of the Classic Cup), isn't hamstrung by penny-pinching corporate rules and can even whip up his own innovative creations. Alas, a recent evening special was one of the most horrible things I've tasted in some time, a "salmon and shrimp combo" that combined, according to our humorless waiter, "grilled shrimp and salmon mousse in puff pastry." That was the idea, anyway. The result was two overbaked scones with a stingy salmon "filling" that had been whipped together with cream and sherry. Along with this came a skewer of nearly burnt shrimp. "It's like something that survived the explosion of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.!" said Ned, who'd ordered the damn thing.
I should note that Ned, a curmudgeonly sophisticate, had already gulped down one of the Canyon Café's new "Limit Two" margaritas and was thus fortified by no less than 4 and a half ounces of premium tequila. Bob and Martha had also ordered the potent margaritas and sipped them at a slightly slower pace, raving about the tang of the fresh-squeezed lime juice and the head-spinning booze. "It's better than antibiotics," said Martha, who was fighting a cold. Ned pushed away his plate and ordered another margarita from the timid server, who Bob insisted looked like Ron Weasley, the red-haired sidekick in the Harry Potter books.
Wanting to taste Ned's supper for myself, I grabbed his plate and took a bite of the salmon pastry, a doughy horror, and one of the blackened shrimp. I cringed in sympathy. What made the dish seem particularly awful was that the rest of us were all so pleased by our meals. Martha had bravely ordered the Canyon Paella, ignoring my concern that few restaurants can pull off this lovely, saffron-scented medley of rice and shellfish. But DuPree's kitchen does right by the Spanish classic, mixing up the paprika-dusted rice with peppers, chunks of chorizo, plump shrimp, fat mussels and a beautifully roasted quarter-chicken.
Beef-loving Bob was happily at work on a juicy hunk of tenderloin, seared in kicky spices and accompanied by a crunchy crab cake coated in crushed pecans. And because I'd overindulged myself on far too many of those chips, I'd ordered something light and seemingly healthy: soft tacos filled with grilled vegetables and lots of crispy "Margarita slaw," whatever that meant. It was all fresh-tasting and delicious.
The Weasley look-alike must have dashed to the kitchen after hearing Ned ranting about his dinner, because DuPree appeared at the table and grimaced. "It does look overcooked."
He reappeared in a few minutes with another salmon dish, this time from the menu, a succulent slab of perfectly grilled, moist pink fillet stuffed with fresh spinach, goat cheese, roasted peppers and chiles. We each took a bite, and it was sensational. Ned, emboldened by tequila, channeled the late Tennessee Williams. "Darlin'," he said to DuPree, "Mamma is gonna need something hot to put on this ol' fish. Do you have something that will set my mouth aflame?"
Martha was scandalized, but DuPree sent out a bowl of the restaurant's silky, mahogany-colored adobo sauce, a slow-simmered concoction of roasted chipoltes, garlic and soy. Ned spooned it over his salmon and announced, "I've died and gone to heaven." Bob rolled his eyes. "He'll be doing monologues from Suddenly Last Summer any minute now," he whispered. Ned devoured everything from his plate, down to the last drop of adobo sauce. "I love this place," he said.
I returned a few nights later with my friend Marilyn, who complained that the restaurant's acoustics were terrible -- the floor is concrete, and hard surfaces abound -- and that the restrooms were all the way up a long and winding flight of stairs. But her mood improved dramatically, as did mine, with the arrival of our server, a handsome, dark-eyed kid who described the applewood-smoked, pecan-crusted salmon in a dulcet voice. Marilyn didn't hear a word of it, alas. "I'll have the skillet enchiladas," she said, pointing to the menu. I opted for more salmon.
First, though, we shared an order of crab cakes, punchy, crunchy pillows of lump crab fired up with bits of poblano chiles and swimming in a creamy chipolte rémoulade (which would, by the way, would make a terrific dipping sauce for the chips).
Finally dinner arrived. The salmon was exquisite on a mound of mashed sweet potatoes. Marilyn, however, took a few bites of her layered enchilada and ordered them boxed up.
"I ate too many chips," she said.
She refused dessert, even when tempted by the knowledge that the sweets were actually made in the restaurant's kitchen. She brushed off the dessert tray, though she admired the fact that our server practically bowed at her command.
It reminded me of something the young matador in The Sun Also Rises might have done.