Pop-up dinner at Canyon Coffee & Café

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In November, we told you about Canyon Coffee & Café's vision for an elevated level of cuisine under incoming chef Jake Ainsworth.

And last week we updated you on the plans at the transitioning eatery for launching bistro-style dinner service soon, preceded by a series of three-course pop-up dinners.

Chef Ainsworth and owners Matt and Kimberly Carlson invited me to the first of these dinners this past Friday, Feb. 1 (as their comped guest), where sous chef Michael Fullwood was given lead to design a menu inspired by his culinary upbringing in Charleston, S.C. (He worked under respected chef Frank Lee at Slightly North of Broad for several years.)

To skip right to the sexy food photos (and a few more photos than pictured below), go ahead and view this slideshow.

For a brief play-by-play, read on.

Fullwood preceded the meal with some super-snackable, quickly addictive, house-spiced almonds and walnuts (tossed with a little oil in salt, pepper, chile powder, paprika and nutmeg) and a complementary greeting wine — either a solid 2009 Clos du Bois Chardonnay or 2011 Folie á Deux Ménage á Trois, a great Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend.

(Canyon isn't yet selling alcohol, but Carlson is allowed to essentially give it away for free at special events such as this.)

Next came a beautiful amuse bouche of a deviled egg constructed with horseradish, smoked salmon and herbs.

Canyon Coffee & Cafe

In order for us to try everything on display for the evening, Fullwood presented us both the meat-eater and vegetarian plates for the following course.

The vibrant vegetarian plate was a poached pear salad with bleu cheese and Craisins in a sherry vinaigrette; the pear was poached in marsala wine with citrus and more nutmeg and clove, plus cinnamon, then got a sugar dusting for a quick caramelization prior to hitting tables.

The out-of-the-park carnivores plate featured a fatty cut of pork belly doused with a pork jus and served with roasted asparagus and a fried quail egg. And the garnish? Crunchy crumbled almonds and crispy duck skin.

Canyon Coffee & Cafe

I never complain when a chef opts to double-down on swine, so was perfectly thrilled to see a cold-smoked pork chop (brined to tenderness, smoked, seared, then oven-finished) appear next with barley risotto and sautéed spinach, pear chutney (another welcome double-down) and a highly reduced (i.e. thick) maple-pork jus.

Its counterpart for the main course was a perfect pescatarian treat of crisp-skinned red snapper with asparagus and haricot vert and an excellent mashed potato-esque, creamy cauliflower purée with a garlic edge.

Canyon Coffee & Cafe

For desserts, both exemplary: a zesty lemon pound cake under macerated berries and whipped cream, and crunchy fried doughnut pieces with a tri-saucing of espresso chocolate, whiskey caramel and raspberry puree.

Canyon Coffee & Cafe
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Dig the dual stripe effect with the chocolate garnish matching the chocolate cigarette sticks.

Included in the meal's price ($50 per couple in this case) was a coffee, cappuccino or espresso with dessert.

Canyon obviously wants to spotlight its direct-trade Dillanos Coffee Roasters products, reminding guests that at least at this point, the establishment is known more as a coffee cafe.

But the restaurant's planned expansion would certainly change that dynamic, creating both a quick sandwich and java destination and a fine (though still outwardly casual) sit-down gourmet dinner spot.

The high quality of this dinner indicates that the chefs are certainly ready.

Fullwood, Ainsworth and crew deserve extra kudos for pulling this whole thing off minus a commercial gas kitchen; everything was executed with an electric hotplate duo, small toaster oven and small flat-top griddle. Impressive, really.

Once thing is unquestionable since the Carlsons took over in late 2010: Canyon's trajectory is heading upward quickly. This dinner overall rivaled many fine dining destinations in this city. Take the coffee shop setting away, and the food could have hit a white tablecloth anywhere.

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