A Good Bet

Luck, you could say, has nothing to do with the quality of a dinner at Cavanaugh’s. In the upscale restaurant’s kitchen in the left wing of Tropicana Evansville, beyond the long walkway over NW Riverside Drive, Chef Glen Chapman prepares tournedos of beef for the Blackened Neptune, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. He’s blending the sour cream and chive sauce that will cover the potato-encrusted halibut. Or, he’s interacting with the eight other members of his kitchen, including sous chef, Joseph Wilson.

“That’s kind of a small staff for what we do, but everybody pitches in,” Chapman says.

Meanwhile, men and women who’ve just won and lost at poker, roulette, craps, or the slot machines at the casino are seated nightly at booths and tables overlooking the Ohio River. Talking with Cavanaugh’s Manager, Shane Crawford, they might ask about the 50-ounce Big Kahuna bone-in steak challenge. Those who devour the entire $74 entree will secure a spot on Cavanaugh’s Wall of Fame. Crawford recalls a guest who was 5-feet, 7-inches tall and weighed around 140 pounds — “he was smaller than me,” Crawford laughed — who ate it all.

Wearing suits and dresses, or jeans and tennis shoes, throughout the year, customers come for a fine dining experience without the pressures of a dress code. You don’t really need a suit to order a $247 bottle of Caymus Vineyards Special Selection, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Calif., anyway. The most expensive bottle of wine on the menu will still taste just as good without a coat and tie. The restaurant also is in the process of developing a wine list that, after Jan. 1, will include some of the higher-priced wines featured in Wine Spectator magazine. The revised wine list also will include a wide variety of prices and styles to accommodate customers’ needs, according to supervisor Jonathan Nussmeier.

Wines by the glass are a good option, too, for those who may not have reserved a room within walking distance of Le Merigot, Evansville’s first boutique hotel, or Tropicana Evansville Hotel. At $15 per glass, the Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay from Sonoma County, Calif., (the wine list didn’t provide a vintage) was the perfect silky, smooth, and honeyed complement to the spectacular Alaskan King crab. The dish, sold at market price, comes with a small container of lemon-infused melted butter, but that’s just one more tasty option among many. By itself, the crab is deliciously sweet and can clearly stand on its own. The crab is previously frozen, yet the aroma of salt and sea hangs over the plate of crab legs before you even crack the shell.

Cavanaugh’s most popular dish is the $35 Blackened Neptune, which Chapman created about 7 years ago. The dish includes two, 3-ounce filets of beef cut from the tenderloin over a bed of Yukon gold potatoes with three shrimp, crab meat, and Choron sauce. Chapman says the Choron sauce is a Hollandaise-based sauce with tomato paste, a tarragon reduction, and Cajun seasoning, and it coats the shrimp and potatoes. The beef, too, will be grilled to perfection, which in this case was my husband’s favorite: medium rare. He paired that with a $10 glass of Climbing Orange Shiraz, a lively yet light-bodied Australian red wine produced by Cumulus Estate Wines. That’s a wine, by the way, that’s not often seen on local wine store shelves.
Chapman says Chuck Belanger, Tropicana Evansville’s director of food and beverage, “is really, really fluent with his wines. He has a really great palate.”

The wine list at Cavanaugh’s changes every three to six months, and the wines are kept in an eight-foot-wide by 10-foot-tall humidifier in the back of the kitchen that can shelve about 600 bottles of wines. Tropicana Evansville also has a large warehouse that stores wines and other products, Chapman says.

Yet the focus remains on the food, which is strong from start to finish. The $11.25 Ahi tuna is served with sticky white rice, wasabi, and two types of sauce: Ponzu, a blend of soy sauce and lime juice; and mirin, a type of rice wine that includes pickled ginger. The thin, cool tuna is extremely tender and is a flavorful choice whether as a starter or as just a healthy snack between card games.

However, at $6.25, the peanut brittle salad is one of the most interesting selections on the menu. Chapman says he and former Executive Chef John Satko, who trained in Thailand, collaborated to create that dish, which includes a Thai peanut butter vinaigrette dressing and a blend of textures. This mixed salad contains Mesclun greens, tomatoes, and cucumbers and is surrounded by thin, crunchy peanut brittle. The acidic vinaigrette offers a sharp, balancing bite against the sugary peanut brittle. “That’s what we were looking for,” Chapman says of the flavorful contrast. “And you know, it’s very unique.”

Once perfected, each dish at Cavanaugh’s is a good bet for a delightful evening. Yet it takes a bit of chance — and quite a bit of talent — to develop a new recipe. “Some things tend to turn out really well, and some things don’t,” Chapman laughs. “With almost any dish that I create, it’s trial and error.”

The 51-year-old began working at Cavanaugh’s on March 25, 2005. He’s been an employee of Tropicana Evansville since 1997, when it was known as Casino Aztar. Previously, he was the sous chef at two Casino Aztar restaurants.

Chapman says he has been influenced by many people in the quest to prepare and serve delicious cuisine at Cavanaugh’s. “I think the food is great, but our service is also fantastic, and then the view, the ambiance of the restaurant, it’s just something that needs to be experienced,” he says.

Location: 421 NW Riverside Drive.
Phone: 812-433-4333.
Dining and Bar Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 5 p.m. to 11 p.m Fri.-Sat.
Website: tropevansville.com/cavanaughs
Adult Beverages: Yes
Prices: $15.95-$59.95.
Reservations: Recommended.
Payment: All major credit cards accepted.

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