Restaurant: Canlis – Part 2/4
Cuisine: Fine Dining/Modern American/Pacific Northwest
Last visited: July 20, 2013
Location: Seattle, WA (Queen Anne: Upper)
Address: 2576 Aurora Ave N
Transit: Dexter Ave N & Wheeler St
Phone: (206) 283-3313
Price range: $50+
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
- Since 1950
- Chef Jason Franey
- Traditional fine dining
- Modern American cuisine
- Formal ambiance
- 180-degree views of city
- Multiple award winning
- White table cloth dining
- Live piano music
- Extensive wine list
- Reservations recommended
- Private dining available
- Business dress code
- Mon. — Fri. 5:30pm to close
- Saturdays from 5pm to close
- Closed Sundays
- Twitter: @Canlis
- See – Canlis Part 4/4 (Full post)
**Recommendations: Chef’s Tasting Menu (7 courses for $125). The classics are The Canlis Salad (optional to have it prepared table side), Peter Canlis’ Prawns, Peter Canlis’ Steak Tartare, Twice Baked Potato, and Canlis Soufflé.
It is bound to come up when thinking of fine dining in Seattle, and it was my most anticipated restaurant for Follow Me Foodie to 2 Days in Seattle. It’s one of Seattle’s premier fine dining destinations located on a cliff overlooking the city, Lake Union and the Cascade Mountains.
Canlis opened in 1950 when Peter Canlis wanted to build “the world’s most beautiful restaurant.” Grandsons Mark and Brian Canlis took over in 2005 and the restaurant was given another face-lift.
It’s an institution, and while some say it’s a restaurant to “check off the list” and “try once in your life,” it deserves more credit. It’s a restaurant that doesn’t change often, but when it does, it’s worth revisiting – especially in the last few years with Chef Jason Franey in the kitchen.
From the outside it looks rustic and almost cabin like, and the inside has a similar feel. The intent in the redesign was to bring the outdoors, indoors. The space looks grand and spacious with floor to ceiling windows and 180-degree views of the city, but it still comes off a bit stuffy. It’s a two story restaurant with ample seating, so it might not feel as intimate, but it also doesn’t feel empty since most the seats are filled.
This is traditional white tablecloth fine dining, which is hard to find these days especially along the West Coast. Many North American restaurants move away from the traditional, but it still has its place. I can appreciate a live pianist, carefully ironed tablecloths, and formal service with attention to detail, which is what you’ll get here; but for some it’s uncomfortable and pretentious. They take service seriously and treat it as an art form, which is not necessarily “long lost” today, but evolved and less formal. More important is they understand hospitality which never gets old.
It is a special occasion and corporate account place, and as a tourist dining at Canlis for the first time I had nothing to compare to, but I could see it gradually progressing. They cater to old clietele while trying to draw in new customers, so it’s an interesting balance and careful line they walk. They are sensitive to loyal diners and respectful of family traditions, yet they are set to please every customer walking in.
Other memorabilia included a working black rotary phone dial that sat beside Peter Canlis’ favourite table, which he also treated as a bit of an office desk. It was an honour to sit there. Another characteristic was the small copper charcoal broiler in the centre of the restaurant, where in the past, the head chef would spend most of his time. It was the first restaurant to have an open kitchen in Seattle, although now its main purpose serves as a piece of history, since Executive Chef Franey prefers to be hands-on in the behind the scenes kitchen.
Brian and Peter Canlis are still physically at the restaurant and even the staff is a family that rarely changes. The head office is located upstairs and it may have a structured and somewhat corporate feel, but I could see precious moments. From couples celebrating anniversaries, to tables for one, which you know used to be made for two, it is a special place.
It was a pioneer in Seattle’s fine dining scene and arguably invented it for the area. Times have changed so they can’t rely on the past to build a new clientele, but their efforts are persistent and new blood helps.
36 year old Jason Franey is Canlis Restaurant’s fifth-ever executive chef in 63 years. It can mean many things, but obviously few changes are made. Franey trained under Daniel Humm of 3-Michelin Star Eleven Madison Park (named #5 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013), although they worked together even prior at Campton Place in San Francisco. He joined Canlis December 2008, and since then he has been named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs and The People’s Best New Chef Northwest. He’s also been a finalist for the James Beard Best Chef: Northwest award in 2012 and 2013.
I had the pleasure of meeting him and taking a tour of the kitchen and property, which anyone can do upon request. Although renovations have been made, there’s an old fashion feel and charm to it. Since the Canlis brothers took over from their parents, they have upgraded the interior design, plates, stemware, kitchen and most importantly, chef. Together they’ve given Canlis a new breath of life while keeping the heart and soul of the restaurant.
The menu was the same as the restaurant, in the sense that it was trying to please the old and the new, which is challenging. They kept some signature Canlis dishes including The Canlis Salad (optional to have it prepared table side), Peter Canlis’ Prawns, Peter Canlis’ Steak Tartare, Twice Baked Potato, and Canlis Soufflé, although minor changes have been made to improve the recipes. Unfortunately I missed out on these signatures by ordering the Chef’s Tasting Menu, but I would go again to try them.
The Chef’s Tasting Menu is who Chef Franey is, so if you’re there for his talent and inventive food I would recommend this menu. However if you’re there for history and tradition and prefer to play it safe than the Canlis staples are still available. From grandmother’s recipes to modernist techniques, one would think the chef and owners play on opposite teams, which is far from the truth. There is emotional investment in the classics which are nostalgic for long-time customers, so it’s risky pulling it in a new direction too quickly, but they’ve been successful with the gradual changes and upgrade.
For the size of the restaurant and volume they do, I was surprised the food didn’t come out “banquet-like” or mass-produced. Their kitchen team rivals a busy hotel which allows them to pull off the all encompassing menu and cuisine, which Franey likes to call “geeked-out comfort food”.
It was a little New York in the context of Seattle and its New American meets Pacific Northwest cuisine. He does not specialize in molecular gastronomy, although the menu is driven by science and a variety of progressive techniques. He takes recognizable dishes, gives them eclectic flair using a mix of local and international ingredients, and presents a polished plate. The food is simple, but fine tuned, and he puts just enough components on the plate before they start to cancel each other out. Not all the dishes are created equal, but all were enjoyable and well prepared.
I came with high expectations and I was not disappointed, although I enjoyed the food more than the room due to personal taste for both. They invested heavily in the design of the restaurant over the years, and it is distinctly Pacific Northwest with its wilderness appeal, but I still found the food exceeding the structure and style of the room. For this caliber of restaurant, the service is one to be reckoned with and I wouldn’t be surprised if people came for that alone.
Canlis prides themselves on the past, and while that can get old, they continue to stay relevant. The modern vision initiated by third-generation Canlis brothers and Chef Franey has given the restaurant a new wave of hype impressing new generations and first-time visitors. On the surface it may seem like they are finding ways to keep up with the new, which may have been true at some point, but now they are the new.
The personal touches are constant reminders of the restaurant’s history, which was never really a humble beginning. They started on a strong foot, and although I’m unfamiliar of what happened in the time in between, I see it for what it is now. They may have gotten too comfortable and let themselves fall behind in past years, but they are aware when it happens and change it. It has over 60 years of experience and it shows.
Canlis is “old news” made new again and it hasn’t reinvented Seattle’s dining scene, but it’s revived itself and made heads turn once again. It is a comeback restaurant that has always been there, but has learned to preserve old memories rather than rely on them. I can’t criticize history and tradition, and those make them who they are, but it now strives on creating new memories and being better than its old self.
With restaurants like these (see Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, The Pointe Restaurant at The Wickaninnish Inn, Aura Restaurant at Nita Lake Lodge) I often find myself charmed by the history, or more impressed with the incredible views, but based on this menu and where I was sitting (centre of restaurant with a non-obstructive view) I couldn’t really tell you what I saw outside.
Note: The Chef’s Tasting Menu is 7 courses for $125. Photography by Brenda (some are mine).
On the table:
- This is the signature Canlis amuse bouche. I could have had 10 of each.
- The fried egg yolk and salmon mousse cornet are usually mainstays, and the tart changes on occasion.
- Deep Fried Egg Yolk
- Warm breaded deep fried egg yolk with liquid centre, sauce Gribiche
- This was my favourite of the three, which is no surprise since I have an obsession with eggs.
- This was a one-biter and it reminded me of a mini scotch egg.
- It was a thin crisp crust and when you bit into it there was a warm explosion of creamy, rich egg yolk.
- Chef likely used the sous-vide technique to make it. The egg yolk was like custard.
- I don’t even recall much of a hard boiled egg white, so it was either just yolk, or the cooked egg white was hidden with the breaded exterior.
- The fritter sat on sauce Gribiche which is a French style mayonnaise made with hard boiled eggs and Dijon mustard.
- The sauce Gribiche was also mixed with smashed capers and perhaps tarragon. It was nice and acidic with lemon juice or vinegar.
- Usually sauce Gribiche is served with meats, but this “egg on egg” was fun and delicious to eat.
- Salmon Mousse Cornet
- Black olive cornet with smoked salmon mousse, wasabi tobiko and pickled rutabaga
- I probably waited a bit too long to eat this and my black olive cornet got soft, but I loved it anyway!
- It was the savouriest of the three with intense umami – thanks to the cured salmon mousse and black olive.
- The smoky, cured, creamy whipped salmon mousse was dominant.
- It was salty sweet from the sesame black olive cone and a bit tangy from the pickled rutabaga.
- The crunch of pickled rutabaga reminded me of Japanese oshinko carrots.
- Wasabi tobiko never tastes like wassabi to me, but it’s good for texture.
- Overall there were great textures and flavours.
- Morrel Mushroom Panna Cotta Tart
- Sometimes it’s a foie gras tart or sweet onion tart, and I’m jealous of those who get the f**e.
- The texture was of a creamy panna cotta and there was a strong taste of morrel mushrooms.
- It was smooth and buttery and the tart was a crisp shortbread crust.
- It was perhaps the more ordinary of the three, but it was still no ordinary mushroom tart.
- I always write about the bread and butter because it can say something about a restaurant.
- It was a house made fennel seed and lemon sourdough served with hand churned butter and sea salt.
- The bun was served warm with a hard crust and the inside wasn’t as chewy or moist for a sourdough, but I still liked it.
- I could taste the fennel, but not really the lemon and I wouldn’t mind more of the zest.
- The butter was milky and unsalted and I appreciated the hand churned quality.
- So far, nothing has beat the one at Willows Inn – see Hearth Bread with Pan Drippings, which they served as a course.
- It was a corn nage soup with espelette oil and house freeze-dried corn.
- The Chef’s Tasting Menu usually includes a seasonal soup as the first course.
- The soup was served hot in a hot bowl, but the bowl was very shallow.
- They served it with a deep soup spoon so it was a bit tricky to eat, but still very good.
- It was smoky, sweet and savoury, creamy and rich corn nage.
- The nage (flavoured poaching liquid) was made from likely celery, onion and carrot (the usual aromatics) and it was naturally sweet from vegetables.
- The smooth soup had depth and it played with sweet and spicy the most.
- It was finished with cream and/or butter and it had the texture of a bisque, rather than being thick like a chowder.
- It ended up being quite a bit of espelette oil for the amount of soup, but it was a great choice of pepper.
- Espelette is a type of chili pepper cultivated in France and it has a smoky, peppery flavour and medium spice level.
- There was a gradual heat and a nice kick at the end, but it was fighting the sweet corn for centre stage.
- The freeze-dried corn was chewy instead of crisp since it was resting on the soup, and I would have loved some corn bread croutons or something crispy for texture.
- The two most memorable corn soups I’ve had were at Blue Hill and now Canlis.
- Cured and aged, with avocado, watermelon and basil
- This was very Pacific Northwest and I loved the flavour combination and plating.
- It was few components, but each one well executed and thought out. It was a refreshing “seafood salad”.
- It was very light in style, pure and natural in flavours, and the delicately sweet scallops weren’t overpowered.
- They were fresh Diver Sea Scallops and I think they were cured and aged in dashi (Japanese seafood stock) and they were wonderfully savoury.
- It was almost like a ceviche especially with the pickled and compressed watermelon rind which was strong with vinegar.
- I loved the meaty bite of sweet and savoury scallops contrasting the refreshing and bright crunch of sweet and tangy watermelon.
- The scallops were topped with nori, basil and sea asparagus for aromatics.
- The menu said “avocado” but the server called the green puree a “sweet pea puree“.
- It looked like avocado, and that was the first to come to mind, but avocado is used so often that it’s nice to see another green puree served with seafood.
- This was lemony sweet pea and mint puree (I think).
- There were different layers of brininess and savoury seafood notes from the scallops, sea asparagus, and nori.
- The gelée component had two layers. It was a tomato and watermelon gelée and it was soft like the scallop. There wasn’t much gelatin in it which I liked.
- I tried it with the scallop, but enjoyed it more as a palate cleanser.
- They were a bit spicy and I think there was Shichimi tōgarashi (Japanese 7-spice) in the pink layer of the gelée.
- One of the layers might have had some ponzu, dashi or mirin in it too, and it was a bit sweet and savoury.
- I know there was dashi somewhere in this dish, but I wasn’t sure where, although the umami was well worked in the scallop and gelée.
- It was a very juicy and fresh dish with sweet, savoury, and spicy flavours and there was just enough of each component.
- Leek ash lonza, soft-poached quail egg, and fermented buttermilk
- I adored the plating for this! It reminded me of tic-tac-toe and there was so much going on, but I didn’t find it messy.
- Everything had a place. The lines were clean, and there was attention to texture with ratios well considered.
- It was an artistic and creative take on “ham and eggs” and the attention to detail and colour did not go unnoticed.
- It was a room temperature dish with leek ash lonza, poached quail egg, fermented buttermilk, green almonds, marcona almonds, fresh garbonzo beans, fresh tarragon, crispy chick pea skins and egg yolk gel.
- Again, I love eggs, nuts and texture, so I was excited for this “breakfast for dinner”.
- The fermented buttermilk could pass as crème fraîche or sour cream and it was sprinkled with chili or dehydrated tomato powder.
- I didn’t even notice the seasoning on it, so I’m not really sure what it was because I was so distracted with everything else on the plate.
- The sous-vide quail’s eggs had creamy pudding like centres and it was topped with a thinly shaved pickled radish (?).
- The leek ash lonza (Italian dry-cured pork tenderloin) was thin, but with a nice amount of fat so there was a lot of flavour.
- The leek ash was supposed to give a smoky and bitter flavour to the lonza.
- It was nice and salty, but unfortunately I could taste a bit of “fridge” in it.
- The crispy and crunchy textures of the fresh green almonds, toasted marcona almonds, fresh garbonzo beans, and fried chick pea skins gave the dish layers of nuttiness.
- It was later-in-the-season California green almonds which are a delicacy since they are only available for 8 weeks.
- Green almonds (spring almonds or immature almonds) have a mild flavour and they taste like blanched almonds with a soft and jelly-like fruit quality.
- These ones were a bit mature so it had a nuttier flavour resembling more of a regular almond.
- The toasted marcona almond was as is, and it was a given it would be nuttier than the fresh green almond.
- There was also a vinaigrette dressing, and I appreciated the dish more for texture than flavours.
- The flavours were fine and it was very good, but it was a playful and artistically deconstructed dish. The plating was most memorable.
To be continued…
… sneak peek…