Upon entering Canlis, many will see a wooden door-looking structure hung on the wall and simply dismiss it as a piece of art. This 17th century piece is known as a kura door. A kura door is the innermost door to a traditional Japanese house used to safely store valuables, and is a great symbol for Canlis. It means you do not need to worry because whatever is through the door is safe. It means at Canlis you are in good hands.
Situated on a hillside with a panoramic view of Lake Union and the Cascade Mountains, this Seattle dining institution has stood the test of time. Canlis is going on 60 years strong and is currently under the third generation of the family’s leadership. Throughout this time, Canlis has adapted and changed to fit with the times, but the foundation of the restaurant has remained intact through its rich tradition and culture of service that was instilled from its inception and passed on from generation to generation.
One of the restaurant’s changes since its inception is its menu. Though there are a number of classic Canlis dishes still available, the essence of the menu has gone though significant modifications to reflect modern gustatory preferences. Executive Chef Jason Franey’s spring 2013 tasting menu is a wonderful display of Canlis’ take on modern northwest fine dining, and can be summarily described as refined yet playful and approachable with a noticeable Asian affinity.
Starting with an amuse-bouche, the trio of bites was a playful introduction to Chef Franey’s world. With a stick piercing right through it, the first amuse visually reminded me of a tiny burger which was instead a carrot cake. The sweet carrot flavour and smooth texture of the cake was accented by a very unexpected but welcomed hit of truffle cream cheese filling. The black olive cornet with smoked salmon cream and wasabi tobiko that followed felt like a northwest cousin of the cornets with salmon tartare we had at The French Laundry in December. The saltiness and popping sensation from the wasabi tobiko, the crispiness of the black olive cornet and the smokiness from the salmon were a great combination. Although, I could not distinctly taste the wasabi zing from the tobiko, I am most certain it added to the cornet’s overall flavour. The last amuse, deep fried egg yolk, was served through a warm breaded orb which reminded me of Atelier Crenn‘s cider bombs that just exploded in your mouth, except this explosion was extremely rich and creamy.
Following the amuse-bouche was a carrot and curry soup topped off with green onions and olive oil. The dish had an aroma to it that reminded me of the Japanese curry from my childhood living in Tokyo which were always accompanied by slices of carrots and potatoes. Though there were no potatoes in this soup, the sweetness from the carrot really shined through.
Being gluttons for offal, seeing a sweetbread congee on the tasting menu peaked my interest. Reading its description, it seemed like quite a unique take on the traditional dish. And unlike traditional congee, there were a lot of additional ingredients in the mix - braised tripe, yellow egg strips, asparagus and peas in addition to the sweetbread. The congee itself was runny but did well to balance off the gelatinous consistency of the extremely rich tripe. The sweetbreads had a nice crunchy feel to it, specially when contrasted with the congee. And the strips of egg, peas and asparagus added varying textural components.
In between courses, Becky, one of the Managers at Canlis, took us from our table and brought us to the restaurant rooftop to experience the infamous unobstructed Canlis panoramic view of Lake Union and the Cascade Mountains. When the fireworks come out over the lake on American Independence Day, I am certain there is no better sight line in the city. On our way to the roof, we also got a view of the rest of the massive dining room. There were so many nooks and crannies, whatever size we thought the restaurant was, proved to be false. The actual size was probably five times bigger. I was extremely impressed as I have never been to a fine dining establishment this large and to be able to deliver exceptional experiences to each of the patrons is a feat on its own.
With some exercise from our walk around the restaurant, fresh air from the rooftop and a jolt of adrenaline, we were set up well for the next dish, the wagyu beef. When I bit through the perfectly cooked and consistently deep red wagyu, my teeth tore through each intensely marbled piece like a slider pushing down on a zipper, with each fibrous tooth of the zipper succulently unravelling. The Asian touch of kimchi delivered a fermented heat kick and the Tokyo turnips added sourness to cut the richness of the meat.
The second dessert of the tasting came in the form of an apple tarte tatin. The upside down tart with sweet and sour notes from the caramel and green apple was finished of with a refreshing side of ginger sorbet and hazelnut.
Though we completed the offerings of the tasting menu, with a waft of eggy goodness intoxicating our stomachs from across the room, we could not resist a supplemental order of their Grand Marnier soufflé. Light, airy, eggy, with a subtle hint of that orange flavour from the Grand Marnier and the addition of the creme anglaise, this definitely hit the spot. Times like this make me feel like there is nothing better than a well executed soufflé.
We ended our meal with some mignardises and Bows & Arrows espresso from Victoria, B.C., which S describes as bright and sweet. And though I am always upset by not having the room in my stomach by the time the mignardises come around, Wanda, our main server for the evening, was kind enough to pack a couple of apple pie macaroons and pecan maple chocolate bonbons for the road. This was perhaps the perfect way to end our meal at Canlis.
Perfect, until shortly after, Becky gave us a tour of the entire restaurant, which was the icing on an already delicious cake. Highlights include the various wine cellars, which are continually renovated to accommodate their growing collection, and which also houses one of the most extensive Krug collections in America. We also visited the upstairs private function room a couple of times that evening, which was set up for a wedding the next day and used to serve as the living quarters for Peter Canlis, founder of the restaurant and grandfather to current owners Mark and Brian Canlis. When Peter Canlis initially set up the restaurant in Seattle, he employed kimono-wearing Japanese women known for their hospitality and work effort. Their rich history is honoured throughout the restaurant through pictures, noticeable Japanese designs and the unparalleled hospitality the restaurant continually shows their guests.
I would be remiss not to mention the serenading piano tunes of the brilliant Walt Wagner, who fuses together the classic and the modern to produce the best live entertainment I have had at any restaurant. Though a number of people come to Canlis simply to listen to Mr. Wagner’s skills, most may easily disregard his melodic presence as it blends so well with the Canlis atmosphere. When my ear caught a hold of his modern rendition of Dave Mathews Band’s Crash Into Me, I could not ignore his tunes the rest of the evening. The hits came one after the other such as Eminem Ft. Rihanna’s Love the Way You Lie, and my ultimate favourite of the evening and an ode to the ’90s, Coolio Ft. L.V.’s Gangsta’s Paradise. Who knew you can tone down the urban feel of Gangsta’s Paradise and actually make it Canlis-appropriate? I have never heard anything like it.
Like the piano set list, whatever expectations I had of Canlis beforehand was completely blown out of the park, and the tone was set right as we entered the restaurant. Throughout the night, there was not a single detail not communicated to the team taking care of us. Whether it was Wanda, Becky, Mark, Chef Franey or anyone else who had a couple of words with us during our time there, their internal communication was evident and the service derived from that was nothing short of impressive.
And just when I thought I could not be impressed anymore with their hospitality, before leaving, I encountered an individual warming a jacket by the fire. At the time, I just believed this person to be cold. But little did I know, it was actually my jacket being warmed up and ready to serve as my blanket for the drive back home to Vancouver. What was more impressive was this front of house staff who I had not seen the entire evening was aware that it was I who would be sleeping on the drive back north due to my commitment to a fishing trip to the Gulf Islands early next morning with my parents. And with no ticket, name or word whatsoever to the valet staff, as has been the tradition since the restaurant started, our car was warmed up and ready to go by the entrance as we departed. With one last farewell from Becky, Chef and team before leaving the doors, our final feeling of Canlis was that of only pure and utter amazement.
With our stomachs extremely well fed and the memory of Canlis fresh in our minds, the drive back home to Canada seemed relatively short and easy. We were on such a natural high a speeding ticket in Whatcom County could not bring us down. What could we have done to deserve such an experience? Perhaps we will never know. What we do know is that Canlis will do whatever they can to make you feel special, but really it is Canlis that is truly special.
To view pictures of our meals in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading,
C & S