In late 2008, when Mark and Brian Canlis hired Jason Franey, a hot young chef from New York’s Eleven Madison Park, it was their first bold move as the third generation to run the family business. They knew there was a risk of alienating longtime customers, but they had history on their side.
Their grandfather, Peter Canlis, who founded the restaurant in 1950, was always changing things. Their parents, Chris and Alice Canlis, presided over a tectonic shift in 1996, when they hired chef Greg Atkinson to update the menu, dispensed with kimonos in favor of contemporary uniforms for the wait staff, and undertook a $2 million remodel that significantly improved the cliffhanging Roland Terry-designed building. They weren’t offended when guests didn’t notice much of a difference.
The changes wrought by the Canlis brothers and Franey, each still in their 30s, are impossible to ignore. The brothers relaxed the formality of the table settings and sharpened the finer points of service. (The eagle-eyed staff doesn’t miss much, including this critic, who was recognized on both visits.) Franey eased the kitchen into the modernist era. The median age of guests in the dining room and lounge skews significantly younger than it did 10 years ago.
In an age when high-end restaurants seek to control the dining experience, Canlis is conflicted. A recent “price change” expanded prix fixe options. In addition to the seven-course chef’s-choice tasting menus ($125/ $105 for vegetarian), guests may choose three or four courses ($85 and $100 respectively).
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Yet your wish remains their command. Three immensely knowledgeable sommeliers readily suggest wine pairings to match your budget and taste. Just as the restaurant will set the table the old way for a few regulars who prefer it, an á la carte menu exists for those who want to order that way. (Insider tip: A “secret menu” of favorites from the ’50s and ’60s is also available.)
Except for the iconic Canlis salad, which is once again prepared tableside, the classics still on the menu bear Franey’s prints. He’s updated Peter’s steak tartare, for example, with silky Wagyu beef, a dab of tomato concassé, and a warm, caper-flecked ciabatta roll in place of toast.
Franey’s own seasonal creations are meticulously engineered with dots, blocks, swipes and swirls of concentrated flavor and with textural elements like wafers, crusts, crumbs and powders. Don’t hesitate to muss up those gorgeous landscapes: plowing your fork through them gives your mouth the full effect.
He overlays dorade with a graham-cracker crust basted with brown butter, complementing the sweet-fleshed fish with fig and eggplant. He surrounds rectangles of smoked sockeye with tangy yogurt sauce, basil oil and a briny gel of lobster roe.
He plays cured, aged sea scallops against watermelon and its pickled rind, counters the earthiness of beets with whipped goat milk curd, and pits coriander-and-pepper-edged pork belly against huckleberry, plum and pickled onion.
Soups are vivid. Summer’s flower-strewn peach gazpacho gave way to fall’s creamy butternut squash embellished with tart diced apple and curry oil. In another dish now gone with the summer, poufs of buffalo mozzarella mousse escorted compressed cubes of heirloom tomatoes and fermented cucumber, with spiced cherries, crisp leaves of pancetta-like tesa and lacy rye wafers dancing among them.
Sauces resonate even when the finished dish falters. The mint oil and lamb neck jus ringing a grilled lamb rib-eye, along with its crisp side of rosti potatoes, distracted attention from the meat’s soggy rosemary-brioche crust. Broccoli rose to glorious heights as a sauce for a cheese-filled raviolo, though the pasta itself was tough.
Franey’s late-September tasting menus opened with three knockout courses. Then when they should have crescendoed, they stumbled, with the hard raviolo on the vegetarian menu and rubbery smoked chicken breast on the other.
Yet chicken was the pinnacle of another meal. Black garlic, porcini mushroom and celery root both puréed and mashed accompanied celery-stuffed cylinders of breast meat slow-poached in its jus. It tasted like an entire chicken dinner reduced to its essence.
All dinners begin and end with gifts from the kitchen. A trio of canapés perch on a Lucite stand as if poised to receive Olympic medals: Gold would go to the brittle black olive cornet filled with smoked salmon mousse; silver to the breaded and deep-fried quail egg yolk; bronze to the mushroom panna cotta piped into a tiny pastry shell.
French macarons plucked from a handmade box with silver tongs are an after-dinner mignardise: apple pie and Campari were the flavors du jour. A chocolate bar embossed with the Canlis logo is your parting gift.
With those sweets in the offing, I’d happily end the meal with a trio of excellent cheeses, autumnally accessorized with gooseberries and figs, rather than any of the fussy desserts. Still, the chocolate and peanut butter mille-feuille with banana ice cream, not to mention the Grand Marnier soufflé, have their charms.
We should all age as gracefully as Canlis. The elegant, art-filled aerie feels timeless. Mark and Brian Canlis say, “It’s because Canlis keeps changing that people love it.” I love Canlis because the more it changes the more it stays the same. There is nowhere else like it in Seattle.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.