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CANLIS IS STILL, marvelously, Canlis. Around sunset, the pianist at the glossy baby grand mixes and matches music through the years: Miles Davis, the Beatles, Blink-182. A particularly well-dressed couple exchanges a kiss, brief but passionate. Flutes of Champagne go aloft: “I’m turning 30,” a woman says, laughing, “times two!” The neighboring table toasts her exponentially advancing age, too. Soon, nearby, a proposal of marriage, met with laughing-while-crying acceptance as onlookers beam.

Canlis

Seattle Times Critic’s Pick | Pacific Northwest | $$$$ | Queen Anne | 2576 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle; 206-283-3313; canlis.com | reservations required; no outdoor seating currently; private dining available | no takeout currently | noise level: generally tranquil | access: no obstacles, women’s and men’s restrooms | complimentary valet parking

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Seattle’s storied bastion of fine dining seems the same as ever, the elegant geometry of the midcentury modern aerie framing the stupendous Lake Union view (all earning a James Beard Design Icon award in 2019). Service, at last sans COVID-19-era masks, continues to meet needs near-preternaturally. The capacious wine cellar (also James Beard award-winning) holds its myriad treasures at the ready. And now with the first female chef in its 71-year history — as the pandemic looks to be (maybe, possibly, hopefully) receding in the rearview mirror — Canlis is a place to newly celebrate.

Aisha Ibrahim says she is proud to be running the kitchen at Canlis, but she’s careful not to use the word “lucky.” She speaks, instead, of earning the role. Her leadership represents the next step of an evolution third-generation owners Brian and Mark Canlis started in 2008, moving the classic surf-and-turf menu into fine-dining modernism first with chef Jason Franey, from Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park, then with chef Brady Williams of Roberta’s and Blanca, also in New York. After winning a James Beard award for Best Chef: Northwest in 2019, the latter departed last year to open his own restaurant, Tomo in White Center (he now goes by Brady Ishiwata Williams). With the role of what many would call the city’s top chef open — and in the midst of pandemic improvisations that included everything from bagel-making to a burgers-and-fries drive-in — the Canlis brothers embarked upon an international search, eventually DMing Ibrahim on her Instagram.

Ibrahim was then working on her own fine-dining project in Bangkok; she had been to Seattle only once before. The résumé that garnered her the role as Canlis’ seventh-ever head chef includes triple-Michelin-starred restaurants Manresa and Azurmendi, as well as the latter’s sibling Aziamendi in Thailand. On the phone recently, she recalls the paying of dues early in her career that included working close to 90 hours a week while being paid for 40, eating canned tuna from the corner store and sleeping in her car to make her scheduled shifts. She chooses not to identify exactly where she interned in Japan, where she was reminded that she was only the fourth woman allowed in the program in its many decades, and where she, as a woman, was not allowed to touch fish, or proteins, or rice.

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“Representation absolutely matters,” says Ibrahim. Her family emigrated from the Philippines when she was a child, and since she started at Canlis last April, she’s been intensely gratified to hear her dialect of the southern Philippines, Binisaya, spoken at tables in the dining room. “It’s like every week!” she exclaims, calling the support “a tremendous honor.” Her partner, Samantha Beaird, came with her to Seattle and to Canlis as a research and development chef; the two of them collaboratively fill the role of pastry chef, as they did together in Thailand for the five previous years.

THE MENU AT CANLIS is currently prix fixe only, with diners’ choice of three courses, plus four more set ones and some additional surprises for $165 per person. (In present-day Seattle-area context, it’s a good value — with pandemic staffing and supply-chain exigencies ongoing, many higher-end restaurants are set-menu only, with a price range including $120 at Lark and $140-$195 at Cafe Juanita.) What shows up, plate after plate, is a representation of Ibrahim’s command of technique, wide-ranging imagination and tremendous respect for ingredients — and she’s especially excited about what’s found in Pacific Northwest forests, farms and waters. 

Ibrahim’s amuse-bouche trio at present takes a little field, foraging and fisheries tour. A miniature weathervane scallop toast has a housemade milk-bread exterior that’s crisply browned, the creamy and sea-sweet interior made with Walla Walla sweet onion and sake. It’s prettily presented, sitting upright with a crown of frizzled leeks, and disappears in one bite, leaving one wanting at least seven more. Bits of lion’s mane mushrooms have an outsized meatiness in a small vessel of chawanmushi, with a painstakingly housemade dashi hitting all the notes of smoky, savory, tangy and sweet. Maybe best of all is a bite — maybe two — of kampachi, aged for a few days in a piece of kohlrabi then half-wrapped in shiso, anointed with both amazake and purple sweet potato vinegar; it’s served silvery and half-curled, as if swimming through a leaf-sea, and it tastes velvety and lush, oceanic, peppery and earthy all at once.

Ibrahim says she’s “obsessed” with local Walla Walla sweet onions and “blown away” by the high quality of local beef, and a main course of striploin benefits mightily from the focus of her admiration. The presentation, she notes, is purposefully stark: the meat to show its rosy center glow, the onion richly Maillard-striped, both overlapping into a judicious, delicious pool of slow-roasted beef bone and Walla Walla jus that’s spiked with local apple cider vinegar and rounded with Cherry Valley butter. Accompanying is a small cup of exquisite onion broth, again made with Walla Wallas intensified in a dayslong process, plus some 300-year-old tamari and perhaps a bit of sugar, depending on the onions’ sulfur content; inside it drift pieces of softly yielding coulotte. The overall effect is a bit like a deconstructed French dip — a transcendent, Atkins-oriented one.

An extra course of Alaskan spot prawn with an overlapping, crimson-edged topping of oca — a naturally tart tuber often used in Latin American cooking that Ibrahim located from a farm in Oregon — proved mystifyingly fantastic. Three different servers offered three different explanations, and Ibrahim confirmed it all true and then some. In what could pass for haute-cuisine parody, the dish encompasses a litany of multipartite components: a base of local Bread Lab buckwheat cream, made with soy milk and smoked over Skagit Valley wheat straw; a pickled black trumpet mushroom and allium condiment for acidity and textural contrast; only the reddest, ripest finger lime, held in extra virgin olive oil; both Buddha’s hand and Meyer lemon; and sturgeon caviar from Idaho. The prawns are sung to softly (the prawns are not actually sung to softly), cured in shio koji for added sweetness, then barely charcoal-grilled with prawn shell-infused butter; the oca gets lightly seasoned with salts (yes, plural) and aged brown-rice vinegar. The end result is just absurdly, exhilaratingly good.

In the midst of it all, Canlis’ famous salad — romaine, mint leaves, croutons, a simple and Caesar-like dressing — lands on the table as if shoved through an unwanted fissure in the space-time continuum. The last vestige of the old-school menu, it’s not listed on the present one, and among Ibrahim’s minutely considered dishes, it practically thuds. “I think it’s a delicious salad,” Ibrahim says diplomatically. “It’s not as large as it used to be,” she notes, perhaps wishing, as the baffled diner might, for it to diminish until it disappears.

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With all due respect to Ibrahim and Beaird’s partnership, the level of detail that yields subtle harmonies elsewhere sometimes seems to hobble dessert greatness. An essentially excellent apple cake — a family recipe from Beaird’s aunt — felt effortful paired with madrone-bark sabayon and kombu ice cream, the introduction of algae an overreach toward a savory element. A smoked-cacao situation with milk ice cream looked less than appetizing topped with a lumpy, brownish thatch of nougatine.

A dessert-y bonus of a palate cleanser, however, proved a highlight in all its parts: a creamy quenelle of local yogurt sorbet, trussed in a spiral of peach caramel like a tiny bondage harness, sided with Washington riesling-dehydrated pear and a crunchy cookie-chip containing an awakening tingle of Sichuan peppercorn (which, amazingly, Ibrahim located on Vashon Island, grown by Kurtwood Farms, harvested and sold by Tian Tian Farm).

LOOKING INTO THE the future, Ibrahim explains that she featured some Philippine influences on the menu last summer and will do so again — a tantalizing prospect, woven into her facility with Japanese flavors and approaches. Speaking of said future, to celebrate at Canlis — and after two years of a global pandemic, life itself is a worthy occasion — plan ahead as tables are booked weeks, if not months, out. (Pro tip: The lounge accepts walk-ins as space permits, and the bar menu showcases Ibrahim’s mastery of tempura among other lovely snacks; inquire about the unlisted wagyu steak. Also recommended: the tropical-leaning, superbly balanced cocktails Sumaq Punch and Diamond Head. And note that the seats right by the piano are rather loud, which is the pinnacle of #canlisproblems.)

Almost a year into her tenure, Ibrahim says the values of Canlis — known for both its superlative service and team-focused training — continue to correlate with her own. She speaks of carrying forward the cultivation of “a fair and equitable environment … I will not accept sexism or racism, or any kind of just like, no offense, but [expletive] in the kitchen. It should be an environment where people are eager to learn and have every opportunity to do so.”

This responsibility is shared with Linda Milagros Violago, Canlis’ first-ever female wine director, who is also of Filipino descent — representation that matters hugely in the wine industry. Ibrahim calls Canlis lucky to have Violago, who has led staff in yoga and breathing exercises to combat stress and anxiety, and to, Ibrahim says, “bring people together.”

Connection is the ultimate focus of the entire enterprise, Ibrahim asserts. “Some of these folks can eat here once a month if they want, [or] once every week, and some have to save a whole year to eat here,” she acknowledges. The goal, then, is “to treat everyone as if it’s your mom, your grandma — someone that you love … It needs to feel personal.” 

That personal element has taken on a new dimension as, Ibrahim says, “people who have lost loved ones through COVID have chosen here as a place to celebrate their loved ones, because they came here with them.” Then in the same week, she’s found the team cooking for the celebration of life that is a marriage proposal. “It speaks to …a history of trust,” she says. “One that has been built over the last 70 years — one that’s just a privilege to be a part of.”

What the dollar signs signify

Average price of a dinner entree:

$$$$ — $35 and over

$$$ — $25-$34

$$ — $15-$24

$ — Under $15

Updated: March 2022