The 65-year-old fine-dining establishment is unquestionably a four-star dining experience with 29-year-old chef Brady Williams, who joined Canlis a year ago.
Recently over dinner at Canlis I shared the historical tidbit that up until the mid-1990s, the servers here were all Japanese women who dressed in elaborate kimonos. My dining companion, who was born in that decade, was incredulous.
It was her first visit to the famed 65-year-old Queen Anne restaurant. She had dressed up for the occasion in a little black dress, pearls and short black boots. Still she was carded in the bar when she ordered a smoky HongLong cocktail garnished with a singed curl of cedar wood.
In the dining room we sat side by side along a banquette, admiring the lake view and the corps of smartly suited, well-groomed waiters. She parsed the pianist’s playlist, picking out songs by Justin Bieber, Elle King, even the schizoid pop of Twenty One Pilots. She had never seen a table crumber used; the waiter using it admitted neither had he before working there.
2576 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle
206-283-3313 or canlis.com
Reservations: Strongly recommended for the dining room; the lounge welcomes walk-ins
Hours: Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. (last seating) Monday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. (last seating) Saturday; closed Sunday
Prices: $$$$ (Prix fixe menus: three courses $85; four courses $100; chef’s tasting $145/vegetarian tasting $125; wine pairings $85-$145)
Drinks: Full bar; classic and contemporary cocktails; world-class wine cellar
Service: highly informed; professional; relaxed formality reigns
Parking: valet parking included; expect your car to be warmed up and waiting for you at the door
Sound: quiet conversation underscored by a baby grand
Who should go: diners comfortable in the lap of luxury
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
It was refreshing to experience Canlis through millennial eyes, especially now, with the kitchen in the hands of 29-year-old chef Brady Williams. He cooks with confidence and skill. His food is elegant without being overthought. Akiko Graham’s simple stoneware perfectly frames his pared-down style.
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Williams succeeded Jason Franey (now at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey) exactly a year ago. He came to Seattle by way of the chic Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s and its two-Michelin-starred counterpart, Blanca, both small kitchens compared to the staff of 20-25 he now oversees.
Williams’ roots are in Southern California, but his mother is Japanese, which accounts for the Japanese aesthetic so prevalent in his food. It’s part of what attracted him to Canlis and vice versa. “So much of the restaurant’s story aligned with my story,” he said in a phone interview.
Greek-born founder Peter Canlis had a slight anti-European bent, says his grandson, Mark Canlis, now co-owner with his brother, Brian Canlis. “All the influences he was interested in were coming from the East.” (Hence the kimonos.)
Williams was a last-minute contender after a months-long search to replace Franey, but an easy choice, says Mark Canlis. “The Asian pull made me feel we were getting back to our roots … Jason did so much to pull us out of tired, dated thinking about fine dining. We were trapped in a different time. Brady is standing on Jason’s shoulders in so many ways.”
If you want a survey course in what Williams can do, try the tasting menu, now a whopping $145. Officially seven courses, in reality it comprises a dozen or so minimalist plates that bow kaiseki-like to the season. A few too many of the dishes involved crumbs of one sort or another, but none wanted for flavor or stumbled in execution.
A midwinter tasting menu incorporated sashimi-like slices of amberjack with tiny explosions of finger lime; one briny oyster garnished with tart apple; a single red Chantenay carrot, encrusted with finely chopped cashews and compressed celery, beside lush cashew pudding; and a solo fig, verjus-marinated and grilled, planted in a puree of rutabaga and goat’s whey, under a blizzard of crushed pine nuts.
Shaved Wagyu beef lounged with kohlrabi and gooseberries by a quiet pool of horseradish jus, preceding the menu’s visually dramatic, delicious climax: dismembered squab — the breast boneless, the foot still attached to the leg — plated with blood-red ember-roasted beets and tart preserved huckleberries.
The tasting menu is chef’s choice. The three-course ($85) or four-course ($100) menus are your choice. Counting post-dessert macarons, chocolate mignardises and the opening amuse-bouche, they are really five- or six-course experiences.
About our restaurant reviewsStar ratings: Assigned by Seattle Times restaurant critics ★★★★ Exceptional ★★★ Highly recommended ★★ Recommended ★ Adequate no stars: Poor Average price of a dinner entree: $$$$ — $25 and over $$$ — $15-$25 $$ — $10-$15 $ — Under $10
“We set a price and whatever else goes on, it’s all included (even valet parking),” Mark Canlis says.
I would say the price is worth it. The crispy little buckwheat taquito filled with a puree of Washington-bred rojo chiquito beans currently kick-starting every dinner takes one person six hours to make. Prep starts with nixtamalized grains developed just for Canlis by WSU’s Bread Lab. In two bites it sets a tone and tells a story. “We’re an iconic Northwest restaurant,” says Williams. “We should focus on ingredients from our place and our time.”
This philosophy leads to such delights as barley porridge, enriched with butter, white soy dashi and a touch of clam juice, crowned with slices of raw geoduck, tart green strawberries and lemony wood sorrel. To bottarga made with cured, pressed salmon roe rather than mullet or tuna and shaved over roasted beets. To flakes of frozen foie gras torchon grated over candied buckwheat groats and apples in various guises.
Berkshire pork comes from pigs raised on a small Colville, Stevens County, farm that are butchered in house. The belly meat, compressed into crusty, salty, rosy cubes that resemble porchetta, was outstanding with its winter companions — sweet parsnip puree, bitter Brussels sprout leaves and black truffle. Now that it’s spring, look for it with salsa verde made from stinging nettles and bolted kale rapini.
A fog of peppery, chive-flecked vermouth foam envelops spot prawns. It’s an updated nod to the Peter Canlis prawns, which like the Canlis salad are still on the menu. Canlis honors tradition, which is also why you can still get a properly cooked steak, a twice-baked potato and a Grand Marnier soufflé.
On desserts, Williams collaborates with Baruch Ellsworth, formerly pastry chef and now executive sous chef. The tasting menu ends with an elegant, chocolate-robed, tobacco-infused terrine of fig and black walnut, and fig ice cream. I also liked the unabashed sensuality of banana cream on a chocolate miso crust under a brittle chocolate-lace dome that you crack like the shell of a soft-boiled egg.
Canlis fields a nimble, knowledgeable wine staff led by Nelson Daquip that was recently nominated for a James Beard Award. You can spend thousands on bottles here, or less than a hundred, and still drink exceedingly well. The handsomely remodeled lounge, designed by Seattle architect George Suyama, gives head barman James MacWilliams and guests a lot more elbow room at the bar.
Like everything else about Canlis, the new lounge looks timeless. Canlis is the rare restaurant to successfully evolve over three generations of family ownership. Over the past eight years, the Canlis brothers have relaxed service without loosening standards, uncluttered the tabletops without forsaking formality and built a team in the front and back of the house that feels seamlessly aligned.
Dining at Canlis is rarely a bumpy ride, but I sense a new harmony at play. The restaurant remains reverent about the past yet relevant to the present. It is a citadel of civility in an increasingly cacophonous restaurant world, an archetype of continuity in an age of disruption, and unquestionably a four-star dining experience.