Special occasions call for special meals. I took advantage of one of these occasions to make my first trip to the Seattle culinary landmark, Canlis. There’s a fascinating origin story to Canlis that a summary can’t do justice, but you can read the full details here. The rebel mentality that drove their early concept is incredibly inspiring, and the fact that Canlis continues to be such a dominant force in the Seattle (and national) fine dining community speaks volumes. The restaurant was also featured in season 10 of Top Chef when the cooking competition came to Seattle (check out episode 4).
Canlis isn’t intended to be a budget destination, but their tasting menu and scenic viewpoint justify their price point. I’ll describe the full meal later in the post, but given that this is a blog dedicated to french fries and craft soda, I’ll highlight those two items first.
I was very apologetic when I ordered the fries. They appear on the lounge menu, but were obviously not part of the carefully assembled multi-course dinner offering. I told our waiter that once we had settled the check that I would stop by the lounge in order to try them (fully acknowledging that this is a weird thing to do after a 3 hour dining experience). He insisted that they would just bring the bowl of fries to the table following our dessert, so we ultimately had a non-traditional bonus course.
The fries at Canlis are thin, but not shoestring. At 1/4″ they’re similar to a McDonald’s fry, but most of the fries were fairly short which reminded me another local staple…Dick’s. They also had a lot of skin remaining on the potatoes. Those were the only two comparisons that I would make to Dick’s, because Canlis actually cooks the fries until they’re crispy. I had no expectation that my bowl of truffle fries would be the favorite plate at Canlis, but I was happy with them nonetheless. The truffle oil and parsley perfumed the table, and the variety of textures of flavors made them fun to snack on (but probably better in the lounge). The mix of skins and potatoes provided both nutty and bitter notes, the variety of short to long cuts resulted in a scattering of soggy fries along with the crispy majority. There was something for everyone, and it was a fun way to end the meal for someone who maintains a fry blog.
Reversing the order of my meal, I actually started with an interesting non-alcoholic drink. There were two options available on the menu. One was grapefruit based, and one was black tea based. I don’t drink black tea, so that made the selection process very straightforward. My drink was called the Der Papierine. I should have asked what that meant, but I assumed it was the German word for grapefruit. Not so. Either way, this was an incredibly refreshing mocktail made with grapefruit, rosemary, and amaro soda. This sort of a drink is the perfect compliment to refresh your palate between bold courses. It was tart, and dry, and accented (not overwhelmed) by the rosemary. Next time I would probably request the drink closer to the service, or maybe just accept that I’ll need a refill at some point. I nursed this one as long as I could, but there was no need to be so conservative. It was great.
Let me briefly cover the dishes that we tried. The current concept of the restaurant is a modified pre-fixe menu where you select one of three options for a few of the courses, and then Canlis brings out some other dishes to complete the progression. They are so careful about making sure that these “surprises” align well with your dietary needs and preferences, though. Someone in our party wasn’t able to eat raw foods, and someone else had an aversion to caviar. Canlis made seamless substitutions for these needs. Here were our options for the night:
The waitstaff were generous with their descriptions of the dishes. Between the four of us I believe that we tried everything, and there wasn’t a bad dish. I selected the venison, the mushroom teriyaki, and the dried persimmon courses. I’m not the best at remembering the details of the non-listed courses, but I’ll try my best. It’s extremely likely that these will not be available when/if you visit, so I recommend going in with an open mind and embracing the narrative that the chef has created for your meal.
Course 1 – Amuse-bouche trio of hamachi with mint, a custard with savory mushrooms, and a cream puff with porcini mushroom dust. The hamachi was very rich, but the mint was a fun compliment. The savory custard was a big surprise, and the tiny mushroom caps on top were both earthy and smokey. The porcini mushroom cream stuff tasted cheesy, in a really nice way. This was a terrific start.
Course 2 – Crab and potato salad, but it resembled a soup. The texture was actually closer to a warm potato mousse served over Dungeness crab with what tasted like leeks (possibly in the potatoes, but also powdered and served on top) with chive oil. This might have been my favorite dish of the night.
Course 3 – Canlis salad with a rye bread, cultured butter, and apple balsamic. I remember hearing about the Canlis salad when Top Chef visited the restaurant. It’s a great salad, and has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. There’s nothing groundbreaking about it, but the dressing is bright, the greens are crisp, and the variety of textures and flavors make it a great intermediary course. The bread was also delicious, especially when you layer on the mix of cultured butter and apple balsamic. The bread ends up being a little messy, but the waitstaff will come by and scrape up your crumbs before things get out of a hand. Balsamic and butter combo is something that I might steal in the future. It cuts through the richness of the butter and adds a little sweetness.
Course 4 – For me, this was the venison dish. For my wife, it was the sablefish. My venison came from Hawai’i where the deer have no natural predators and hunting is carefully managed to keep the deer population in check. There was no gaminess to it whatsoever, and the kitchen prepared it to a perfect medium rare. It was served in a lamb jus with cauliflower and broccoli flowers on the side. My wife’s sablefish was served was leeks, geoduck, and a rich dashi made with sablefish bones. It was beautifully presented and deeply flavored. Someone else at the table tried the squash (no caviar) which was also delicious, but I didn’t get a picture. It was my least favorite of the options, but still fantastic.
Course 5 – These were the entrees. I chose the mushroom teriyaki, which was extremely out of character. I don’t really like mushrooms, but I decided that if I was going to be surprised by a good mushroom, it would be here. The dish was created with a variety of mushrooms (I don’t remember the names), a teriyaki sauce, and ramps. For the most part I really liked this course. Most of the mushrooms had a meatiness to them that reminded me of really tender chicken. The bundle of mushrooms (maybe enoki?) was difficult to eat because I couldn’t bite through them cleanly. The teriyaki sauce was a perfect compliment to the earthiness of the mushrooms and had a depth to it that far exceeds what you’ll find at local teriyaki shops (even though Seattle is known for amazing teriyaki). My wife’s pickled mackerel dish looked more traditional, but it was elevated by the preparation of the fish. The mackerel is salted and dry aged for 48 hours, and they compliment the rich fish with a crispy skin and a creamy sunchoke sauce. Someone else at the table ordered the sirloin dish which actually provided two different cuts of beef (one grilled, one cooked in beef tallow). They were all phenomenal.
Course 6 – Frozen yogurt. Essentially a pre-dessert course, they create a dish by combining a rich Greek yogurt with liquid nitrogen and topping it with a fruity olive oil, a sweet berry sauce, and flakey salt. This was more tart than sweet overall, and the olive oil worked incredibly well.
Course 7 – I selected the dried persimmon dish which was served over an olive oil cake. My wife ordered the dark chocolate sorbet. I liked mine more, but mostly because I was totally thrown by the candied spruce under the sorbet. I won’t say that it didn’t compliment the chocolate, but a little bit goes a long way. What I thought was a small bite of the spruce became a an evergreen punch to the sinuses. Meanwhile, the persimmon dish is much more subtle and creamy which was what I was in the mood for. Someone else ordered the smoked cacao dish which had a fun chewy texture with a thinly shaved nougat. Canlis also brought out a chocolate gateau to celebrate one of my guest’s birthday. It was a beautiful flourless chocolate truffle with some gold leaf and a candle on top.
Conclusion – This was an amazing meal. I don’t recommend capping it off with the truffle fries unless you happen to blog about them and feel duty bound. I recommend thinking about this experience as a very special occasion. Special enough that you would make reservations a few months in advance and put down a significant deposit. We made or reservation for 5pm and we were in our car heading home around 8:15pm. You can’t rush it.
Other thoughts – Pay attention to the dress code. Guys should wear a suit jacket, if not a suit. You’ll feel underdressed if you are underdressed. The piano player goes through an interesting mix of piano adaptations of pop songs (both current and older pop). We made a game of seeing who could identify the song the fastest. If you need to get up and use the restroom, fold up your napkin and drape it on the edge of the table by your seat. I thought I should leave it on my chair, but someone came by and corrected that placement while I was away. I don’t know if this is a universal standard, but they were very consistent on this. One last thought – I know that these dishes look small, but no one left hungry. The food is very rich, but the seven courses together are probably enough for most people. If you’re still hungry afterwards you can always order the truffle fries…or stop by Dick’s on the way home.