Canlis, Finally

For his last review, our outgoing critic heads for the Aurora Bridge.

And finally, Canlis. For the first time in 10 years, I make reservations under my own name, dropping all attempts at subterfuge and evasion. I don't do anything strange with my hair. I don't put on the glasses that I don't need. When the hostess calls and asks if I am Jason Sheehan, I say yes, I am. And yes, I will be there at 5:45 for dinner. And yes, it will be a party of two. Across three states and a decade's worth of work, I have never answered that question honestly. It feels good not to lie. When I step into the cloistered luxury of one of Seattle's best and eldest fine-dining institutions, I am met with nothing but smiles. I have been here before, but never as myself. It is a strange sensation, like walking in naked, stripped of pretense and here only to dine. In the lounge, there is the burn of Redbreast whiskey and the slow settling into the timeless state of dining. Drinks will come and they will be taken away. Food will arrive when it arrives. I'll know it's a good night if I don't look at my watch for the first couple of hours. I'll know it's a great one if those hours pass like minutes falling from the clock, unknown and unnoticed. I'm wearing my good jacket, a shirt with one button missing (hoping no one notices because I didn't until it was too late), and my best black jeans in defiance of the house's "no denim" policy. Oddly, I feel right at home. The truest magic of the best restaurants in the world is their ability to make anyone melt into the flow of service, to feel not just comfortable, but comforted—as though someone out there is looking out for you and wants only good things to happen. "Entering Canlis is like entering our home," it says on the website, one of a hundred different mission statements, truer than most. "From the very first visit you will sense you belong here." Much later in the evening, Mark Canlis will reiterate this message in his own way, telling a story about him and his brothers sleeping in the offices upstairs when nights ran long for their parents, bunking down together and falling asleep to the sound of ringing glass and clattering silver. Canlis is his home, and pride in that radiates from him like heat. My date for the night arrives, has her coat taken, and orders a French 75 from the bar. Service is quick and faultless, orchestrated and balletic. The staff has had a lot of practice—60 years' worth, stretching back to 1950 when Peter Canlis opened his Seattle restaurant, took up residence at the room's most perfect table with a view out over the water and of nearly every other seat in the house, and never left. He had a rotary phone installed, sitting on the railing, near to hand. Whenever he saw something wrong, he could call the front desk and inform them of it. Apparently, he called a lot. Not because there was anything wrong, necessarily, but because he was building a reputation—one which lives on today, most recently validated by yet another James Beard Award nomination for Outstanding Service. When we move from the lounge to the floor, we are given Peter Canlis' table. The phone is still there. Still works, too. We order whiskey and wine, are handed menus, and pore over the document which, in itself, exists like a history lesson on the glacial change of tastes and flavors and the particular obsessions of the Canlis family. There are dishes here that have existed, fundamentally unchanged except in price, for 60 years. The Canlis Salad has been called one of the 100 best dishes in America by Saveur magazine. The steak tartare is still made in accordance with a recipe written by the elder Canlis, if with somewhat different ingredients. And if you ever get the chance, the Peter Canlis Prawns are, with no exaggeration, one of the best things you will eat in your life. We start with the prawns—two orders, extra sauce. An amuse arrives from the kitchen to bridge the gap of time between ordering and arrival, so we drink a couple ounces of cauliflower soup, warming and restrained, and suck down an encapsulated bubble of tequila sunrise set quivering on a pho spoon—a little bit of molecular gastronomy from a kitchen as traditional as they come. The effect is jarring, as it is meant to be—the little ball of gel bursting in the mouth, flooding the tongue with the sharp hit of tequila, the sweetness of orange juice and grenadine. It is gone before I can really process the effect, save for the texture of the deflated gel sphere (like sucking on an empty Tylenol gelcap) and the crunchy bits of savory herb that had been set atop it. The prawns come on white plates, awash in puddles of impossibly rich and buttery sauce. They are such simple things, curled against each other like small pink commas all in a line, perfectly done, sautéed with dry vermouth and garlic, striped with a bare sprinkle of salt, but really existing solely as a vehicle by which to eat the sauce, which, if I could, I would simply drink. I would fill a CamelBak with it and sip it all through dinner. It tastes of expertise, of years of refinement, of luxury—condensed and gently flavored with the bright heat of red chiles and cutting acidity of lime. We clean our plates in record time, then wipe them spotless with hunks torn from our rolls before turning on the soufflé cup filled with extra sauce. The rolls are quickly gone and I raise my head, meaning to look around the floor for a server. But one is already there, basket at the ready, tongs reaching. This is what service means at Canlis: always knowing what's required before a customer knows he needs it. It means, essentially, reading minds—catching the dropped fork before the first bounce, having another fresh one at the ready, and being there to quietly explain the cruel bitch of gravity should one be asked. When the smoked salmon arrives, it is so carefully prepared that I can't puzzle out the process, so I do something else that I have never done before: I ask for the chef. Chef Jason Franey explains the salmon—how it is brined and then washed, cold-smoked and then cooked sous vide for hours so that the perfect color of the flesh is retained. The texture of it is strange, thick and heavy. But on the tongue, it just seems to melt, leaving behind nothing but the taste of the fish and a dim after-flavor of smoke. I tell him it is amazing because it's unlike anything I've had. "I've never done this before," he says. "Talked to a reviewer while he's working on his review." "Trust me," I say. "I've never done this either." He asks if he can send over some extra plates—tastes of things he's been working on, and single portions from his current tasting menu—and I say sure, then proceed to eat an entire plate of wagyu tartare, ring-molded and topped with a layer of perfectly bru- noised cubes of tomato. More drinks arrive, and then plates from the kitchen: a tube of scallop mousse wrapped in black-and-white stripes of pasta, attended by a tarn of squid-ink sauce set with a single piece of concassé tomato; a shallow bowl of raw opakapaka with carrot broth and fennel five ways (as a seasoning, as an oil, as a mousse, in pieces, and in chunks), which is really three ways too many because in the end everything ends up tasting like fish with licorice. These are the dishes that Franey uses as grace notes to his menu—brief and carefully considered gestures in the direction of modernity, utilizing tools and techniques that did not even exist when Peter Canlis first settled into this booth 60 years back. Not all of them work: The tube of scallop mousse, for example, is not something I would go back for—too strange in texture, too complicated in presentation, and tasting only as good as squid ink has ever tasted, which was never very good to start. But together these operate as more of a gestalt than as individual plates—visions of a chef pushing forward slowly, of pitting innovation against the epic weight of tradition. The meal goes on. I duck outside for a cigarette between courses, and, before I ask, the valet says, "Right around the corner," pointing to the stone ashtray beside the decorative fountain. I pull out my phone and call my wife. She asks how it's going and I say great, but not done yet. "You're still eating?" "Yeah, why? It's only been . . . " I twist my wrist and look at my watch. It's been almost three hours. Back inside, there are handmade ravioli of mushrooms with fennel and candied lemon in tiny sticks not much bigger than a cat's whisker. They stand up off the plate like swollen UFOs and taste powerfully of the black truffles slivered around them. The lobster came here all the way from Maine, was killed and cooked in the kitchen, poached in butter with chestnuts and tarragon, then grilled and served in pieces with a quenelle of herbed butternut-squash purée. It, too, is a perfect presentation, deliciously showcasing the different cuts (for lack of a better word) that a lobster might yield, and I eat as much of it as I can even if, at this point, I am beginning to hit the wall. Mark Canlis comes back to talk about the malasadas (donuts, essentially) on the dessert menu, and how they'd taken months of trial and error to get right, inspired by the world's best malasadas, from Leonard's in Hawaii, that he and some of the staff had eaten during a trip there. "I mean, this is Canlis, right?" he says. "But we're serving malasadas. We're serving the teriyaki that's basically beef-and-broccoli. But I ate that beef-and-broccoli, like, every day. We just have to make sure it's up to our standard. That it's better." Though even Mark will admit that, for all the effort, the malasadas aren't as good as the ones served at Leonard's, a little greasy-spoon dive in Honolulu. Canlis' are only the second-best malasadas you can get, and he laughs when he says it, because knowing your limits is a good thing. And I know mine. I am done—overstuffed, exhausted, and ready to go home. This is the last meal I will eat as a critic, the last time, probably, I will eat out in Seattle. A few days later, I will be on a plane headed back across the country to Philadelphia: another new place and another new job (as an editor at Philadelphia magazine). But first, there is still the leaving. I've barely made a dent in the lobster, so I ask to have it boxed. We finish the last of our drinks. I pay the bill and the valet has my car waiting when I step outside. My friend's jacket is warmed for her in front of the fireplace before she is helped into it. I shake hands on my way out the door, thank everyone I can reach for a wonderful meal, a wonderful night. We'd come in at the beginning of the night's service. By the time we leave, the floor is nearly empty again at the end of it. I drive home. It's late when I get in, and I kiss my son and thank my wife Laura for (again) holding down the fort while I wandered around the city eating squid ink and talking about donuts. In the dark of my own kitchen, I reheat the leftover lobster and put it on a plate, take out forks and knives, and go upstairs. I wake my daughter to tell her I am home. Half-asleep, she asks me how it was, and I tell her, "It was great, but I'm done now. You hungry?" Together, the two of us sit for a few minutes in the dark, eating lobster and talking about our days. Price Guide Canlis prawns $18 Smoked salmon $18 Steak tartare $20 Canlis salad $14 Mushroom ravioli $36 Lobster $66 Malasadas $12 jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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