I enjoy fine dining. Not to the exclusion of street food. It’s just another category where I can find deliciousness. When I first moved to Seattle over a decade ago, Canlis was the name that came up most often when you mentioned fine dining. I have found that most people see expensive decor, a gorgeous view, fancy service, and a pricey bill and think that they have experienced the finest of dining. This is not to say that the food at Canlis was without value several years ago when I ate there, but it was completely unmemorable to me. More of a show than a redeeming culinary experience for me.
But, a couple of years ago, Jason Franey, took over the reins in the kitchen, and I started to hear good things. Very good things. I finally got to see what it was all about and I was not disappointed. (I should note, that they did google my reservation and knew that I was coming, but I also don’t believe that a restaurant can be better than it is just for someone writing a food blog. And I don’t believe we got any special treatment over and above the special treatment they give all their guests. Or certainly none that I could detect.)
Yes the service was impeccable. Yes the decor was warm, and fine, and modern. The view was sparkly. Yes it had all the accoutrements of the traditional fine dining establishment, but all that mattered to me was the food. We ate, in order, Sweet Potato Soup with Cranberry and Cinnamon, Young Beets with Sheep’s Milk Yogurt Sherbet, Pumpernickel, and Blueberries, Smoke-Cured Salmon with BLiS Maple Syrup, Steelhead Roe, and Caraway Seed, Chicken with Prosciutto, Salt-Baked Celery Root, and Matsutake Mushrooms, New York Strip Steak with Carrots, Curry, and Cauliflower, Pineapple with White Chocolate, Passion Fruit, and Coconut, and finally Creme Fraiche Custard with Oatmeal Streusel, Granny Smith Apple Sorbet, and Spiced Cider. We nursed our bottle of 2000 Clos Du Sarpe from home which was positively lush.
As with any established culinary genre, there are themes and conventions. And a chef’s first challenge is to master those. Picasso could paint a traditional painting with the best of them. But once mastered, he wanted to grow. And when you go to a restaurant that has mastered a refined expression of food, it’s certainly enjoyable in its own way, but it’s not exactly memorable. And often, it’s just boring. Creating your own identity, your own flavor palette is an exercise of constraint and restraint. And it takes someone with vision and security to create that type of signature. One where you can eat the food and know it’s them.
While I’ve eaten extensively across the planet, I won’t claim to be a definitive expert. That said, based on my moderate eating experience, Franey has created a distinct culinary style that I found refreshing, original, deep, and positively delicious. The main theme throughout the dishes was the use of the sweet part of the spectrum. I’m not a big dessert guy, and relish the savory over the sweet. I admit it’s a preference I have. And when sweet flavors are introduced into savory dishes, it can be cloying, overpowering, or just plain distracting. But the flavors I experienced in dishes like the sweet potato amuse, or beets melded sweet and savory in a delicate balance to create some entirely new compound flavor profile. The balance was perfect. And this threaded throughout the meal including the salmon which was served in the most distinct (and intense) salmon consomme I have ever tasted. It’s like I had visited a new planet and was eating food that simply didn’t exist here on earth. Did Franey bring this signature from New York? I honestly don’t know. But I’m glad it’s here in Seattle.
Just when I thought I understood the meal came the sous-vide chicken dish with the mini-mirepoix floating in the center of the plate. The sweet was present in this dish but in more of an emotional sense. To be blunt, this dish almost made me cry. It was home cooking. It was the flavors of home. The smell of family dinner. The taste of warmth, but expressed with this incredible refinement. The dish touched my heart. Just when I thought the meal was all about new flavor profiles and plating that resembled modern art, I was confronted with this dish that tugged at my heart strings.
And dessert? It flipped the equation. The savory and sweet elements switched places and gave me an inverse version of what I’d been experiencing throughout the meal. Sweet was now dominant, but savory didn’t disappear. It was a perfect bookend to the meal.
People were still proposing to each other on the evening we were there. Couples still came there for an occasion. And some of the long time customers were still there as they likely are on a regular basis. The environment seemed preserved from Canlis of old. And tradition is good. But the food was all new and exquisite. Creating something new, and maintaing it thematically to tell a story through the course of a meal is vision+execution at the highest level. And that’s what Canlis is doing right now.