Canlis rides again

The 2019 James Beard Foundation nominees were announced this morning: Brady Williams for Best Chef, Northwest; Canlis itself for best service (nationwide); Canlis also won the Foundation’s award for iconic restaurant design. The following is adapted from a review that appeared a year ago on SeattleDining.com,

It’s probably Seattle’s best-known restaurant, and almost certainly the only one with three generations of history: the founder, Peter, who opened the aerie overlooking Lake Union in 1950; his son Chris and daughter-in-law Alice, who took over after Peter’s death in 1977; and their sons Mark and Brian, who have run the operation since 2005.

The Canlis story began two generations ago, when a young man named Nikolas Peter Kanlis braved the elements and (legend has it) swam from Greece to Turkey. Presumably this was across the Strait of Samos in the eastern Aegian, about a mile. Still, a fateful dip.

Kanlis began making his way through the linguistic and cultural mazes of the Ottoman Empire, and by 1909 was working at Mena House, the most famous hotel in Cairo, when Teddy Roosevelt arrived in search of a cook for a year-long African safari. Not just a cook, but a steward and translator. Safari mission accomplished, Roosevelt’s assistant joined him on the return journey from Egypt to America. On Ellis Island, Kanlis became Canlis. He moved west, to Stockton, California, married, and opened a restaurant.

In the 1930s, young Peter, who’d been a reluctant apprentice in his parents” restaurant, moved to Hawaii and got into dry goods. But he knew food and he knew purchasing, so he wound up managing the quasi-military USO (United Services Organization). After the war, he opened a ten-table sidewalk restaurant on a lovely stretch of oceanfront, a little-known beach called Waikiki. Finally, in 1950, Peter Canlis moved to Seattle.

He commissioned an up-and-coming architect named Roland Terry to design a restaurant that was virtually revolutionary. For starters, it was three miles north of downtown, on Aurora Avenue overlooking Lake Union. Through angled windows diners had a view of Lake Union, Lake Washington, and the Cascades. There was a stone fireplace in the middle of the restaurant! The kitchen wasn’t hidden away; you could see the cooks! And the waiters didn’t wear tuxedos; in fact, they weren’t waiters at all but graceful Japanese women in kimonos.

Then there was the food. An iconic “Canlis” salad prepared table-side, with a coddled egg dressing, for $2 per person. (The New York Times finally printed the recipe in 2013.) Exotic Hawaiian fish, like mahi-mahi, flown in fresh by Pan Am pilots who were personal friends of Peter Canlis, $3. Top quality steaks cooked over charcoal. Canlis became a place for Seattle’s new Boeing money to dine alongside Hollywood stars like John Wayne; it was elegant without being stuffy (like Seattle’s venerable downtown institutions, the Rainier Club, the University Club and the Sunset Club), yet democratic.

Peter Canlis watched over the restaurant from his personal table near the front door (the one with a telephone) for the next quarter century. He even had living quarters installed in a “penthouse” off the main dining room so that he could stay close to his beloved restaurant.

“Have a drink with us,” a customer might have said 50 years ago to Peter Canlis, no doubt assuming he’d have something simple like a rum and Coke. “My usual,” Peter would signal. “Yes sir, Mr. Canlis,” the waiter would say, and return 10 minutes later with an elaborate cocktail, called, right, the “Yes sir, Mr. Canlis.” It’s a mixture of Gentleman Jack, pineapple, Pernod and Benedictine topped with a brûléed banana meringue. Bar manager James MacWilliams uses one of those portable blowtorches to make it; it tastes like a toasted marshmallow.

Canlis developed friendships with Conrad Hilton (the hotel magnate), Victor Bergeron (“Trader Vic”) and Don the Beachcomber (who popularized “tiki drinks”), and was persuaded to open a second Canlis in Honolulu, then another in Portland, then in San Francisco. Legend has it that Canlis wanted no more “expansion,” so he showed up drunk at a Hilton board meeting, and the horrified board pulled the plug on plans to put a Canlis in every new Hilton in the country.

Peter’s son, Chris, was working as a Wells Fargo banker in California when he was summoned back to Seattle in 1977 to take over the company. Where Peter was a showman, Chris and Alice were “behind the scenes” leaders. They would spend the next 30 years at the helm of the ship before their sons, Mark and Brian, assumed ownership. The notion that remains, though, is one of elegant, unfailing hospitality. Culinary star Greg Atkinson (now at Marché on Bainbridge Island) served as exec chef here; Brady Williams, a Wunderkind not yet 30, was recruited from Roberta’s in Brooklyn to run the kitchen when Jason Franey, the previous incumbent, moved to California. He promptly devised a new, six-course tasting menu served on new tableware; Canlis didn’t miss a beat.

Moving ahead to 2018, the six-course menu has become a four-course, $135 experience, preceded by an enticing amuse-bouche (a baby oyster) before moving into the more serious stuff.

There’s an exquisite beef tartare (capers, mustard, egg yolk) as a first-course option, followed by an even more delicious raviolo (which the Canlis menu calls a fazzoletto—bedsheet). Rabbit, it says on the menu, and rabbit it is, braised in milk and rabbit stock, then coated with a “bechamel” made with parsnips, onions, orange zest, thyme, milk, and buttermilk. Aged jack cheese and black pepper finish it off. My next dish was a slice of fork-tender spring lamb, which made me want to dance in a meadow of Alpine flowers. And then came dessert, an orange curaçao soufflé with a lush crème anglaise gently poured into the heart of the soufflé.

With our dinners, three of us drank a refreshing pinot grigio from Scarpetta in northern Italy’s Friuli region (home to Europe’s liveliest white wines) and a nebbiolo from Conterno, the famous producer of Barolo in Piedmont. The sommelier, far from looking down his nose at our choice of moderately priced wines, seemed genuinely pleased to serve these relatively modest wines.

My one disappointment was that the iconic Canlis salad wasn’t prepared table-side, as I had expected. Without that ceremonial aspect, it was just another house salad, Tasty, yes, but no longer special. Did another table, out of sight, have the pleasure of watching a member of the waitstaff assemble its elements (basically a Caesar, with a coddled egg, lemon juice, cherry tomatoes, croutons, and bacon substituting for anchovies), and then plate up two extra portions? We’ll never know.

But let’s leave this on an up-note. When you arrive for dinner at Canlis, a valet opens your car door, greets you, and drives off without giving you a claim check. When you leave the restaurant, sated and happy, the heavy doors are swung open and there’s your car purring like a baby in the porte cochère. I know there’s a trick to it, but if I find out how they do it, I won’t be nearly as impressed.