You may remember that last August my gals pooled together with a few family members and friends, and they gave me a Canlis gift certificate for my birthday. They all know I have a long list of restaurants in Seattle that I call my ‘wish list’; places I really want to go to eat. The list changes and reorders, with only one constant since I was 16 years old: Canlis has always been my number one wish. Canlis is legendary for their food and service, and when I was 16 years old several friends went there for dinner before Junior Prom. I did not, though I looked into the place and learned about it. Since then I have built it up in my mind and somehow it became too big and unattainable, so I didn’t even try to go there.
I think Lori was the first one to find this out, or maybe it was Leslie. At any rate they began to plot and they banded together to give me the most incredible gift: a $280 gift certificate! It was so unbelievable, and yet so like them, I still feel overwhelmed when I think about it. Time flies in the restaurant world, and our weekends were booked constantly. Mark and I knew that we needed a full evening for this, and we did not want it to be rushed. Christmas came and my parents gave me an overnight stay at theInn at the Harbor Steps in downtown Seattle. I knew it had to be combined with our trip to Canlis! I was keeping an eye on the calendar, watching for the perfect time to go, and it kept slipping out of my reach. In mid-January I found out when the Chef’s Collaborative annual Farmer, Fisher, Chef Connection day was and decided that we should try to plan our Canlis/Harbor Steps experience around that. After all, it is a rare treat to already be in Seattle when we have an all-day event to attend. I made the reservations at the Inn and hoped I would not have to take advantage of their generous cancellation policy.
It was still too early to make a reservation for Canlis (I was using OpenTable.com) so I waited until it was a month out. I was shocked to see that the only times available were 5 pm and 8:30 or later! I took the 5, and then kept checking. I found a 5:30 and changed it, and never found a later time after that, so we went with it. One friend pointed out that at least we would be able to enjoy the view in daylight and the dark, which was really great. We knew we would have a leisurely meal, though we had no idea just how slow and enjoyable it would be, so we weren’t worried about the early dinner time. I did not request the famous ‘Table 1′, as I felt it would be too…I don’t know… too something I am not comfortable with. As the day approached Mark began reading the web site and learning more about this famous institution that I was in awe of, and he was getting excited to go, as well. Lori & Leslie made sure I had a lovely outfit to wear (I wore the purple blouse, girls!) and it seemed that they were as excited for me as I was! That morning one of our favorite customers/friend came in and I knew she had been to Canlis on many occasions, so I was excited to share the news with her that we were going that evening. She gave me a couple of tips for when we were there (be sure to grab a handful of their candies on the way in, and another on the way out! They are carmelly and delicious!) and wished us well.
Saturday was busy at the cafe and Mark and I barely made it out to the 1:45 ferry in time… we arrived as they were boarding and only just got on. We checked in to the hotel and our huge room with fireplace, king bed and soaking tub!! We showered and dressed, then went down to the hotel’s afternoon wine reception. The desk called a taxi for us and we were off. The moment I reached for the beautiful door handle on Canlis’ front door I knew that my hopelessly high expectations were going to be met. We walked in and I saw the candy dish that Casey told me about, and quickly grabbed a few to put in my purse. (Oh did I mention, I picked my handmade feathered handbag up at a street market in New York City.. oo la la! How chic I am!) For a second it seemed that no one was there, and then suddenly we were amid a whirlwind of activity: someone took my coat, someone took the special bottle of wine we brought, someone else had menus in her hand and was ushering us to our table. Mark told them our name once as we arrived (I was admiring the fireplace) and they used it, with proper pronunciation, for the entire rest of the evening!
We were escorted past the only kitchen station that is visible from the dining room: the grill station. It is entirely ensconced in warm copper all over the walls, ceiling, and counters. We turned and walked the length of the upper dining room and she pulled a table out for us to slide into the booth. We were seated side by side, looking out at the dining room, and to our left were the wide windows from which we could see the lake and city views. As I was sliding onto the booth she said ‘This is table one…’ and I gasped! What?? Really?? Mark and I looked at each other in shock… THIS IS TABLE ONE??? (I was only shouting in my head, but I was so shocked! It is the most requested table at Canlis!) “Yes” she replied, “This was Peter Canlis’ private table, and the telephone is right there.” And it was! An old, black, rotary dial telephone sat unobtrusively on the sideboard next to me. My mouth was agape-THIS IS TABLE ONE! I mean holy crap! Mark looked at me after she left and asked “who did this for us? Someone we know had to have planned this!” There was no one I could think of who would have known about it, and anyway Canlis would not guarantee this table even if someone did try to arrange it. We looked around and were grinning like dopes “Yes, we ARE table one, and you are wondering who we are, aren’t you!”… I giggled.
John W. was our server and I have to say I sort of thought service would be a bit standoff-ish, or formal and stuffy. It was absolutely not. I think if that is what you want they would read you and provide that service, but it is not how we are. John read us perfectly and he was very approachable and friendly while offering perfect service, along with the rest of the team. Canlis eschews formal ‘captain’ or French style service, and the entire front of the house works as a team. It was remarkable to experience and delightful to watch. We had a wonderful view of the entire restaurant (Peter Canlis would watch service and if he saw something that bothered him, or that he felt he needed to comment upon, he would pick up the phone and call the front desk) and we enjoyed watching service all night long. We were there for 3 hours and 15 minutes, so we got to see many tables come and go. It was nothing short of a great show!
John gave us the cocktail and wine menu first (I had already studied it online and I knew what I was going to order) and asked if we knew were at Table One. Yes we knew, and we wondered if he knew how we got this table. He smiled and said we were just lucky, that they always tried to give it to someone special and they knew we were… Mark was still suspicious that it was somehow planned, but I knew it could not have been. I was sure that not even my mom knew about Table One, and no one knew when our reservation was for, anyway. John asked us what type of water we would prefer, and we said just tap water, no ice, and he brought it to us and left a little pitcher on our table, which I never had to touch because every time my water glass got down to half, someone filled it for me. He then brought my glass of Veuve Clicquot Rose Brut Champagne and another server brought Mark’s glass of syrah. They were placed on the table at the same moment. We toasted and drank… oh my it was delicious. I informed my husband that from now on I wanted our well filled with this champagne so I never had to drink boring old water again! He said he would be sure to get right on that for me. As we perused the menu (how to decide!) I kept looking over to see if the view was still there. It was, every time I looked.
After we ordered someone came out with the bread service “Would you like our honey butter bread roll, or our salted olive bread roll?” We replied in unison “One of each, please!” so he placed one on my plate and the other on Mark’s, assuring us he would be back to offer us more bread later. The butter was a large round that had been cut out with a cookie cutter, and I used only a tiny smidge, and then we realized that the bread was so good it did not need any butter.
Next they brought out the amuse bouche: Sweet Onion Puree in a tiny little cup, placed jauntily on one end of a rectangular plate. It was a delicious opener and I may have clapped a little in my joy. We started by sharing the Canlis Salad: Romaine, Romano cheese, bacon, mint, oregano, and a dressing of lemon, olive oil and coddled egg. They brought us each our own dish of salad, and we could not imagine each ordering our own, they were very large portions. Their croutons were house made and very crisp and of course every detail within the salad was perfectly balanced. They offered us freshly ground pepper, and I said “no thank you, I am certain it is already perfectly seasoned”, and it was.
We then shared a plate of Peter Canlis Prawns: Sauteéd in dry vermouth, garlic, red chilies and lime. And yet, that description does nothing to prepare you for the level of deliciousness that is the sauce. I moaned with pleasure and I heard Mark do the same-it was absolutely phenomenal in flavor. Thank goodness the bread guy came back around because Mark was going to be embarrassed when I licked that plate clean…or perhaps he was going to fight me for it. Instead we used our bread to sop up the remainder of the sauce and did not feel the least bit shy about it!
The meal was timed and spaced out nicely and I was paying close attention to being able to taste every morsel. I put my fork down after each bite and really took my time with my enjoyment. I kept making sure that I stayed as much in the present moment as possible, trying to remember every detail to share with you. We watched a table celebrate a gentleman’s 90th birthday. He was joined by what appeared to be his wife, grandchild and spouse, and 3 great grandchildren. You may think that Canlis is not the place to take children, and you would be surprised at how wonderfully accommodating and respectful they were of those very well behaved kids. They were probably 8, 10 and 12 years old, or close to it. They had ‘cocktails’ and enjoyed every course as the adults did. The servers engaged them and made them feel fully a part of the meal, which was fun to watch. They even got a tour of the kitchen (I tried to follow them in but Mark stopped me) and some sort of party favors at the end.
As I was mourning the end of the prawns John asked if he should send our bottle of wine out to be decanted. “Yes, please” and so the wine captain came over with our bottle of 2001 Kirralaa Shiraz (thank you, Manny! We love this gift!) and asked us about it as he opened and decanted it for us. We told him about Robert Mondavi going to Australia and ‘trading’ wineries with the wine-maker from Kirralaa. We asked if he would taste it with us and he seemed to enjoy it, noting that he thinks it will go another 10 years or so. Luckily we have another bottle at home to see how that goes! That wine is so good, and as the meal progressed it really smoothed and mellowed in the decanter.
We watched all kinds of people enjoying their time at Canlis, and every single one of us was treated as if we were the most important guest of the evening. Even including the person we overheard ordering a fillet mignon (easily the most common dish we saw served) “Well done and butterflied”. I understand wanting your meat well done, but why pay for Wagyu tenderloin if you are going to do that? It did not matter to the staff at Canlis, they simply smiled and treated her as well as everyone else who walked in that night. And let me tell you, I have seen restaurant staff treat people very poorly for ordering catsup with a fillet mignon, so I was impressed with the level of class throughout.
My main course was Mushroom Ravioli with Black Truffles and Mark had a NY steak, cooked perfectly and oh so tender. The fresh pasta was so perfect I cannot say I have had better in Italy! We also ordered all three accoutrements (this was a once in a lifetime event, after all! Never again would it be our first time, and we would probably never again have this amazing gift certificate, either) which included: Truffle Fries (mmmmmmmm, so perfectly salty and crisp-tender), Forest Mushrooms sauteed in sherry, garlic & thyme, and their famous Twice Baked Potato. We shared everything and slowly enjoyed every single bite. We brought some of the steak, mushrooms, fries and potato back with us to reminisce over later.
The tables were padded under the cloths, which added a layer of comfort, to be sure. We watched a couple of tables turn and when the server assistant changed the cloth it was amazing to watch. He never exposed more than a few inches of the table, and that was only in the very beginning of the ritual. He lifted up the cloth and folded about 1/4th of it back. He then laid the new cloth on the table and as he removed the old cloth, he somehow laid out the new cloth in it’s place almost seamlessly.(It reminded me of when a girl will remove her bra from under her shirt, never exposing herself for a second.. it’s a trick we can all do!) He placed the old cloth under his arm, then folded part of the cloth that drapes over the front of the table, back up onto the table, and disappeared for a minute. When he returned he had a cordless steam iron and he proceeded to iron the cloth right on the table. It was clearly a well-practiced, choreographed ritual that you could easily overlook if you were not inclined to watch the service on the floor. In fact every move they made, from the synchronized placement of plates on tables, to how they walked through the dining room, was well practiced, graceful and intentionally graceful and subtle.
For dessert we decided to share the Chocolate Covered Chocolate: molten chocolate cake, cocoa nib shortbread and chocolate-covered salted caramel ice cream. Yes, it was amazing! They took what could be ‘so 10 years ago’, a molten chocolate cake, and raised it to a new level. The top was bruleed and the dark chocolate was perfect. I enjoyed it with a glass of vintage Port (hooray for the port tasting we put on! I was able to know what I was ordering!) and Mark had Sauternes. The presentation of every dish was perfect and not too fru-fru (I don’t like fru-fru) by any means. The portions were perfect, not too little and silly and not ridiculously large. Every dish we had was worth every penny they charged.
At one point John asked us if we were there celebrating a special occasion, and I told him the story of how I had spent 26 years wanting to come there, and our gift certificate, and he also picked up that we were in the trade. He passed our story on to Brian Canlis, the grandson of Peter, who now runs the show along with his brother as the third generation of the restaurant. Brian came over and introduced himself and I tried to keep my composure. Are you kidding me? This was Brian Canlis, at our table, chatting us up like we were old friends! Making me feel as comfortable as I could be, except that my brain was screaming “HOLY CRAP” and I was trying not to make a fool of myself. He stopped by a few of times throughout the evening, we got our picture taken with him, and he even called the telephone from the maitre d’s stand up front! The phone started ringing and I realized I should answer it, and when I did he asked how everything was going! I cracked up when he said he thought it was fun to call the table from the podium! As the evening progressed we watched him perform every job at the front of the house in unison with the rest of the team, including clearing and resetting tables, serving food, and chatting with the customers.
As the night darkened, so did the room, and I noticed the bar as I was looking around for the piano player that I could hear. You can walk in and sit at the bar to enjoy appetizers or even the full menu. The piano player is in that area, though the entire place is so open that you can enjoy the music throughout the restaurant. The noise level was perfect, we could hear the murmur of conversations all around, though generally nothing stood out or called attention to itself. The music was in the background, loud enough to enjoy and subtle enough to not interfere. The service was silent and no noise came from the kitchen at all. I did not see the upstairs area, though I did see a bride walking up the stairs in her gown, so I know there was a private party up there. Can you imagine? Booking a private party for your (or your daughter’s) wedding at the Canlis? What a cool customer.
As we were nearing the end of our meal, with coffee and tea (they brought out a box of tea leaves for me to sniff and choose from), Mark enjoyed one last liqueur and John brought out their parting gift. A sort of amuse bouche to end with, or perhaps I should call it an au revoir bouche. For each of us a little hazelnut cookie, with a kiss of chocolate custard on top. We asked John to have them call for a taxi as we took it all in one last time. As we made our way to the front door: Brian shook our hands and said goodbye, then John did, another service smiled and wished us well, a valet told us our taxi would be here momentarily, the maitre d’ got my coat (no claim ticket, he just knew which one it was) and murmured goodbye as he held it for me to put on, we waded through the line of people waiting (it was 8:45 and they were waiting to be seated) and I did remember to grab a few more candies on the way out. The cab was there and we were off. I was on top of the world and so was Mark. We had such a thoroughly enjoyable time, we are hoping to make it an annual event. Dining at Canlis is an amazing experience and it should definitely be enjoyed by everyone.
I will post pictures on facebook in the next few days (or rather, Mark will) and fill you in on the rest of our weekend as well. We are on our way to the Chef’s Collaborative event this morning and that will be a great post, too! Have a wonderful day everyone!