Some of the motifs that make Canlis as impressive a restaurant as it is were the very things that made this week’s challenge as good a challenge as it was.
Peter Canlis, grandfather of current owners Mark and Brian Canlis, was extremely forward-thinking (and his children and grandchildren have shown that same progressiveness). Despite his limited budget, he had the vision to enlist architect Roland Terry, one of the pillars of the post-WWII-era regional approach to Modern architecture, who created a stunning structure with Frank Lloyd Wright sensibilities, right on a hill’s edge, with a design that fairly invites the vista into the dining space.
The restaurant had a great menu from the get-go and was also a true gathering place in the Seattle area, with devoted regulars. The owners implemented a lovely custom there that I believe endures till this day, in which they confer a wine glass with a customer’s initials upon someone they deem to be a special customer. The glass is not necessarily awarded for frequency of visits, nor can one be purchased -- it’s the relationship that is forged with the customer that determines whether and when a monogrammed glass is gifted to someone. A fun story about the restaurant, by the way: men are required to wear jackets and encouraged to wear ties; women are required to wear dresses. An actress once arrived wearing pants, and when she was told that she couldn’t wear pants at the restaurant, she said “OK”…and took them off right at the door!
While it started out with a sense of modernity for its time, the restaurant itself has been updated through the ages, and so has the food. Regulars would be up in arms if they couldn’t get the Canlis Special Salad, but aside from that, the food has been steadily rethought throughout the years and is very, very modern. In fact, Jason Franey, who is the current chef, came out of Eleven Madison’s kitchen, in New York. Most restaurants do not survive transfer from generation to generation, but Canlis has adapted smartly and gracefully and has stayed relevant, which is a very impressive feat. Throughout the restaurant’s changes, however, its owners have maintained their sense that this is a family business. Whimsically, there is one special table that still boasts an old-school telephone -- apparently this is where Peter Canlis would sit back in the day, observing the goings on, and when he’d note something he needed to address, he’d just pick up the phone.
Similarly, this week’s challenge required skill married to creativity, it required a vision for the visuals as well as the flavors, and, as the Canlis family has preserved, a sense of whimsy and fun as well. The chefs needed to understand what the original menu was suggesting about the dishes offered and extrapolate as to the ingredients and method of cooking, in order to skillfully create their vision of what had come before. This challenge reminds me of a period film or piece of theatre, in which the director, designers, and actors pull together to recreate an era. Knowledge of the era must be combined with a hefty dose of imagination and, of course, the skill at one’s craft necessary to pull the whole thing off.