Canlis, Seattle.

December 2017

This was a wedding anniversary big night out. We were extremely impressed with this expensive restaurant’s physical plant and service. But while the food was creative in concept, its pure hedonistic impact, disappointingly, didn’t quite measure up.

The lovely building is located high above a view of Lake Union and the city. The interior is contemporary but surrounds you with traditional wood, rock, copper, and other comforting muted surfaces. You can see the city-lights view from the entire room but obviously the best seats are next to the big windows.

We were seated side-by-side at a table at the edge of the dining room with the city view to our left. There was never any crowding or intrusive proximity of other diners. Well-dressed staff were everywhere, polite, quiet, friendly, and businesslike. Our pretty main server introduced herself with balanced charm, friendliness, and professionalism blended perfectly. It’s a set menu, four courses with five or six choices each, for US$104.

I’ve got to say that with decades of pretentious dining and wine enthusiasm under my belt, I imagine the wine list here would stand up to pretty well any in the world. The emphasis is new world, but France and Italy are magnificently represented, with as far as I could determine reasonably fair prices. One of the sommeliers helped us choose a pinot noir, which turned out to be a Faiveley Nuits St Georges for $165. They have three cellars, one off-site, God knows how many bottles.

First course. Canlis salad: this was a romain-dominated simple green salad with discernible and pleasant mint. Our first impression was hm… couldn’t they have kicked things off with something a little less ordinary? The miso soup with geoduck and seaweed similarly just lacked flavour. I tried but didn’t seem to be able to taste the characteristic clammy tang of geoduck at all.

Second course. We were allowed to make a substitution and Robin had the steak tartare which was delicious, its most impressive features being chunk consistency and a very pleasant if wee-bit muted flavour. I had their foie gras, thinking I was going to beat the bank although I really chose it because I love foie gras. The portion was tiny: the size of a sugar lump sliced in half set side-by-side, but it was nicely seared and flavorful, accompanied by a bland vegetable purée.

Third course (main). I had lamb, which came in two forms: fatty meat cut and seared as a 3 x 4 cm rectangle, and three thin slices of tenderloin absolutely without fat, done medium rare, all with cooked brussel sprouts and chestnut accompaniment. The fatty rectangle was the high point of dinner for me, beautifully crisp and filling my mouth with wonderful lamb flavour. The de-fatted tenderloins less so, just very tender not-especially-flavorful meat. Robin’s filet mignon was a very nice pretty-well unadorned filet, beautifully tender, accompanied with “roasted peppers and hazelnut muhammara, and grape saba”, which presented as attractively-plated but homogeneous-tasting vegetable material. For an extra $10 we ordered truffle fries which were respectable but not perfectly crisp.

We chose a beautiful orange soufflé cut at the table and filled with pastry cream, and a piece of Stilton cheese for dessert.

The wine, chosen by the very accommodating, cheerful, knowledgeable, and pleasant sommelier from a list one could easily get lost in for three or four hours, was I’m afraid a disappointingy ordinary burgundy, vinous and with limited charm on the nose and primarily tannic/bitter in the mouth. Our delightful expert brought us a couple of complimentary glasses of different things at the end of the meal, including I think a new world pinot noir of their own label. Those two wines were also pretty wan as far as I could tell.

The menu announces that 20% is added to the meal’s cost so you don’t have to worry about gratuity. I was a bit surprised when the bill arrived: US$599. We have spent a lot more than that half a dozen times in extremely pretentious places in Europe (and of course a lot less too), and our impression has been there is a sweet spot on the value curve in fine dining that would fall say C$200 below this amount. Certainly we’ve had better-tasting pretty classy dinners for less than half this price.

That said, I don’t think we’ve ever had better, kinder, more professional, or more experienced and deferential service anywhere. The place is lovely, and everyone takes pride in what they are doing. I wish I had asked the sommelier to give us something he just loves instead of directing him in respect of varietal and origin. And I really wish this magnificent place could find itself a world-class chef. We haven’t eaten out much in Seattle since I started doing restaurant reviews, but we would certainly try another of the several high-end eateries in this town next time.

Food 8.7, service 9.7, ambience 9.4, value 7.0, peace and quiet 9.1.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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