One of Seattle's essential restaurants, Canlis has been impressing diners since it opened in 1950. One dish that has been on the menu since the first dinner service continues to impress, the Canlis Salad. Eater spoke with executive chef Jason Franey who says that the salad is more than just a classic Canlis dish, it's a real testament to the Canlis family, whose love and pride in the deceptively simple salad has helped make it the restaurant's signature dish, with about 100 sold daily. Managing owner Mark Canlis explains the staying power of the salad: "New dishes come and go with the seasons but only the best stand the test of time." Franey agrees. "First of all, it's delicious," says Franey. "I think it's a perfect balance between textures, acids, salt and fat."
Inspired by a recipe from founder Peter Canlis' Lebanese mother, very little about the recipe has changed over the years. "When people have been eating it for so many years, they know when you've made subtle changes," says Franey. "People will know there's something off." Not to say that there haven't been revisions. Franey explains that the salad is now made with fresh herbs instead of dried, and baby tomatoes have replaced larger tomato "petals." One recent innovation is actually a return to the way things were done before. This Summer, after a 12 year hiatus, Canlis reintroduced tableside salad service.
Eater Seattle editor Julien Perry explains why the salad is such an iconic dish in the city: "The Canlis family isn't exactly known for being subdued — they usually go pretty big — but their namesake salad is familiar, approachable and shows restraint. It manages to put you at ease when you eat it." Below, the elements of the Canlis Salad:
1. The Lettuce
The Canlis Salad begins with romaine lettuce from the locally-owned vendor Charlie's Produce. Franey removes the outside leaves which can often be bitter and wilted, and then cuts the top off. He takes the remaining leaves and slices them in half and (unlike in a Caesar salad) he uses both the green and the heart for the salad. Franey says that while the heart adds crunch, the greens are important for the flavor of the salad because they add an element of bitterness. Franey also adds that keeping the greens "looks nice in the bowl."
2. The Herbs
One of the distinguishing features of the Canlis Salad is that there is a sizable portion of fresh mint and fresh oregano tossed in. Franey says using "a lot of mint is the key" to the balance of the salad, since its fresh flavors counteract some of the richness from the bacon and the cheese and the bitterness of the romaine. When it comes to the oregano, Franey uses "a light hand," since the flavor is sharper than mint and could easily overwhelm the salad. Franey says the herbs are a nod to the Canlis family's Greek and Lebanese heritage and also set the salad even further apart from a Caesar salad. The herbs are chopped to about 1/8 inch thick; the goal is to have a thick enough piece that it can be eaten like a small piece of salad. Franey adds that if the cooks had to chiffonade the herbs, he'd need them to get started at 2 a.m. since it would be so time consuming considering the number of salads they serve.
3. The Toppings
There are several components in the tossed salad: bacon, Romano cheese, scallion, tomato, and house-made croutons. Franey uses smoked bacon from a purveyor the restaurant has worked with for over 20 years. "Bacon is bacon," Franey jokes before explaining that it imparts a smoky and salty flavor to the salad while its fatty richness helps cut the acidity from the vinaigrette. Franey cooks the bacon until it is "super-crispy," describing it as a second crouton in terms of the crunch it adds. Franey slices scallion very thinly with a sharp knife, making sure it doesn't bruise or oxidize. Franey also uses small heirloom toy box tomatoes, which he slices in half lengthwise.
Since day one Canlis has been using Romano cheese in its salad, and Franey says Peter Canlis was insistent that they not use Parmesan. Franey says Romano isn't as sharp as Parmesan, and its milder profile makes it a better fit for the salad. The Romano is grated with a Hobart machine grater, keeping the pieces on the bigger side so that it remains in individual bits instead of a powder. Another staple is the house-made croutons, which begin with freshly baked baguettes. Franey explains that since the baguettes are made with a natural starter they are a bit on the sour side. Diced pieces of baguette are coated with a mixture of melted butter and dried Italian seasoning (dried oregano, dried basil, garlic powder, onion powder). The pieces are baked on a sheet tray in the oven until they are crisp.
4. The Dressing
The signature Canlis Salad dressing begins with a coddled egg. The egg is boiled for two minutes, leaving the outside slightly cooked. Egg adds body to the dressing, allowing it be viscous enough to coat the pieces of salad instead of simply sliding off. To make the dressing the coddled egg is cracked into a bowl with lemon juice and Napoleon olive oil, a mild olive oil made by a local, family-owned company that Canlis has bought from since the 1950s. Franey explains that the mildness of the olive oil means he doesn't need to cut it at all. Along with kosher salt and freshly cracked black tellicherry pepper, the components are whisked together. The dressing is not an emulsion, Franey explains, but rather it is "broken."
5. The Assembly
Because it is a tossed salad, Franey says there's not too much concern over what order the components are added together before tossing. All the components are mixed together with about an ounce of dressing (the cooks assemble so many salads a day that they just eyeball the amount of dressing needed). After the salad is thoroughly tossed, the tomatoes are added. (If they were tossed along with the rest of the ingredients they'd be crushed.) The salad is then served on chilled plates, which prevent the leaves of the greens from wilting. When a whole table orders the salad, a server brings a solid brass, mirrored steel, and quarter-sawn wenge wood cart built by artisan Joshua Parke to the table and prepares the dish tableside in a custom Hawaiian mango bowl. When the dish is prepared tableside the kitchen will send the server out with all the necessary mise en place, leaving the server to toss the salad in the dining room and then serve it with koa tongs.