The best restaurants revolve around three things: ambience, a talented and creative chef, and a superb kitchen, which necessarily implies top-notch restaurant equipment and supplies. For even the most brilliant chef can’t concoct a delicious piece de resistance on a Bunsen burner. The proper tools are a vital part of the process.
That being said, one of the few outstanding restaurants in my part of the world is the justifiably famous Canal Street Grille, which despite its location in a small farming community in the Central Valley of California (just outside Modesto) exudes Southern hospitality and charm. It operates around personal relationships that commonly extend far beyond waiter and patron. If you’ve been there more than once, the waiters know and remember your first name, and use it. Sooner or later, the manager (Chris) gets around to everyone, shakes hands, and double-checks to make sure you’re being treated right and the food is prepared the way you like it. If not, he makes it right.
Without a doubt this type of warmth and affability can be found in many parts of the country, but based on my experiences in big cities, like Seattle and especially Los Angeles, dining too often involves posturing, jockeying for a table, and worrying about status. These are the kind of places where people go as much to be seen as to eat, where everyone is watching each other watch each other.
The ambience of Canal Street Grille is laid-back luxury, like going to an upscale home. The reception area is simple and elegant with upholstered window seats, where people can wait to be seated. The walls are muted shades of browns and rusty reds, replete with photographs of the area way back when. Think French Country meets San Francisco Modern as directed by Ridley Scott, and you’ll have a good idea of what I’m talking about.
On the lighter side, the Grille serves great sandwiches with garlic fries that are to die for. Real garlic, not just garlic salt or flavoring. The entrees revolve around seafood – halibut and salmon – along with an assortment of beef dishes. One of their specialties is Honey Soy Salmon, which is glazed in a proprietary sweet and sour sauce and rests upon a bed of oregano risotto. But what makes it special is the showmanship. The chef loves to show off, so everything is designed, garnished, and decorated before it is “presented” at your table. They never bring you your food, they present it.
I peeked in the kitchen one day, just to see what it looked like. It was so clean, it hurt. And all the equipment gleamed with newness and efficacy, which simply served to confirm my theory that great food comes from great kitchens run by great chefs.