When you walk into Canoe, you are first greeted not by a hostess but by a display of photographs set up on two easels in the foyer. They show the flood that destroyed the restaurant in late September and the ensuing cleanup, rebuilding and redecorating that culminated in the restaurant’s reopening eight weeks later.
Once inside the dining room, you can’t help but notice the high-water mark — a thin white line painted on the wall at about six feet above the ground.
If you were very familiar with Canoe before the flood, then you will notice a change in mood. The color scheme is richer, the lighting dimmer, the wood partitions darker. It feels more elegant — more like a special night out, less like a scene.
My memories of the antediluvian Canoe go back to its serious scene days. I first dined here soon after it opened in 1997 for a meal with a group of editors after a two-day job interview at the AJC. I remember that the bright, cheerful room thrummed with that Olympics-era excitement that used to be so palpable in Atlanta. The food, as I recall, was fine: competent, contemporary, appropriate to a restaurant that served hundreds of diners every night.
I checked in on Canoe periodically as the paper’s dining critic. While I always liked the food, it never had the edge of newer American contemporary spots like Floataway Cafe, Rathbun’s and Aria. Yet it was just as expensive, if not more. And while I appreciated the drama of the riverside setting and the natural materials used in its construction, the Southwestern lodge decor felt increasingly outdated.
So, I mostly recommended Canoe for brunch. A seat on the patio with a basket of house-made breakfast pastries combined, I thought, for a great Atlanta restaurant experience.
When I returned to visit Canoe on its opening day after the flood, it was the first time I had been there for dinner in years and the first time I had ever tried chef Carvel Grant Gould’s cooking. It was an overdue pleasure.
I wish I had some photos to share, but the lighting was too dim to capture more than vague blobs. No picture, but I promise to stay well within 1,000 words.
We started with a half dozen cold water oysters ($16.95) with a cucumber and pink peppercorn mignonette. It was a canny combination — the flakes of ground spice tasted almost like dill against the tiny cubes of cucumber. I think any chef who wants to pre-dress oysters should come here to taste how it’s done right.
An African squash soup ($8.50) was a frothy as a well-made cappuccino and a smooth-as-silk texture. It was also so gently seasoned that you could taste both the herby-vegetable and sweet-pumpkiny characteristics of the squash.
I didn’t care much for the venison carpaccio ($14) — a pretty assemblage of paper-thin loin slices offset with shaved garrotxa cheese, blood orange salt, pinecone bud nectar and celery shoots. The meat was mushy and stuck to the roof of your mouth, spelling doom to all those interesting, flighty flavors. (Gould, who had just debuted the dish that night, said it was a work in progress.)
For our mains, we had to try the one holdover from Canoe’s earlier days — a slow roasted rabbit ($24.95) with Swiss chard-applewood smoked bacon ravioli and candied garlic jus. I really enjoyed the combination of soft meat, intense pasta bundles and stickily reduced sauce. It’s an interesting dish that would be more wine friendly if the sauce were a touch less sweet.
Beautiful sliced duck breast came with a duck confit pot pie ($24.95) set inside a puff pastry shell to rich, rib-sticking effect. My bite of the pot pie seemed a little on the pastily-reduced-cream side, but my friend assured me the combination of diced vegetables and duck confit got better with each bite. She was definitely doing the happy-plate dance.
I thoroughly loved my dressed lemon sole ($26). It wasn’t dressed in a cardigan and shorts, but “dressed” as in skinned, de-tailed, beheaded and left on the bone. Gould fried the whole beast in a fantastically airy, crunchy batter and set it over a bright, sharp green chile curry sauce with sliced purple potatoes. I wish I could show you a picture of this because it looked like Peter Max’s fever dream.
The waiter kept offering to bone the fish for me, but I was having too good a time separating the four fillets of moist, white flesh myself. I love eating fish and meat off bones. (Do you?) Next time, I may try and split this huge portion of fish with someone.
That would help defray the considerable cost of dining at Canoe. You certainly want to get a bottle of wine from the fantastic, Wine Spectator award-winning list. And you can’t leave without trying the new dessert called Whiskied Chattahoochee Mud ($8) — a curl of tuile cookie holding a thick, boozy whiskey mousse that is the exact color of the mud that caked every surface of this place after the flood.
It all adds up to an expensive night out, but it is one I’d recommend if you have the means. Atlanta doesn’t have a lot of restaurants in beautiful settings, and it no longer has a lot of restaurants that capture that excitement of the special night.
More than ever, Canoe is a restaurant that matters.
This post concludes “30 Restaurants in 30 Days.” I hope you all enjoyed it!