Review: Canoe

After September's floods, the classic riverside restaurant rebounds

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, the Chattahoochee's languid waters looked about as menacing as liquid caramel as they flowed past Canoe's manicured lawn. Women in bright pastels wandered among the flowerpots in front of the restaurant. There was no sign that just six months ago, those same waters rose over the lawn, the flowers, the famously bucolic patio, and in through the restaurant's lower and then upper dining rooms. In fact, the only sign left of the devastating flood is a small, chest-high mark on the brick wall just beyond the hostess stand that reads "September 21, 2009."

"You would have been doing the doggie paddle right here," a waiter told me when he noticed me staring at the line. "The entire place was trashed. But we came together. It was amazing – past employees, customers, friends – everyone wanted to help. And now we're good as new."

In fact, the turnaround time for Canoe's revival was astounding. After just 10 weeks and about a million dollars in cleanup and renovations, the restaurant reopened on Nov. 23, 2009.

Originally opened in 1995, Canoe has long been a favorite among Atlanta's upper crust. It's also served as a breeding ground for some of the city's best chefs, including Livingston's Gary Mennie. Carvel Grant Gould has held the title of chef since 2005. When the flood hit, Gould had just finished planting a vegetable garden intended to supply the restaurant's kitchen – it was the most recent step in a push toward local sourcing that has long been a staple of Canoe's menu.

When the menu's ingredients aren't local, they're sourced very carefully. "We're the only restaurant in town to have Alaskan halibut that's never been frozen," our waiter boasted one recent evening. "We have a guy in Alaska who meets the boats and sends it to us overnight. You can't get fresher halibut outside of Alaska."

Indeed, the halibut's white flesh retained more of its firm, oceanic purity than others I've had. Seafood in general here is handled with rare skill, from the tiny, delicate baby shrimp over soft scrambled eggs at brunch to the crisp skin of steelhead trout, which gave way to a juicy pink interior. The trout lay over risotto bursting with sunchokes, and the sweet citrus-and-earth flavor of the vegetable lifted up the rice and kept it pleasingly light.

I wished the skin of an otherwise beguiling duck breast had been crisped a little longer. Other than that, I found the technique of this kitchen to be flawless. A much more difficult task than a properly rendered duck skin lay under the duck breast – a foie gras sausage, imbued with all the mellow fatty funk of the foie but bursting with the proper meaty heft of a sausage.

Rabbit over bacon ravioli and sweet potato hash was well executed but rather one note: The barbecue-esque glaze on the bunny, plus bacon, plus candied garlic equals a lot of rich with no shot of fresh to counter it. But a similar dish – an appetizer of Peking BBQ'd quail over collards and boiled peanuts hit all its nostalgia cues perfectly. The quail channeled Chinese duck's lacquered, sweet/fat exterior, matching unwittingly well with its Southern accompaniments.

It's obvious that a huge amount of effort goes into training the staff, and the result is a conciliatory, ceremonial tone that focuses more on formalities than it does on the true underpinnings of customer satisfaction. The upside is waiters who can recite in loving detail the origins and attributes of practically every ingredient listed on the menu. The downsides are waiters who do list every detail about the menu whether you want them to or not, a tone that borders on overbearing, and the obvious and determined up-sell. After a brunch where I didn't want a $7 breadbasket, or an appetizer before my eggs, or premium liquor in my bloody mary, or dessert, I felt positively miserly despite spending $60 pretip.

The focus on knowledge is so extreme that it led to some bizarre encounters. One evening, my waiter stood and explained nine cheeses on the cheese plate, in order, pointing to each as he went. Great (kinda), except that there was no correlation between what he pointed to and his descriptions. A less cheese-centric diner would come away thinking that a French triple crème is hard and sharp tasting.

Wine is also an issue, not because of the list, which is varied and just lengthy enough without becoming overwhelming, but because servers claimed knowledge then stumbled on specifics. It was as if they'd rather obfuscate than just go get someone with the desired information.

On the other hand, there are aspects of Canoe's service that deserve praise and even imitation. A genuine effort is made to remember guests and treat them like old friends when they return. Order anything to share and the kitchen will split it with loving attention to detail. You will never be left with dirty silver or glassware – table resetting is gospel here. These are small things, but as any true service professional knows, it's the small things that count.

In previous reviews, and in conversations between friends, Canoe has been accused of being a touch out of date. The renovation has brought an upgrade and more modern feel to the soaring, exposed brick and wood dining room, but the food and service still seem just slightly behind the times. This is less of a problem for me with the food – Gould has access to unparalleled ingredients, and she utilizes those ingredients to create upscale classics. This food is not modern, but it's hardly old fashioned. Service is more of an issue. The theater of verbose formality is a throwback I could live without.

But there's no better or more special-feeling restaurant in town for events that may seem kind of throwback in and of themselves. Dinner with an older relative? Bridesmaids' luncheon? Meet the parents? Canoe still makes a grand first impression, and a pretty darn good fourth or fifth one as well.