On a dark and stormy night…ok, well, blustery anyway, we were blown in to the warm glow of Canteen, an urban-retro diner the size of a small chihuahua (postage stamp was just too obvious). Nestled in the heart of the “Tendernob” and adjacent to the Commodore Hotel (“near the Red Room!” my uber-social friend Davina exclaimed), the tiny restaurant opened earlier this year to mouthwatering reviews.
This was my birthday surprise dinner, and it had topped my list for quite some time. So when we headed in that direction, and then circled the block a few times looking for parking, my excited anticipation grew to near-squealing point. We arrived a bit early for our reservation, but we were happily whisked into one of 4 cozy little booths lining the wall, opposite the counter seating and open kitchen.
Tucked into our booth, sipping a fabulous glass of Italian red “Gironia” from Montepulciano, we sat back and took in the decor as the restaurant began to fill up for the 7:30 seating. The curved lime-green Formica bar lined with vinyl-topped stools, the giant retro clock, and the quilted chrome bar wall and kitchen shelving gave the restaurant a decidedly 50s flair, but with an urban sensibility. Minimalist lighting, pine tabletops, bookshelves lining the booth wall, and a whimsical array of books added to the modern feel that I was having dinner at an underground restaurant located in someone’s loft.
But really what we were there for was to sample chef and owner Dennis Leary’s creative cuisine which I had heard so much about. Looking over the eclectic menu, we were intrigued by the choice but at a loss as to how to choose from the limited menu. Fortunately our enthusiastic waiter helped us navigate our way through first and main courses, and suggested we place our order in advance for the lemon souffle (I’m a sucker for anything lemon).
As with, in my personal opinion, any great chef who wants to lure you in, we started with a little amuse-bouche, a tiny token from the chef that makes you feel special and surprised, and also wakes up your palate for the dishes to come. In this case, it was a small shot glass filled with creamy spinach soup, both light and refreshing.
We opened the meal with a crisp salad of tender raw shaved artichokes, bitter endive, and parsley salad, tossed with chopped bresaola (of which I wished there was more), and topped with an egg-shaped nugget of fried anchovy butter. The fried butter, which fit in the category of “How’d he do that?!” oozed over the salad, creating a thick, creamy, pungent dressing. It was a bit heavy on the anchovy, but brilliant nonetheless.
This creative use of unexpected flavors and textures carried through in the main dishes and was most eloquently pulled off in the navarin of veal: fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth chunks of veal bathed in a light, creamy, lemony sauce, set atop silky carrot puree. Crunchy chopped escarole and piquant red onions, strewn across the top of the stew, finished the dish. This was not at all a flavor combination that I would ever conceive of, but it was perfectly balanced and memorably delicious. (Wanting to try as much as possible, we often share dishes. Bad idea with this one. I wanted it all to myself, and though I was the birthday girl, even that couldn’t save me from the navarin of veal duel.)
Our second dish, roasted rockfish, a meaty yet flaky white fish, was encrusted with toasty pepitas (crunchy green pumpkin seeds) and served alongside a smokey eggplant puree and raw tomato-fennel salad. The fish was superbly fresh and the flavors interesting, but the delicate flavor of the fish was slightly overwhelmed by the strong flavors of the pumpkin seeds and smokey eggplant.
We thought we were completely satiated, but our eyes brightened when the just-out-of-the-oven lemon souffle was whisked to our table like a whirling dervish. With a crisp caramelized top and a creamy center, the light and eggy souffle seemed to have everything going for it, but for me, it was overly sweet with a candy-like flavor.
Our second dessert, however, a pear clafoutis topped with a mound of fresh goat’s cheese and drizzled with vanilla syrup brought me right back into Leary’s world. Once again, the unexpected elements of the dish blew me away (oh look, we’ve come full circle). The puffed oven pancake was studded with tender bits of pear, it’s delicate sweetness enhanced by the salty cheese and balanced with a drizzle of vanilla syrup. The perfect end to the meal.
But I think the cherry on top was when we turned to go, and the entire staff, including Leary, turned and waved goodbye, bidding us a lovely evening in the blustery San Francisco night. I know I’ll be back and I can’t wait to see what Leary comes up with next.
817 Sutter Street (near Jones)
San Francisco, CA
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
Reservations accepted for dinner only