Make Dennis Leary Your Personal Chef
817 Sutter St. (at Jones), San Francisco
Nob Hill neighborhood
Dinner with three seatings, Tues.–Sat.; lunch, Wed.–Fri.; brunch on the weekends
Major credit cards accepted; reservations recommended for dinner, no reservations for brunch
Canteen is the type of comfortable hole-in-the-walls that you’d make a regular hangout for dinner in the neighborhood. But Chef Dennis Leary (not the actor who spells Denis with one “n”) has churned out such impeccable dishes from this 20-seat restaurant that he’s made it a culinary destination.
I mean, during my first visit to Canteen recently for brunch, I sat at the counter next to a couple of girls who drove up from San Jose for a weekend in the city. Canteen was the first stop on their list of “foodie places” to try.
Situated on the ground floor of the Commodore Hotel (which sounds fancy but the hotel was turned into dormitories for Academy of Arts students), Canteen opened in 2005 as a way for Chef Leary to escape the big kitchens (he formerly cooked at Rubicon) and experiment in the intimate settings of a tiny restaurant.
And boy is it tiny. The counter seats seven people and the four booths lined along the wall really comfortably seats just two people per booth (you can squeeze four into the front booth). The décor can be described as funky—part library, part Art Deco furniture store. And the tiny kitchen where Leary does most of his cooking could be the prep station at most restaurants.
Despite the space restrictions, Canteen blossoms as a full-fledge restaurant, offering dishes that are tasty and complete. While dinners can be quiet elegant, it seems the bigger draw is weekend brunch.
So that was my first visit. Canteen doesn’t take reservations for brunch, so one Saturday I arrived at 11:40 a.m. and took the last barstool at the counter. Soon after I sat down, there was a constant stream of people coming in checking on availability and putting their names on the waiting list.
The menu, not surprisingly, had a limited number of dishes. But I was surprised that it offered an even share of breakfast items and typical lunch entrees. I decided to start with the seasonal pumpkin soup ($6.50) and ordered the smoked salmon omelette ($9.25), mostly because I love lox.
The pumpkin soup had a beautiful color when it arrived, and was just as satisfying in taste. Topped with roasted sunflower seeds and parsley, the soup was aggressively seasoned with a mild squash flavor. What I mean by “aggressively seasoned” is that it had a strong savory taste but didn’t taste salty. My friends who are on low-sodium diets will probably think it is way too salty, but I liked it.
My omelette came with a fennel salad on the side dressed in a light vinaigrette and some toast with home-made marmalade. The eggs were perfectly done, encasing the salty lox inside and a big dollop of cream cheese. While I enjoyed eating the omelette and the fennel salad, I didn’t necessarily think the two married well together on the same plate. Still, each tasted delicious on its own.
Side note: My counter partner from San Jose had the blueberry pancakes, which she enthusiastically endorsed.
Feeling good about my brunch experience at Canteen, I decided to return a week later for dinner. Again, because the place is so small, reservations are recommended for dinner and you have to be aware of the seatings. When the place is open for dinner, you’re seated at either 6, 7:30 or 9:15 p.m. Because Chef Leary does all the cooking, the total number of people served (known as “covers” in restaurant lingo) is about 30 to 35 a night. That’s not a lot of people, which made me wonder how much money Leary can really be making in this intimate setting.
I ended up going to Canteen on a Tuesday night, which is also when a prix fixe menu is served for $38 (starter, entrée and dessert). Unlike other prix fixe menus, Canteen’s prix fixe doesn’t offer any choices. So in a way, it’s like a chef’s mini tasting menu because the decisions are made by Leary as to what will be served.
I walked in expecting the entire room to be filled like it was for brunch, but instead it was just me at the counter and two parties at two booths. That’s when I realized that the maximum reservations per night are spread throughout the three seatings to make sure Chef Leary isn’t overwhelmed. (So a warning: if you plan to go to dinner alone hoping to chat with others at the counter, bring a book just in case no one is seated around you.)
My dinner started with an amuse bouche from the chef—a roasted duck and fresh porcini mushroom crostini. It was enjoyable, although my sliver of duck was a bit large so I couldn’t eat it in one bite, but the meat was cooked rear so it was difficult to bite into. Still, I did my best to eat it all as one bite.
Then came a celery root soup with salt cod, bacon and fennel. Even before the bowl hit the countertop, I could smell the essence of celery (and I personally love celery unlike some celery haters on some discussion boards I’ve visited). While this soup lacked color, it was full in flavor just like the pumpkin soup. I am now a fan of Chef Leary’s soups; I don’t think he can make a bad one.
The entrée was spice-crusted venison with seasonal fruit chutney and roasted potatoes. I had to laugh when I saw this on the menu because just the week before I was writing on this blog in my recaps of “The Next Iron Chef” about how so many of the cheftestants were cooking venison—it’s like the designer meat of the moment. I’ve never had venison, which is basically Bambi (OK, a grown up Bambi), but my server told me it’s very lean and less gamey now that a lot of venison are farm-raised.
The venison were served as medallion and perfectly cooked by the chef. It was red enough to be tender, but not at all chewy. While I could tell that the venison meat was very lean, it still tasted moist with the fruit chutney and the jus on the bottom of the plate. While I can’t say I’ll rush out and seek out another restaurant serving venison, I was glad that my first exposure to this meat was under the skillful hands of Leary.
The evening was capped off by dessert—lemon croquettes with pistachio sauce. While I’ve talked again and again about my wariness of eating fried foods, I can’t argue with croquettes that have a light, thin fried layer oozing out with warm lemon curd when you break into them with your fork. I thought the additional lemon sauce on the plate was totally unnecessary, but that didn’t deter from the elegance and simplicity of this dessert.
I called this posting “Make Dennis Leary Your Personal Chef” because in many ways you’ll feel like Leary is cooking just for you when you’re seated at his intimate yet sophisticated diner. Leary must be the hardest working chef of his caliber in town because he is always behind the stove preparing the meals while keeping one eye on the room, directing servers to go to a table that might need attention or alerting them to when a plate is left sitting too long. He’s like a maestro in the back orchestrating the culinary symphony occurring up front. And when done right, the music wafts beautifully into the cool night of San Francisco.
Single guy rating: 4 stars (flavorful soups and elegant brunch)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner