Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Return to Canteen in San Francisco

This is an occasional report on return visits to restaurants that I’ve already reviewed.

An Intimate Dinner by Chef Dennis Leary
817 Sutter St. (at Jones), San Francisco
Nob Hill neighborhood
PH: 415.928.8870
Dinner with three seatings, Tues.–Sat.; lunch, Fri.; brunch on the weekends
Major credit cards accepted; reservations recommended for dinner, no reservations for brunch

Original visit: November 2007

Chef Dennis Leary is a busy man. In the last couple of years he’s opened a gourmet sandwich shop for the Financial District lunch crowd in San Francisco called the Sentinel, then a bakery named Golden West, and just this week the refurbishing of the classic bar The House of Shields.

Recently my friend Janet was in town and we were meeting in Union Square. I couldn’t think of any new restaurants that I haven’t already tried in the area, so I decided to go to a tried-and-true, and so I suggested Leary’s original restaurant Canteen. (I guess I wasn’t the only person thinking fondly of returning back to Canteen lately.)

We arrived for the early seating, and got our choice of seats in the tiny diner-style restaurant. We chose one of the comfy booths along the library-like wall. In the back kitchen counter, Chef Leary was buzzing back and forth prepping his kitchen for the night’s meals. (He moved around so fast I couldn't snap a clear photo of him.) It was nice to see that despite Leary’s probably busy days making sandwiches, he still spends time behind the stove for dinner at Canteen.

Chef Leary’s menu is still limited, changing every week and featuring an Americana approach with local ingredients and classic French preparations. Chef Leary sent out an amuse of a tiny bay scallop crudo to whet our palates.

Janet started off with an unusual dish called a Sole and Crab Quenelles ($12.95), which our server described as a dumpling. It was served with a deep pink sauerkraut in the center and a curry sauce. Janet liked it although she felt the quenelles had a real eggy taste. To me, it reminded me of chicken and dumplings in the South.

I started with the Spicy Mussels Soup ($9) because I knew in my past experience that Chef Leary makes amazing soups that are flavorful and savory (warning: some may find it slightly on the salty side). The mussels soup didn’t disappoint, with its beautiful orange color and specks of herbs. The soup was actually more based on mussels stock so it had the mussels flavor, but I couldn’t find any mussel meat. Still, it was very enjoyable.

For her entrée, Janet got the Ling Cod encrusted with hazelnuts ($24.50). She said the fish was cooked perfectly, but she wasn’t a fan of the artichoke puree. The overall dish was very pretty, with a leek vinaigrette sauce.

I went for something heftier and ordered the Guinea Hen ($25.50), with green wheat, braised kale and orange sauce. The guinea hen had a beautiful brown color, just perfectly golden throughout, with a crispy edge. I have to admit, I don’t really remember much about the green wheat, other than it was like any other grain. But everything blended well together, and the orange sauce was a nice compliment to the tender hen meat.

The dessert courses were next, and this is where my love for lemon conspired against me. I say this because I immediately zeroed in on the Lemon Crepe ($8) with ricotta sauce, which was perfectly delightful. The crepe was nice and thin, and the lemon ricotta sauce was foamy and delicious.

But I was so envious of all the other tables who ordered, rightly so, Chef Leary’s classic vanilla soufflé, which looked so beautiful and huge arriving to all the tables around us. I should have order this soufflé so now I must return just to taste it.

Janet didn’t know of Chef Leary’s famous soufflé, so she went with another favorite, the Warm Chocolate Pot de Crème ($8) with ginger and chicory. It looked beautiful and she enjoyed it. (Although I bet she would have liked the soufflé better.)

Every dish came out plated with a lot of sophistication, which contrasts with the eclectic décor of the restaurant. But it’s this casual setting with elegant dishes that’s been the trademark of Canteen, and it’s nice to know that despite all his many ventures vying for his attention, Chef Leary is staying true to his dream of making creative and delicious dishes on his terms.

Update experience (previously 4 stars): Staying strong with a satisfying menu

Canteen on Urbanspoon

Other chef-driven restaurants:
Commonwealth: "Upscale Dining But Still With a Purpose"
Contigo: "A Neighborhood Gem with Catalan Flavors"
Lafitte: "Not Quite a Revolution but a Revelation"


Carolyn Jung said...

You remind me that I haven't been there in a long time. I love that place. It's got such charm and whimsy. And yes, the souffle is all that and more. Are they not serving the Parker House rolls any more? Those are awesome!

Single Guy Ben said...

We were served rolls, not sure if they were called Parker House rolls, but they were good, and they kept offering us more if we wanted them.

foodhoe said...

I haven't been in a long time too, and I remember those rolls, but didn't know what they were called. Didn't know about the souffle either, sounds like a very good meal.