Friday, October 24, 2008

Mini Dish: The Sentinel

Gourmet Sandwiches for the FiDi Lunch Crowd
37 New Montgomery St. (at Stevenson), San Francisco
Financial District/SOMA
Open for weekday breakfast and lunch, 7:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
PH: 415.284.9960
No seating, credits cards accepted

I bookend my recent vacation with a free day in San Francisco so I could explore things I normally don’t get to see because I’m stuck at work in Oakland. On my return this week, I spent my last vacation day in the city checking out Denis Leary’s sandwich shop, The Sentinel.

I’m a fan of Chef Leary’s since I’ve had brunch and dinner at his tiny Union Square restaurant, Canteen. His use of fresh, seasonal ingredients created in an intimate setting convinced me that this is a man who believes in his craft, not his business. (Although, the following he’s garnered through his food probably helps business; so it’s win-win all around.)

Less than six months ago, he opened a sandwich shop in a small, former cigar storefront across the street from the Palace Hotel just south of Market Street. His idea was to create incredibly delicious sandwiches for a Financial District crowd who may have lots of sandwich options but none close to this. Now Chef Leary’s life is spent making sandwiches during the days at Sentinel and cooking dinner at nights at Canteen. This guy is just a ball of energy.

I arrived early to beat the crowd, and found out that The Sentinel serves breakfast and then closes to regroup for the lunch rush. You enter through the side door on Stevenson Street, but there were already two people there when I arrived as the door opened at 11:30 a.m. One guy in line behind me says he comes two to three times a week to grab lunch to take back to the office.

The menu features about six regular sandwiches that are offered through the season (things like corned beef, turkey meatloaf and roast beef), a daily soup and a daily special that’s typically a salad (on the day I visited it was a Rockfish Salad with marinated tomatoes).

I wanted to try something unusual, so I ordered the Smoked Trout Sandwich with fennel, apple and horseradish sauce ($8). I also ordered the soup of the day, which was a Roasted Acorn Squash Soup ($5).

Chef Leary and his crew have the lunch ordering system down like a fine-tuned machine. You place your order with Holly, the girl who everyone seems to know at the register, and then she places a colored post-it with your name next to Chef Leary. Each color corresponds with a particular sandwich.

Leary then makes each sandwich from scratch, with the help of three other sous chefs. In just those first few minutes of service, the chef was already moving lighting-fast making a long list of orders, many coming over the phone. (If you prepay, you go straight to the front of the line to pick up your sandwich when you arrive.)

I was impressed with the efficiency of how things ran, and I got my sandwich and soup after waiting maybe five minutes.

I ran off to find a place to sit (luckily the weather was beautiful to be outside) and opened my bag to unveil my sandwich. The smoke trout was flaked in between a crusty bun that was a bit tough to bite into. My sandwich was loaded with slices of fennel and apple, and pieces of mint leaves—all held together by the creamy horseradish sauce.

The sandwich was refreshing and tasty from the first bite, with the horseradish overpowering the apples and fennel flavors. While I got bits of the texture of the smoked trout, I have to say I didn’t really taste any of the fish. Again, it was overpowered by the other ingredients. If this were an Iron Chef panel, I probably would say something like “everything is wonderful but I feel like the secret ingredient isn’t the star.”

Despite the fact that the trout got lost in the sandwich, I enjoyed it and appreciated the creativity Chef Leary put behind this sandwich.

With the squash soup, I knew I would be in for a treat because I’ve never tasted a bad soup at Canteen. And I was right, because the squash soup with its autumnal bright orange color and bits of squash pieces was as sophisticated and comforting as anything you’d find at a Michelin-star restaurant. The soup is served with sourdough buns that I used to slop up every bit of the rich goodness inside my recyclable container.

The Sentinel has created such a following and works under such an efficient system that I couldn’t help but chuckle in my head thinking I was standing in line for the Soup Nazi. But Chef Leary (sometimes quite serious-looking when he’s working) is far from a control freak barking out orders, but instead has created a personable little lunch stop where he regularly builds relationships between the food and his fans.

This is a mini review so no rating, but this is the kind of place that I would take a day off just to visit.

Sentinel on Urbanspoon


David K. and Ann C.-K. said...

Thanks for the review, Ben. I walked by there a few weeks ago and I figured it had to be good because there was a huge line out the door. Can't wait to try that soup and sandwich. -- David

Anonymous said...

I love this sandwich shop! They serve the best sammies around. Thanks for the reminder, I need to make the effort to walk over for lunch soon.