Saturday, May 2, 2009

Canteen, San Francisco CA

What makes a young, successful, well reviewed Chef quit his job at a top tier restaurant and open up a small diner-style restaurant that abuts the lobby of a sub-standard living space in an average neighborhood? Too much pressure, desire for total control, or something else – who knows? Having read of the unique Leary dining experience that is Canteen I knew I’d have to stop by at some point and given my limited time in the city I was thankful for their weekend brunch as an option – the fact that it was literally halfway between my hotel and the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market was just gravy.

Arriving approximately 5 minutes after opening I half expected a line given the previous day at Dottie’s, but surprisingly I was only the second person to arrive – the first being the chef; today not Leary (I was later informed that he’d be in “a little later” because he was at the market getting some “necessities.”) Taking a seat at the bar, the seat closest to the stove so I could watch the action, I picked up a menu and was wowed by all the choices – had I not had additional food plans for the day I’d have easily considered 3-4 items. Browsing around the restaurant I was amused by the glowing arrow, green formica counter, books, and drab walls – all business, but flawlessly clean with sharp angles throughout.

Approximately 2 minutes after I arrived a second worker showed up and immediately filled my water, took my order, and began to work quickly but effortlessly taking ingredients out of the fridge, plating butters, filling jars – the whole scene was full of fervor yet controlled. In the meal time, I watched the chef begin the preparation of my meal – hand mixing the flour, cream, eggs, butter, and berries. A moment later the coffee was done brewing and my cup was filled (and refilled rapidly throughout the duration of the meal) with a potent and rich concoction featuring hints of chicory and chocolate. Drinking my coffee I watched with great interest as my first dish came together – by the time it entered the oven another three tables were filled and the place felt more lively.

After another few moments my first dish was completed, garnished, and presented. Simply titled “A Big Pancake with Strawberries and Vanilla Sauce” this was absolutely a case of “more than meets the eye.” On initial presentation the plate sized disc appeared quite simple – merely a golden pancake topped with granulated cane sugar and laying atop some white sauce – but that doesn’t account for the smell – quite literally the smell of strawberries and cream. Cutting into the pancake and taking a bite revealed the what would have been a mystery had I not been watching the preparation intently – a literal soufflé of a pancake formed by griddling one side and then topping the “raw” side with a large handful of fresh strawberries before flipping it and finishing it off by baking the cast-iron skillet in the oven. Soft, airy, textural with hints of cinnamon, plus the wonderful vanilla accented whipping cream (I watched him scrape the bean into the cream before boiling it down) and the most ripe strawberries – the best pancake you can imagine and every bit on par with the strawberry bread pudding only 12 hours earlier.

Following the sweet – a savory (on vacation, dessert comes first.) Going to Canteen I’d fully planned on a poached egg – at least until I saw the menu. Totally absorbed by my pancake I have to admit I missed the cooking action of dish two, but when it arrived approximately 5 minutes after the pancake (and a third cup of coffee) there was no missing it – more perfection – and a level of indulgence I must admit made me smile. “Smoked Duck with Lentils, Rhubarb, Foie Gras, and Chicken Liver Toast” – that’s right, Foie Gras for breakfast. Another perfect preparation, the most tender Duck I’ve had since Ducasse’s Liberty Duck preparation at MiX, perfectly smoked with succulent hints of Rhubarb and thick/toothsome lentils and a “gravy” that tasted like smoky Foie Gras mixed with coriander. Atop the pile was perched a small piece of white toast and a hefty smear of Foie/Chicken Liver that was perfectly balanced and smooth – delicious on its own and even more so when eaten with the duck and lentils. If anything, I’d have liked more toast.

Stopping by to ask how everything was and if I would like anything else the chef was quite personable despite the fact that he literally had 6 burners and an oven running behind him – he explained to me the ratio of the ingredients in the pancake and why it puffs up best when baked at broil – “its all about timing” he said. Thanking him for such a superb breakfast he suggested I stop back for lunch later if I wanted to meet Chef Leary but he noted “it might get busy.” Happy, full but not stuffed, and more than adequately impressed I paid my bill, got a to-go cup of coffee, and made my way to the street for a walk to the Farmer’s Market. While I didn’t stop by later, I certainly will on a future trip – I want to try the “real” soufflé if a soufflé pancake can be that good.

1 comment:

Khanh said...

Canteen is one of my favorite places to eat in SF... glad you got to check it out. Hit me up on AIM (loken415) sometime. I and my coworker (we live in San Francisco) always enjoy reading your blog :-)