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Apr 26, 2012 01:09 PM

Canteen - A study of contrasts [San Francisco]

I finally made it over to Canteen last nite – delighted to snag 2 seats at the counter on short notice. After wending our way over as the evening rains began, I was pleasantly surprised not so much by how tiny a location it is, but by the “library reading room” motif of bookshelves on the wall. Nice!

We started off with the chef’s offering of an amuse-bouche of duck confit that raised the bar: delicate, yet flavorful.

For appetizers, we chose seared sea scallops with sweet corn puree and a Muscat vinaigrette. Yowzah! It was an incredible medley of flavors and textures. We also shared the “Rabbit salad” (more of a “salad compose”) of peppered rabbit loin, with peas, mustard and aspic. It was enjoyable, but paled in comparison with the scallops. And the warm brioche and butter was delicious.

As an entrée, I opted for the lamb loin with faro, along with roasted peppers and raisins. The lamb was extraordinarily flavorful, juicy and tender — and best of all, it actually tasted like lamb, and had some kind of dusting of cayenne that gave it a bit of a kick. Among the best lamb I’ve had in the U.S. The faro tasted like it was spiced with a smokey Spanish pimenton. Loved it. My dining partner chose the yellowtail with potato crust, fava beans, spring onions, artichoke hearts, and a sauce “gribiche” which is like a tartare sauce. The fish was a smidgen over-cooked for my palette, but it had a wonderful flavor.

Chef Dennis Leary is playing with sweet ingredients added to the appetizer and entree, yet not cloyingly sweet -- rather, used as a complement and to attend to the other flavors of the dish.

So what’s the contrast? Dessert.
Simply put, the chocolate hazelnut custard was a tasteless disappointment, as was the
almond torte with rhubarb and citrus. As impeccable as we found the apps and entrees, is as disappointed we were in the desserts. That said, all around us, folks were “inhaling” the vanilla soufflé. Next time I visit Canteen – which I hope will be very soon -- I will opt for that crowd pleaser.

ps- Service was attentive, helpful and enjoyable. Our server led us to an enjoyable Cote du Rhone that only got more full-bodied and rich in flavor throughout the meal.

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  1. Sob, we missed our reso at Canteen this trip because of plane delays, so your writeup is making me really sad. The only things we've ever had at Canteen that disappointed were a fish dish (slightly overcooked) and a dessert (that wasn't the souffle which BTW is perfect to share one between two). He does really well with red meats and bivalves, we've found. Glad you finally got to try it out.

    1. that vanilla souffle is dreamy. I've only had a couple dishes at Canteen (over maybe 10 visits?) that weren't outstanding, but not outright disappointments. it's been awhile, and as Grayelf, your review is making me want to go again - soon.


        Sounds like we had some overlap in menus from my dinner there a few days before you. I didn't love the scallop app. I liked the scallops alone, seared very well and sweet with freshness. And I liked the corn puree tasted alone as well. But putting the two sweet elements together with a sweet saucing gagged me. That said, I enjoyed reading your take on Leary's way with adding sweetness. We also ordered the rabbit salad and the avocado tartar.

        The lamb dish knocked us out. I believe the menu description mentioned smoked chile as a component. One of my dining companions had just returned from Turkey and he agreed with me that the chocolate-brown flakes tasted and looked like Urfa pepper to him too.

        Besides the lamb, we felt the desserts were the other highlight. I think we had the chocolate hazelnut creamy thing, a strawberry cake, and the vanilla souffle.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Ah Melanie, Sorry I missed your earlier post. But glad I had the good luck of chosing that lamb.

          Urfa peppers ... now that's a new one to add to my spice shelf. Thanks for the tip. I wonder how it would go with fish.

          1. re: escargot3

            When you find the urfa biber, pick up some maras biber too for a study in contrasts. I love both as a finishing pepper flake and for table use.


            1. re: Melanie Wong

              There is a third Turkish pepper along with marash and urfa, called Aleppo further down towards the Syrian pepper, will be in that area in a few weeks so will try to get it at the source.

              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                Unlike Urfa and Maras, better local spice retailers like Lhasa Karnak carry Aleppo. Though the ongoing war may have interrupted production or distribution.

                1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                  Lucky you! One of my friends brought me back some Urfa biber when she visited the village.

                  Yes, Aleppo pepper is also called Halaby. It is a bit more delicate and fruity than either Maraş or Urfa, and sometimes I use it as a substitute for piment d'espelette. As RL mentions below, it's a bit easier to find around here than Urfa or Maraş. I've bought a huge bag of bulk pack Halaby pepper at Parkside market in SF for a song.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    For another dry flake pepper to look for. Nora from Spain is not at all hot and l add handfuls of the flakes to soups and stews for both flavor and bulk.

          2. More changes coming at Canteen: in addition to 86ing brunch, they are going to be serving prix fixe dinners only starting Nov 5, with seatings at 6 and 8 pm. We've booked in to give it a try for our November trip but prix fixe meals always concern me a bit as I am kind of a picky eater.

            5 Replies
            1. re: grayelf

              please, grayelf - it's Dennis Leary! you know you can't go wrong!

              my BF doesn't like fish, and the one time i took him, they had THREE kinds of fish. and while he didn't love, he liked, and appreciated how well prepared everything was. and he actually liked the mackerel!

              1. re: mariacarmen

                Three kinds of fish would be awesome. Thanks for the virtual slap in the face, I needed that :-). I waited too long to make some reservations, notably no Rich Table for us, and had gotten into a bit of a tizz. But Canteen is in the bag and AQ too so it's not all bad.

              2. re: grayelf

                Where are you seeing that its only prix fixe after Nov 5?

                Their current web page says prix fixe on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

                1. re: r.vacapinta

                  I called to make a reservation for November and the staff person told me they are changing to all prix fixe after Nov 5. Website has not yet been updated.

                  1. re: grayelf

                    I am on Canteen's mailing list and just received this:

                    For the remainder of the year Canteen is serving a sequence of
                    Prix-Fixe dinners - 100 of them - all based on Robert Courtine's 1971
                    book "The Hundred Glories of French Cuisine". Dinners will be four
                    courses (excepting Tuesdays), with two seatings: 6 and 8pm.

              3. About how much did dinner cost? Their web page has no prix fixe prices.

                6 Replies
                1. re: hychka

                  Just checked their page again and the prix fixe was $43 two nights ago.

                  1. re: hychka

                    Now I am sad again as I just realized there will not be any vanilla souffle!

                    1. re: grayelf

                      really? that's not on the prix fixe menu? hard to imagine.

                      1. re: grayelf

                        what? that was always a given. always!

                        1. re: mariacarmen

                          Perhaps he will relent and have it as an option but currently there seems to be just one dessert with the prix fixe.

                          1. re: grayelf

                            Souffle was there when we went (woot!) but as the announcement on the website says, don't count on it. I was able to do a veg option on the soup which had crab so the prix fixe does offer some choice albeit not in the number of courses. This was not superproblematic for us though we don't usually do all four courses at a meal. Will post full report at some point.