Canteen (SF) – Small but Forgettable

I live in nob hill/union square/tenderloin depending on who you ask and it’s mostly known for cheap, ethnic places. Lately, there’s been a buzz building about Canteen – a small diner attached to the trendy Commodore hotel. It’s Wed evening, I’ve just spent a weekend eating through the horrors of Las Vegas, might as well give it a shot.

Dennis Leary, formerly of Rubicon, decided to forgo the world of corporate kitchens for his own small place – the Howard Roark of the SF dining scene. Being a fairly creative person who also feels constrained by the corporate world, I immediately wanted this place to be special. And being only 3 blocks away, I really wanted it to be good. Was it?

The Atmosphere
Identity crisis – half of the very narrow room wants to be more rustic w/ its wooden tables and shelves of books (I won’t go into the titles of the books, but let’s just say most of the trendy hotel patrons would probably consider them literate.) The other half of the room is pure diner w/ a neon arrow sign and its bar w/ cheap stools.

The Service
The kitchen appeared to be the chef and his 2 helpers; the wait-staff was merely 1 very overworked guy. The guy tried hard, but it’s diner-level service b/c he was constantly busy.

Rhubard & Asparagus Shavings w/ Homemade Parmesan Cheese
The amuse bouche – very tart, the 2 flavors didn’t gel on in my mouth. The parmesan cheese was very soft, but its minimal saltiness didn’t offset the tartness of the shavings. Maybe this was intended as a palette cleanser?

Smoked Mackerel w/ Escarole, Pomengranate Vinaigrette
An interesting appetizer – mackerel at the bottom topped w/ a mayo sauce, escarole, chopped apples, sifted hard boiled eggs (they were but specks), and the pomengranate vinaigrette. The salad was light but the smoked mackerel had a deep smokey taste that endured long after the salad was finished. good stuff; the guy next to me at the bar requested another one for his entree but that’s overdoing it.

Braised Lamb Shank w/ Soft Polenta & Lamb Broth
I’ve never been a fan of braising and this dish didn’t win me over. I don’t know if it was this dish, or my general dislike of braising, but the meat was too watery. Taste was ok, but nothing extraordinary.

Why did i order this you ask? I didn’t – Wed nights are prix fixe but…

Roasted Lamb Leg
They also cooked a roasted lamb leg. i overheard and asked them if i could try a piece – they obliged. They gave me 2 small cuts that were cooked perfectly medium rare. mmm…. Very good – tender but w/ substance, and an ever so slightly gamey taste – far better than the shank.

Cherry Consomme w/ Strawberry Ice Cream
I always gripe about every restaurants serving the exact same desserts (you know, creme burlee, chocolate souffle, etc…) but i’ve had great luck w/ desserts lately and this was no exception.

The ice cream was unlike any i’ve had before – it was light and airy – almost like a whip cream w/ hints of ice crystals. Very delicious. I’m a sucker for fruit soups and this did not disappoint.

Was it Worth It?
Despite the press & hype, this isn’t a destination restaurant. It’s a great neighborhood place that serves better-than-average cuisine w/ fresh ingredients. However, the recent press has made this a problem – I asked and they were booked for the next few weeks on Fri & Sats w/ the weekdays quickly filling up.

I’d recommend this for a pre- or post-theater lunch or dinner. It’s better than most restaurants in the immediate area (unless you need your Indian fix, then by all means, visit Shalimar) and it will certainly satisfy. Weds are prixe fixe; Thurs – Sat is a normal menu; breakfast & lunch 7 days week.

The other patrons were gushing over each course; however, being the cynical old man of 30 i am, I suspect they were there b/c of the buzz and not the food. I wanted it to be more. I’ll visit it again since it’s so close to home, and maybe it will improve if i get to order my own dishes, but prix fixe dinners should be more certain than this trio of dishes.

- chuck

  • Dustin

    hahahaha, you are a shalimar fan! i live in the area and used to go there weekly, until my digestive system no longer permitted. i once didn’t show up for a month or so and the guys running the place asked me, “are you okay, is your family okay?”

    i used your recommendations for paris restaurants a few months ago and visited Arpege, Gagnaire, and Ledoyen. Loved Arpege, it tied only with Kanda in tokyo for my all-time favorite. Didn’t love Gagnaire at all (everything was so complicated, most dishes tasted like leftovers to me, i’m embarassed to say.)

    anyway, love your blog, keep up the good work!