I had not heard about Canteen until my foodie friend in Vancouver, Grayelf, had recommended it to me. It’s her favourite restaurant in San Francisco and she makes a trip there every time she’s in town. Since she and I have similar tastes in food, I made it my top priority to go and check it out on my recent trip to San Francisco last month.
Canteen is a haute cuisine diner owned and operated by renown chef, Dennis Leary, who used to be the executive chef at Rubicon. This 20-seat diner has 3 dinner seatings – 6:00, 7:30, and 9:15. We made reservations for the 7:30 seating. When we arrived a couple of minutes early for our reservation, I was surprised to see how methodical everything was. There was a full house for the previous seating and most of the patrons were just finishing up. At 7:30, all the patrons promptly vacated and all of us were seated for the 7:30 seating. There were no cancellations or no-shows for the 7:30 seating. All 20 seats were filled. That speaks volumes about how serious the patrons are about Canteen.
My friend and I got seated at the counter. This was a great opportunity for us to watch the chefs in action and also gave us the true diner experience. I was surprised at how tiny the kitchen area was as it was situated in the corner behind the counter. We got a great view of the chefs prepping and cooking the meals. The menu at Canteen changes weekly. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good in that patrons get to experience different dishes on every visit. But at the same time, it’s kind of bad because even if you’ve fallen in love with one of Chef Leary’s creations, you’re likely not going to see that exact dish on the menu again.
We were each served a small piece of cheese toast topped with grainy mustard as an amuse bouche. As well, we were all served freshly baked brioche buns. The brioche was warm, soft, and buttery. I could have easily eaten half a dozen of those except that I had to save room for the actual meal.
For starters, my friend ordered the Smoked Duck ($11.50), which consisted of slices of smoked duck breast served with lentils, mustard, sweet and sour cherries, and julienned celery root. This was a big hit and our favourite dish of the evening. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve tasted recently. The smoked duck breast was perfectly cooked and seasoned. It was flavourful, juicy, and tender. It was nicely contrasted by the crunchiness of the celery root. The sweetness and the tartness of the cherries really rounded out the dish and the lentils were a nice textural contrast.
I ordered the Seabass Gravlax ($12.95), which was served with avocado, potato chips, and caraway oil. This dish was a lot more delicate in flavour compared to the Smoked Duck Breast. The potato chips were freshly fried, crispy, and not greasy. They were the perfect vehicle for the delicate gravlax. The creamy avocado served as the perfect flavour and textural contrast. On its own, I would say this was an excellent appetizer. However, compared to the Smoked Duck Breast, both my friend and I agreed that the Smoked Duck Breast was the winner. My friend liked the Smoked Duck Breast so much that she almost wanted to order a second one in between the main and dessert courses!
For our main course, both my friend and I decided to order the same dish, the Lamb Loin ($26.50), as the other choices didn’t really interest us. According to the menu, the Lamb Loin was supposed to be served with socca, fava beans, red pepper, and lamb jus. I didn’t realize it was supposed to be served with red peppers until I was writing this post as I didn’t recall tasting any red pepper in the dish. To me, it’s not a big deal but it just caught me by surprise that what we were served didn’t exactly match the menu description. The presentation of this dish was not exactly what I had expected. The lamb loin was a little more cooked than I had expected. The lamb jus was savory and very flavourful but I wish it was a little thicker and less soupy. The texture of the socca reminded me a lot of fried polenta. The fava beans were cooked perfectly as were the pea shoots. The dish was garnished with thinly sliced fresh mint interspersed throughout. I liked that the mint was not overpowering and gave the dish some character. Overall, this dish was good but I didn’t love it.
For dessert, I ordered the famous Vanilla Soufflé ($9.00). The Vanilla soufflé was served fresh out of the oven. At the table, the top of the soufflé was then punctured and crème anglaise was poured into the center. I liked that the soufflé was light, soft and not too sweet. The warm crème anglaise had a nice vanilla flavour. I’m not a soufflé connoisseur so I didn’t think this dessert was a big deal. It tasted good but didn’t have a wow factor for me.
My friend ordered the Apricot Clafoutis ($8.50), which was topped with bitter almond cream. I liked that there were large fresh apricot pieces and whole blanched almonds in the clafoutis. I tasted hints of cardamom in the clafoutis and thought that gave the dish an interesting twist. Overall, both my friend and I thought this dessert was just ok but again, didn’t have a wow factor. On our next visit, we will likely order something else.
Overall, I thought our meal at Canteen was pretty solid. The Smoked Duck Breast was definitely the star of the show. Since the menu changes frequently, I’d like to go back to Canteen again on my next visit to San Francisco to see what other interesting creations Chef Leary has to offer. There is not much to the decor. It is funky, minimalistic, and non-pretentious. Because of the set dinner seatings nightly, this is not a place for a leisurely meal either. Canteen is definitely a place for serious foodies who know the drill and are there to experience Chef Leary’s creations.
817 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109