Canteen SF – If You Don’t Like It, They’ll Make You Love It

I’m not what I would call a picky eater, but there are a handful of foods I absolutely cannot stand in any incarnation: beans, mushrooms, avocado, and most seafood (squid and octopus being the notable exceptions).   Or so I thought.  Canteen might not have made me an universal convert, but they’ve at least proven that I can be made to eat seafood and mushrooms… and love them both.

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Canteen is the brainchild of chef Dennis Leary (not to be confused with the comedian of the same name, minus an “n”), who previously headed up the now-defunct restaurant Rubicon.  I never made it to Rubicon, so I cannot compare the experiences, but at Canteen, Leary has created a charming conflict between informal atmosphere and fine-dining cuisine.  Attached to a dormitory for the Academy of Art, the restaurant boasts no bar, no comfortable waiting area, and no bathroom.  (To use the facilities, walk through the lobby, up a few stairs, and down the hall past half-a-dozen dorm rooms.  It’s on your left.)  With a capacity of no more than 20 people, half on stools at the diner-style counter, Canteen does three scheduled seatings a night: 6, 7:30, and 9:15 pm.  Don’t expect to eat without a reservation.  Tuesday nights are currently prix-fixe, which is a great way for the novice to enjoy Canteen’s choice offerings on a [little more of a] budget.

Canteen Menu

Canteen's Week 272 Menu

Last Thursday, Brendan and I were seeing a friend’s show in the area, and took it as an opportunity to treat ourselves.  Behind the counter, server Ashley recognized us from the last time we dined there… almost 11 months ago.  To make things easier for the kitchen (which consists of 2 men and about 10 square feet, in plain view at the end of the dining counter), it’s best to order all 3 courses at once.  We decided on the scallops and vitello tonnato to start, followed by gratin for the lady (that’s me) and lamb loin for B.  The menu to the right, I pulled off Canteen’s website, but in-house, the corn gratin was advertised with porcini mushrooms, rather than peppers.  Brendan was wedded to clafloutis for dessert, and since I’d never eaten it (the shock! the horror!), I deferred to his superior judgement.  We also enjoyed a bottle of bright, dry pinot noir, whose name I promptly forgot. That’s not a comment on the quality of the vintage; you just don’t go to Canteen to spend the evening admiring your wine.

If you remember my list of abhorred ingredients, you’ll no doubt notice that I did in fact order dishes containing several of them.  You may think this a brave (or foolhardy) move on my part, but I had good reasons.  On my previous visit, I had carefully ordered around my dislikes.  Everything was, of course, fabulous.  But we also have a policy that I must eat at least one bite of whatever Brendan is having, no matter what it is, in an attempt to build up my tolerance.  Often, I deserve a medal for these efforts.  However, at Canteen, it was a true pleasure.  Thus, I made an educated bet on Leary’s culinary genius… and we all won.

For those who don’t know (I didn’t), vitello tonnato is an Italian dish consisting of thinly-sliced veal in a fish-flavored mayonnaise-like sauce.  Canteen’s version included a slaw of shaved artichoke and radicchio, the bitterness cutting beautifully through the creamy sauce and rare, tender veal.  I swallowed several chunks of tuna without even the hint of a gag, but once I tasted the scallops, I never went back.  Without even a hint of fishiness, these huge scallops were perfectly executed, with a golden sear and a texture like butter on the tongue.  The sweetness of the onion purée beneath them accented, rather than competed, with the sweetness of the protein.  My only complaint here was that I wanted a spoon to get every last drop of that deliciousness into my mouth.   I settled for scooping it up with pieces of brioche.  (Thank you, Ashley, for the extra piece!)

Upon receiving our entrees, Brendan seemed disappointed by the 4 small medallions of lamb on his plate, and suggested that I include in my review the critique that for the price, there ought to be more protein on the plate.  However, I heard no complaints that he was hungry by the end of the night.  Perhaps that’s because my gratin was so rich and creamy, he had to help me finish it.  Whatever your views on portion size, I don’t think you’ll argue that the amount of flavor packed into every bite is well worth the high price tag.

Having only a small bite of my partner’s dish, so as not to aggravate his feelings of deprivation, I dug into my own main.  I never thought I would say (or type) this, but in this case, I really think the mushrooms made the dish.  The heaviness of the luscious gratin needed the textural contrast of the firm, thinly-shaved porcinis and the toothsome kernels of sweet corn were beautifully brightened by their citrus kick.

By the time we got to dessert, I was stuffed, so I had a hard time appreciating the clafloutis to its full potential, I’m sure.  I was pleased to discover that clafloutis is actually remarkably similar to a breakfast item I grew up with, which we always called “apple pancake,” but that realization failed to magically make more room in my stomach.  The ricotta topping I found a bit too sweet for my liking, but that could be because I had just finished plowing through a rich, sweet entree.  But then, as with the wine, one doesn’t come to Canteen for dessert.

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Canteen is not perfect, by any means.  There’s the long walk to the bathroom.  There’s the need to pour one’s own wine and water more often than not, as the two servers have their hands full.  There’s the prominent “MEN” sticker –of the sort you see on a bathroom door– on the end of the first shelf in the kitchen.  (We meant to ask the two female servers how they felt about it, but three courses and a bottle of wine later, it somehow slipped our minds.)  There’s the minimalistic website that gives you no information about what nights are prix-fixe (we only found out through conversation with Ashley), and where two-thirds of the press links are dead.  But in the end, none of that seems quite as important when you’re perched at Canteen’s counter, enjoying food you would never have thought you could like.

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