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SF notes: Canteen

Alison Cook writes in her blog this week about a young American chef named Daniel Rose, who opened a tiny eatery in Paris against better judgement and proceeded to book out months in advance and charm the local Michelin reviewers. On the menu? Parsley root and chestnut soup — Pig’s feet, scallops and green apple — Pigeon, carrot purée, wilde hare, brussels sprouts glazed with balsamic vinegar. I’d fly for a night in Paris just to eat this stuff. No stopping there. Daniel Rose has a blog and broadcasts from the restaurant’s kitchen 24/7 via a set of web cams. It just might be the first Restaurant 2.0 in existence.

Small dining room, claustrophobic kitchen, a countertop and a chef is one of the best concepts to emerge in recent years (mix and match ingredients being the worst), very often producing exciting results. The menu changes every day, with dishes conjured up out of thin air during a morning trip to the market. It’s the antithesis of the fine dining experience, where precision and consistency rules, and menus change less frequently than governments.

One of the best restaurant experiences I’ve had was at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, where small tasting plates dominate the menu and the diner becomes immersed in the kitchen experience a feet away from the bar. L’Atelier is far from a tiny chef driven operation, but the idea is the same and it works, remarkably enough, despite being a chain.

We don’t have anything of the sort in Houston (does it really make sense in our egalitarian city?), but on my recent trip to San Francisco I came across Canteen, which sounds like a mirror image of Daniel Rose’s Spring.

I knew very little about Canteen going in. It made a short list of restaurants that had an interesting menu. Quick check to make sure it was within walking distance and I was off. I found Canteen about 10 minutes away from Union Square, just a few doors down and a world away from the iconic Fleur De Lys.

I liked Canteen from the moment I walked in. Four tables, green Formica countertop, tiny kitchen, a cook, unassuming waitress. 20 seats at most. It was perfect. The place felt comfortable, like a greasy spoon with great food. You can tell a lot about the place by how the staff carries themselves and the staff at Canteen moved through the tiny space as if they were serving a casual lunch at home. It’s the sort of kabuki dance you encounter when you come across a confident hand in the kitchen. Canteen seemed light years away from the imposing pomp and disappointment of Quince I experienced the night before (more on that later). I was hopeful.

The menu provided a second clue. One of the three dishes was spaghetti carbonara, with eggs, pancetta, parmigiano and black pepper. Cream was no where to be found Most restaurants, including the we-really-should-know-better-than-that Prego, bastardize this dish to make it more palatable to the alfredo loving crowds by replacing the raw eggs with cream. Classic carbonara on the menu was all I needed to know to dive in.

First up – a simple dinner roll and butter, which was pretty good. Seems like an odd thing to notice, but bread is important. Sometimes you know just what’s in store by the quality of the bread. This roll was soft, yeasty and had just enough texture to tell me that someone made it by hand that mornong. The Belgian endive salad with goat cheese was chopped and simply dressed in olive oil right in front of me. I don’t like grapefruit much, but it was a perfect compliment to the slightly bitter endive. The salad didn’t really need more acid and not much more was added. Things were off to a good start.

I ordered the Dover sole (at least I think it was a sole) for lunch, rather than the carbonara, which seemed a bit much considering my ambitious plan for Incanto later that night. The fish came out perfectly cooked and the sweet roasted onions on the side turned out to be the best thing on the plate. Problem was that the crust that coated the fish fillets made the dish almost inedible. The corn meal was neither toasted nor was the fish cooked at high enough temperature to make it crisp properly, giving the effect of uncooked grits being slathered on a the fish after cooking it.

And just like that my budding love affair with Canteen came to a grinding halt.

Behind me a couple of foodie types were digging into their sole with much enthusiasm. One was a San Francisco native, the other seemed to be on a visit from New York. They both knew Dennis Leary, the chef/owner of Canteen, and seemed completely unaware that there was something wrong with the fish. Could it be that different than mine, considering all three fillets were cooked in the same pan?

Strangely enough, I wanted to come back to Canteen the very next day (I did not make it) and plan to do so next time I am in town. Maybe this time for dinner, to see how things go when Dennis Leary mans the stove himself. The truth is that even with minor imperfections, this is a better way to eat than being patronized in a stuffy restaurant where food takes a back seat to everything else. I am willing to take the lumps along the way.

"I wanted to do something different," he says, "and create a restaurant totally stripped of all pretension, the kind of place where I can cook for a small group of customers, interact and improvise, and offer very personally prepared, unique, and accessible food." As the sole cook in the establishment, he will personally prepare nearly every dish in the restaurant, from amuse bouche to salad to dessert. – Dennis Leary

March 8, 2008   1 Comment

Coming home to Tamales Doña Tere

Comfort food will always be judged on the merits of how fried, starchy or unapologetically unhealthy a dish might be. Come inducing foods really do stir up memories of times gone by when you were cared for by someone who cooked delicious things – mom, grandma, the creepy guy around the corner who wants to show you his awesome train set. For me, the definition of comfort food always came down to the flavors you associate most with home.

A long trip out of town is always the best way to zero in on the best and most comforting of flavors. Things you start to miss on day three of your trip. For years, my ritual meal coming back from the airport was at Ninfa’s. Perhaps no longer the best Tex-Mex in the city, but certainly unique to Houston …  and Beaumont, Baton Rouge, Atlanta and Austin, thanks to the half-wit owners of Serrano’s. At some point, Ninfa’s has taken a back seat to Tamales Doña Tere.

On any given day in Houston you can find great tamales at Pico’s, Otilia’s, Sylvia’s, Merida and Hugo’s, as well as some truly mediocre specimens at Berryhill. None of them quite capture the depth of flavor Dona Tere can deliver if you happen to order just the right tamale at the right time of the day.

Tamales at Doña Tere are always great, but if you happen to order from a batch that just came out of the steamer they are almost transcendent. Freshly steamed tamales have a creamy texture that melds with the filling to produce an almost gooey center. When fresh, the meat and cheese fillings take the back seat to the sauce, which works overtime as the corn meal releases steam. Wait too long and the effect goes away, producing a perfectly terrific tamale, but one notch below it’s full potential.

Doña Tere has about a dozen varieties, including a few sweet, tamales although none of them are better than the last batch out of the steamer. Tamales with green sauce tend to be a bit hotter than red and produce a brighter chile flavor that builds slowly and stays behind long after you’ve moved on. Doña Tere sells their green salsa on the side, but you only really need it when you hit a tamale that has been out of the steamer for a while.

The one time I hit on a freshly made Oaxaqueños tamale with chicken and red chili sauce it blew the rest of that days batch away. Larger than most, Oaxaqueños tamales have a deep red vein that gives them a striking appearance. The flavor was unlike anything I’ve ever had with deep, complex and slightly smoky chili notes that came in layers. I’ve ordered the Oaxaqueños on every visit since then, but they are always overshadowed by the more fresh varieties that day.

Eager for a comparison I ordered an Oaxaqueños tamale from Pico’s the very next night and it didn’t even come close. The chile sauce vein was less pronounced and the flavor was equally muted. Texture was closer to what you might expect to find in the inferior Salvadorian tamale varieties. The tamale was good, but tasted somewhat aristocratic and safe in comparison to the version made by Tamales Doña Tere.

The Beechnut location of Doña Tere provides something most restaurants cannot easily match – rapid inventory turnover. The dining room isn’t much to look at, with only a couple of bare tables and a long Formica counter lining the window. Take out is the preferred option for most customers and tamales go fast enough that Doña Tere has to resort to covering up the missing varieties on the menu board, until a fresh batch comes out of the steamer.

The only place that might come close to Doña Tere are the tamales at Alamo, but having never been there I can’t say which one is better. All I know is that three days into my trip out of town all I can think about is Tamales Doña Tere.

March 8, 2008   No Comments