Squab (pigeon) is a funky fowl that’s favored by the French. On an episode of last season’s “Top Chef” where contestants had to cook for culinary masters, Jacques Pepin confessed his passion for squab and how it resonated with pleasant boyhood memories of growing up in France. Certainly when squab is done well, it’s a nice, tasty bird, and we have to assume Pepin’s had his share of great squab. It’s just not the sort of dish you see much in the US. Squab’s not the kind of meat that sits politely atop anything; it looks awkward, no matter what you do. It looks like a little dead bird. Which, you know, it is.
But Chef Dennis Leary of Canteen recently pulled off the rare squab masterpiece. It’s a half squab roasted in an apricot-cumin glaze. The crisp skin was slightly smoky and sweet, and the bird rightfully juicy inside. An Indian mound of lentils beneath brought some earthiness to the earthy-toned squab meat, and a swirl of vinegar syrup rounded the plate for an additional palate tease. Visually, he couldn’t escape the dead bird on a plate fate of squab, but the tones of brown on the plate made for a clever, edible, monochromatic sculpture.
The squab was roasted to perfection, and the variance of flavors provided continual surprises. A nice birdy treat from King Leary.
The Grade: Excellent
The Damage: $11.50
The Inside Tip #1: Canteen’s website is updated with their daily menu.
The Inside Tip #2: Canteen’s not on OpenTable.com; you have to leave message for reservation, so reserve well in advance.
The Skinny: Canteen
817 Sutter Street (at Jones) San Francisco, CA 94109 Phone: (415) 928-8870 Website: www.sfcanteen.com
Chef Dennis Leary of Canteen is remarkably versatile, able to put out amazing dishes from many cultural sources. He’s played well with other culinary traditions beyond the usual French & Italian suspects, including Indian, British, and here in a pork schnitzel, German. Leary is more of an explorer in the kitchen, pitting his particular exploratory curiosity against classics and, occasionally, reinventing them.
Leary’s take on pork schnitzel is simple and fairly classic. Two large portions of pork loin have been pounded out to a medium thickness, and the lightly breaded covering honors the pork without overwhelming it. The schnitzel was perfectly tender and understated in flavor; quite nicely done.
A creamy English mustard sauce is the moat to the little food castle of pork schnitzel, crowned with a poached egg, red cabbage, and a wild dollop of sour cream. The cabbage was a bit al dente, leaving some original purple crunch. Because I’ve had so much overboiled red cabbage from here to Leipzig to Krakow, I enjoyed the texture of it, which balanced all the other softness present on the plate. Schnitzel’s not exactly home cooking for most of us, but with a nice rendition like this, it’s too bad it’s not served (at least at Canteen) a bit more often.
Be sure to check the Canteen website for the daily menu, because Canteen’s food offerings (12 per day) are constantly in flux.
The Grade: Great
The Damage: $24.50
The Skinny: Canteen
817 Sutter St
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: (415) 928-8870
I’m the kind of guy who automatically orders certain things when they’re on the menu, no matter the restaurant, time of day, season of year, or price of the certain thing in question. One of those things is sweetbreads.
Sweetbreads are definitely not everyone’s idea of food. And contrary to popular rumor, they aren’t pan-fried bull testicles. But if you get caught up in the concept of them (or definition of them, actually) as animals’ endocrine glands, without the experience of them (tasting what a great chef can transform them into), you’re missing out on a potentially sublime food.
When done properly, sweetbreads are among my Pantheon of great things to eat. But when done poorly, sweetbreads can be gooey and gross. People’s revulsion to foods, curiously, are usually aligned more with unsatisfactory texture than taste. So, needless to say, there’s a wider opportunity for error with sweetbreads than the clear, thin line to sweetbreads glory. This is a round-up review of three San Francisco restaurants that serve sweetbreads on a fairly regular basis. I left prices off, as they will likely change more over time than regular menu items.
The Spot #1: Canteen, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Awesome (5 out of 5)
I don’t know if the grade is high enough, because Canteen’s sweetbreads are likely the best I’ve ever eaten in my life. Like most dishes that Canteen owner/chef Dennis Leary puts out on the bright green countertop, his sweetbreads are just phenomenal. I wish they were on the menu more often, frankly. They are simply prepared and plated, and have the perfect sweetbreads texture: slightly crisp on the outside and tender inside. The appetizer is large enough to share (as most sweetbreads are), but I didn’t share mine. (I’m not cruel; I was just dining alone.) A little blanched spinach and jus with the sweetbreads, and that’s it. That’s all you need. It was simple and it was incredible. Kudos to Dennis Leary.
The Spot #2: Fringale, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Great (3 out of 5)
Fringale is an under-recognized French restaurant, perhaps because it’s neither new nor trendy after over a dozen years in its quaint SOMA location on 4th Street between Bryant and Brannan. Fringale consistently serves up classic French cuisine at pretty reasonable prices, so it should probably be back on people’s radars, if it fell off or if they’ve not dined there yet. Fringale’s sweetbreads are a bit larger in size, doused with a darker, richer gravy, and laid atop fresh asparagus spears. The sweetbreads are nicely prepared, and the pairing of the asparagus offers a nice counterbalance to the richness of the sweetbreads in gravy. This is definitely one you should share.
The Spot #3: Piperade, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Very Good (2 out of 5)
Piperade is a restaurant sporting high cool factor, due to its proximity to the many ad agencies in the neighborhood, and the cool agency folk who frequent it. Unable to say no to sweetbreads, I tried them at Piperade and, while I enjoyed them, they do have a few shortcomings. For my palate, the sweetbreads were a bit too soft all the way around. A bit crisper exterior would have been a major improvement. And, while I don’t mind sweetbreads being sloppily plated, I think the swamp of gravy didn’t elevate the taste or presentation. It had a good taste, but fell short of the gravies from Fringale and Canteen, and the amount of sauce here may have also contributed to keeping the sweetbreads too soft. So Piperade gets a ‘very good’ grade, along with my hearty encouragement to improve the dish.
THE SKINNY FOR SWEETBREADS IN SF, VOLUME 1:
1.Canteen 817 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 Phone: (415) 928-8870 Web:www.sfcanteen.com
2.Fringale 570 Fourth Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 Phone: (415) 543-0573 Web: www.fringalesf.com
3.Piperade 1015 Battery Street, San Francisco, CA 94111 Phone: (415) 391-2555 Web: www.piperade.com
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