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One-Man Band 

Dining at Canteen is like having your own private chef

Wednesday, May 31 2006
Since a wall of the tiny restaurant Canteen boasts shelves of carefully selected books (not just randomly bought by the yard as decor, but books you might actually want to pull down and read: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence, Best American Short Stories, Four Plays by George Bernard Shaw, Food by Waverly Root, and Captain Savage comics), I'm not surprised that, after a few wonderful and subtly exciting meals there, I'm reminded of two of my favorite essays that, though presented as nonfiction, read like short stories: Brigade de Cuisine by John McPhee and Define This Word by M.F.K. Fisher.

They're both about obsessed, obsessive chefs who cook everything themselves. A "brigade de cuisine," McPhee explains, is classically headed by the chef (the gros bonnet), and under him a number of others — he lists seven — but "Here ... this one man is in himself the entire brigade ... It is in his nature not just to prefer but to need to work alone."

Fisher wanders into one of France's most famous restaurants in Burgundy in the off-season, craving a plate of fish and perhaps a leaf or two of salad after. She's forced, through the chef's lone waitress, to accept assorted hors d'oeuvres, a pâte of goose and pork, a truite au bleu with boiled potatoes and beurre blanc, salad with wild duck terrine, cheese, and apple tart. She thinks "with amused nostalgia of my usual lunch of cold milk and fruit" as she accepts the bounty of the unseen chef, cooking only for her behind a closed door.

And so it is at Canteen, where everything you'll eat is cooked a few feet away from you in a tiny open galley kitchen by a gifted and obsessed chef, Dennis Leary, who achieved renown in the rather more crowded (and hidden) kitchen of Rubicon.

Like Fisher in France, I tended to overeat at Canteen, despite the relative terseness of the weekly changing menus, which feature four starters, four main courses, and four desserts. At every meal, everything sounded so seductive, so much what I wanted to eat right then, that I found myself suggesting an extra dish to share among the two or three of us.

At my first dinner, the most memorable plate was the shared crab salad, a genius combination of the biggest, sassiest, whitest flakes of Dungeness, amped up with a seriously hot vinaigrette, and paired with a cooling ball of cucumber sorbet, its pale green beautiful against the snowy shellfish. We were also pleased as could be that night with an unexpected amuse-bouche of hamachi sashimi dressed with a touch of oil and a fleck of herbs, a smoked fish "chowder" that we expected to be chunky but was instead a silken, haunting puree (Leary's signature style, it seems; at other meals, the amuse was a shot glass of equally smooth, creamy cauliflower or fresh pea puree), a main-course duo of succulent pork tenderloin paired with melting pork belly, and our two desserts: a perfect classical vanilla soufflé and an original combination of chocolate croquettes, sweet and gooey under their crunchy crust, served with a slightly bitter chicory sauce, a happy contrast.

There's also a happy contrast between this sophisticated and beautifully plated, high-style cuisine and Canteen's setting, a wittily re-done diner space attached to the Commodore Hotel, which is quite ready for its close-up in Dwell magazine. The general effect is clean and bright, due to the shiny varnished pine used to construct the bookshelves and the four tiny booths (two of which seat couples, the other two optimistically can squeeze in a foursome), the cork tiles on the floor, the simple light fixtures with bare-filamented bulbs hanging from cords, and the quilted stainless steel behind the bright green seven-stool counter. The main attraction is the very cute, curly-headed, always-in-motion chef Leary, a fact coyly alluded to by the oversized, pop-arty lighted arrow sign positioned along the back wall so that it points directly to him at the stove.

"He looks like somebody," Anita said, when we dined with Peter at the counter, in the three stools closest to the stove. (Canteen offers three dinner seatings per night, at 6, 7:30, and 9:15, and is usually fully booked a week or two in advance.) "Chris Martin," I said, wondering if Coldplay might not turn up on the eclectic mixtape (everything from Brecht/Weill to world music and heavy metal).

We started with a salad of bitter treviso leaves mated with sweet dried fig puree and salty parmesan; another of warm asparagus daringly sliced into ribbons and piled with crab and julienned onion in a bright vinaigrette; and tender ravioli stuffed with shredded pork shank, in a broth fragrant with cumin and mustard. On we went to try all the four mains on offer, sharing a vegetable cassoulet that paired meaty shiitake mushrooms with artichokes and lentils in cumin gravy under puff pastry. We also had delicate, lightly broiled halibut paired with pea puree dotted with smoky diced ham and, less successfully, raw rhubarb that proved stringy, chewy, essentially inedible; a fragile roasted spring chicken that was indeed a babe, unusually scented with ginger, served with equally young vegetables, the kind that Truman Capote said were reserved for the very rich; and veal scallopini with capers excitingly plated with arugula, raw artichoke, and chunks of juicy grapefruit.

Everything was delicate, fresh, fragrant. We sopped up various juices with the nightly baked, impossibly rich brioche buns.

When my friend Jeff came to town for one night, I took him to Canteen for dinner, to show off. The description "back by popular demand" appended to the tuna tartare reminded me that you're usually not likely to see anything on the menu again (except, it seems, that perfect vanilla soufflé). Happily, Leary knows what delicious means, apparent that night in plump sauteed quail garnished with nuggets of crisp sweetbreads, sweet golden raisins, and endive; an untraditional pot-au-feu of the tenderest braised veal filet, slightly firmer peppered beef brisket, and decadent collops of foie gras. We finished with a fabulous dessert as memorable as that crab salad: a ramekin of warm, thick, buttery caramel, with grains of fleur de sel, alongside a tiny bowl of coffee ice cream (a reversal of the usual proportions) and a pile of large, whole salted almonds.

I wasn't surprised to see that Canteen's lunch menu, which also changes weekly, is even brisker than dinner: half a dozen savory dishes, one dessert. I was surprised to see Leary, again, sending out every plate. (I thought he'd devise a simple menu that could be put together by a sous chef. With all the prep work, I wondered, when does the guy sleep?) I feasted on a white corn "chowder," again a smooth puree, whose texture came from strands of sweet onion and a few flecks of bacon, and a plate of four rosy-hearted, seared slices of lamb loin, propped up on an unexpected triangle of fried chickpea custard, with a heap of nicely sandy-textured flageolet bean puree, surrounded by a simple pan jus with diced green tomatoes and tiny black olives, dusted with chopped Italian parsley.

A regular leaned over the counter and complimented Leary on the fried soft-shell crab BLT sandwich he'd just consumed. "If you ever want to sell anything," the chef replied, "just add crab."

Huh? I would have thought bacon. But I'll try anything Leary is selling.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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