Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ad Hoc vs. Canteen: Where the Prix-Fixe Menu Rules

Ad Hoc Restaurant
6474 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
(707)944-2487
Chefs Thomas Keller and Jeffrey Cerciello
Dinner Thursday through Monday
Tried: November 2006

Canteen
817 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415)928-8870
Chef Dennis Leary
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Brunch Saturday and Sunday
Lunch Wednesday through Friday
Last tried: May 2007

Canteen on Urbanspoon

Ad hoc was impressively satisfying, beyond just the glow of Thomas Keller's pervasive reputation. On the night I visited, the $45/person four-course menu consisted of a beautifully fresh gem lettuce salad with sweet cherry tomatoes, briny black olives, and crunchy, buttery croutons, drizzled with delicately creamy blue cheese dressing; a generous platter of perfectly fried chicken, with deep golden crunchy flakes of buttermilk batter on the outside and tender meat on the inside dripping with glistening juice, spiked with fried sprigs of thyme and rosemary and dressed with pancetta collard greens and garlic whipped potatoes; Capriole Farmed Old Kentucky Tomme cheese with poached quince and toasted pecans; and ending with an apple and cranberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. Apart from the cobbler, which was overly doughy and rather clunky, even for a cobbler, everything was perfectly conceived and well executed. The servers, outfitted in grey bowling shirts decorated with blue-white ad hoc labels, were appropriately casual yet knowledgeable and clearly experienced, especially with the short but interesting wine list.

As good as Ad Hoc was, given the choice, I would rather skip the drive up to Napa Valley and head for Canteen in the Commodore Hotel. Chef Dennis Leary's prix-fixe menus at this little diner, served now on Tuesdays of each week (previously Wednesdays), are more extraordinary and inspired than most formal restaurants (including Rubicon, which has declined considerably since he was executive chef there). Leary has no patience for foodies, reviewers, or anything that hints at culinary pretension, yet I would be hard-pressed to find chefs of his level of command of ingredients and flavors in the kitchen doing all of the cooking and touching every dish that comes to the table, or in this case, the counter. Unlike most chefs, Leary is equally as proficient with desserts as he is with savory courses.

When Canteen first opened, the wines were limited to one or two whites and reds and one sparkling wine, unidentified on the menu, available by the glass. The wine selection has since expanded to a noteworthy list of Old World and New World picks, most of them under $50 a bottle with a number of choices for white, red, dessert, and sparkling. With the "mostly fish" prix-fixe menu offered on this particular evening, we had a 2004 Collovray-Terrier Pouilly-Fuisse ($53/bottle). The round fruit of the Pouilly-Fuisse, balanced with sharp acidity and citrus flavor accents, was the perfect finishing touch to complement the varying shades of the 5-course seafood focused menu ($50/person) and even the buttery homemade Parker House rolls that were served with the meal.

The first course was a rockfish ceviche, the freshest white and meaty miniature filets with just a hint of the lime juice still present in the soft yet firm fish, accompanied by sweet avocado chunks and toasted hazelnuts to balance the acidity of the ceviche and add nutty and creamy dimensions to the flavor profile. This ceviche was better executed than any I had tried in any Peruvian restaurant.

The ceviche was followed by an Autumn Vegetable Salad, topped with fried pork. The pork had been fried to crisp cracklings but with pieces of tender meat still studded inside the fried exterior. The salad, composed of shredded red cabbage, bits of white onion, and shreds of parmesan, dressed with a pomegranate vinaigrette, was both refreshing and heartwarming at the same time.

The best part of the meal was the pumpkin and prawn soup. The pureed pumpkin broth was creamy, sweet, and thick, spiked with reduced shrimp stock and olive oil, which made the combination taste more refined and luxurious than even the best-prepared lobster bisque. The large and tender prawns that decorated the soup were cooked to that exact point where they are no longer translucent but before they get the least bit rubbery, and had been cooked separately with a bit of lime juice and a dash of red pepper before being combined into the soup. This level of care and attention to detail is what makes Leary's creations stand out, and this soup exemplified his perfectionist tendencies.

The last savory course, three crab dumplings surrounding a mound of creamy celeryroot, decorated with bright red tomato dice, in a paprika sauce was similarly beautiful, although not my personal favorite. The crab dumplings tasted like a fresh crab cake made without the fried batter, and the paprika sauce was perfectly seasoned. Because fresh crab was used, the inevitable pieces of shell had to be picked out of the dumplings, which always disrupts the experience for me in this type of preparation. The dish was nonetheless gorgeous.

To conclude, our server brought over a shotglass of quince and grapefruit "trifle" with a fluffy yellow triangle of butter cake. The fresh grapefruit juice with pieces of quince and chunks of grapefruit sorbet on the bottom and topped by grapefruit foam were all sweetened exactly right to the point of highlighting the quince and grapefruit, without overwhelming the delicate elements or losing the freshness of the ingredients. The butter cake was so moist, sweet, and tasty that I wanted to run into the kitchen and steal a whole tray. And as always, Canteen's coffee was dark, rich, and freshly brewed. A perfect end to a perfect meal.

The last couple of months at work have been particularly heinous for me. It was a pleasure to be able to enjoy two such spectacular restaurants in succession. Right now, it is unclear whether Ad Hoc will become a permanent establishment and also unclear whether Dennis Leary will continue with Canteen after his lease runs out. In the meantime, I hope to squeeze in as many Tuesday night prix-fixe dinners at Canteen as possible. Where else can you find a chef of his caliber personally cooking for you?

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