We wandered into Canteen last Friday night, late, because the wait at Blue Ribbon was still too long. The kitchen at Zoe had closed, but the maitre d' at Zoe recommended Canteen, at the corner of Mercer and Prince Streets. What a fortuitous meeting!
Canteen is a new restaurant and bar located in a cavernous basement space. There are no signs at street level, and the entrance to the restaurant is down a flight of stairs. There is no menu posted outside. Loud, throbbing music greets you as you pass through two sets of clear glass doors.
The decor in this restaurant is striking- very 60's and 70's modern. Because it's in a basement, the large windows are high up near the ceiling, and you see passersby only from the knees down. It's oddly intimate. The bar is an open area slightly elevated above the dining room (the better for people watching, clearly!) with predominant themes of mirrors, black lacquer, and lime (or avocado) green. The dining room is warmer, with long mod banquettes in chocolate or orange, funky chairs in chrome and orange, and off-white walls with silver stripes. There is a smaller dining area off the main room that is much cozier, as it is located under the sidewalk. In the evening, the room is dimly lit, with much of the light coming from candles on the tables or from indirect lighting.
The food is sort of a twist on American comfort food. Appetizers are in the vicinity of $7 and up, entrees range from about $16 for a four-cheese macaroni and cheese, to (approx) $28 for steak or lamb chops, and desserts are also $9.
The roast chicken Cobb salad was excellent, although a somewhat small portion. It arrived at the table with each ingredient chopped and piled separately on a plate, with a dijon dressing on the side. If you wish, the waiter will mix and serve it for you. The little shredded bacon pieces in the salad were among the best bits of bacon I've had anywhere.
The entrees were also excellent. The rack of lamb was tender and juicy, lightly herbed. The gnocchi that came with the chops (also available as a separate side order) were doughy and rich, with a light coating of cheese. (I could eat those gnocchi every day.) The tuna steak "au poivre" came with a large pile of crispy frites. The portions of meat are actually quite large: the lamb rack came as four chops, and the tuna steak arrived as four two-inch cubes crusted with coarsely ground black peppercorns. The tuna was seared on the outside, with a ruby red center, and was tender enough to cut with a fork. Other items on the menu include grilled and roasted fish and chicken (including a chicken pot pie with porcini mushrooms) and chops. The side dishes are a new take on older themes, like a dried corn pudding, mashed potatoes with truffle oil, and the like. Most of the side dishes are also available separately, thus obviating the dilemma that I often encounter- of whether to order the entree that looks the best, or whether to order the 2nd best-looking entree because the sides look so good.
Be sure to save room for the desserts, as they are original and delicious. The warm mini-doughnuts are served with a rich and thick chocolate espresso dipping sauce. Pure decadence! The baked alaska consists of a thin layer of chocolate cake topped with a ball of mocha ice cream, topped with a lightly browned meringue that is still warm and slightly crusty from the oven (or blowtorch). The mix of flavors, textures, and temperatures is simply exquisite.
I'd expected service to be a little "exclusive", especially since we didn't have a reservation and we weren't exactly dressed to the nines. Much to our surprise, however, all of the staff was gracious, friendly and attentive. Indeed, our waiter vouched for all of the desserts and seemed especially happy at our choice of the baked alaska. ("Awesome!" he exclaimed.) The service manages to strike a balance between friendly and cloying, a balance that is not always easy to achieve.
I was also struck by the youth and diversity of the crowd. There were few people who looked over 40, with most of the patrons being in their 20's, or at best under 35. I felt a little like I was in a Benetton ad (in a good way).
The dining area is huge, and we had no problem getting seated without a reservation at 11:30 pm on a Friday night, but I would suggest reservations for earlier times. Dinner is served until 2 am. Dress is casual, and wearing black is always suggested.
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