By David Grabstald
There are certain things in life I would prefer not to live without. Gucci loafers, a cashmere sweater or two, and coffee ice cream to name a few. High on my list would also be tapas, the delightful small plates that are an essential part of Spanish cuisine. Iâ€™m crazy for all things Spanish. Arriving in San Francisco in 1998, my first encounter with the delightful smaller portions from Spain included the now-closed Timos and Esperpento, both located in the Mission.
Of all of lifeâ€™s simple pleasures, none feels so right as sitting at a table with good friends and family, a glass or two of Sangria, and several shared tapas. In Spain, theyâ€™re served in bars, cafes, and restaurants, and provide sustenance for patrons before their midday meal or while bar hopping before dinner, usually very late in the evening. Executive Chef Mat Schuster and partner Paco Cifuentes have turned the former Capri pizzeria into the elegant Canela Bistro Bar. This welcome little bit of Spain in the Castro District, with some California influences thrown in for good measure, works beautifully.
After finishing college at Emory University in Atlanta, Schuster realized he loved to cook and decided to pursue his culinary studies at the Culinary Academy College of Food in San Diego. After moving to the Bay Area in 2000, stints at Whole Foods Market, Draegerâ€™s Markets, the San Francisco Bay Club, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy soon followed. Earlier this year, Schuster decided he wanted to open a restaurant. â€śPaco and I go to Spain twice a year to visit his family in Madrid,â€ť he says. â€śIâ€™m always following his mom around in the kitchen watching her cook and going to the local markets to buy lots of fresh ingredients. That really inspired me as we developed the restaurant.â€ť Schuster adds the restaurantâ€™s location really came down to wanting to live and work in the community they live.
Visits to Canela (â€ścinnamonâ€ť in Spanish) both for dinner and brunch, service has been attentive without being intrusive. Diners have many areas to sit, including a few tables outdoors, a counter at the bar, a lower dining level, or a raised area upstairs for larger groups and parties.
But of course even the best of service and the most exciting dĂ©cor donâ€™t mean a thing if the food fails to inspire. â€śThe menu is really a combination of dishes we both like, and whatâ€™s great about food is if something isnâ€™t working on the menu, you take it off,â€ť says Schuster.
â€śA lot of our produce, meats, and cheeses are grown or made locally in addition to some of the items we import from Spain.â€ť
One of my favorite things at Canela to drink is the pepino y menta, a refreshing combination of cucumber, mint, lime juice, simple syrup, soda, and sweet potato alcohol ($7). On my first brunch visit, I was given a small glass to sample this tasty cocktail, and at my second brunch visit, one was whipped up by a very sympathetic bartender who heeded my pleas for one after I discovered it wasnâ€™t on the menu that day. Also to die for is a perfect salad of roasted red peppers, apples, manchego cheese, walnuts, lemon, olive oil, egg and whole-leaf parsley ($8). The flavors worked very well together through every bite. Another favorite was a seared white fish on saffron risotto with olive tapanade ($12). Schuster mentioned that they have since replaced the saffron risotto with lentil and red rice risotto.
Luckily, at dinner, Iâ€™d arrived before the crowds, which ended up having a small line out the door, which for a new restaurant, is always a good sign. A glass of Rioja ($8) started the meal off well, as you really canâ€™t go wrong with a nice glass of Spanish red wine. A nice touch on the menu is that one can order wine by the half glass, full glass, half bottle, or bottle. For the meal, the coca flatbreads, from Majorca, were a thin and crispy treat, especially with Spanish meatballs and chives ($15), followed by an order of the garlicky gambas consisting of shrimp with paprika, sherry, and lemon ($9 tapa or $15 plate). Be sure to ask you server for extra bread to dip into the spicy sauce once the shrimp have been devoured! Donâ€™t skip the meat and cheese board either with its luscious blend of Spanish meats and cheeses, olives, and bread ($9 small or $20 large). Soup lovers will rejoice at the gazpacho and its fresh chilled puree of tomatoes, cucumber, red bell pepper, garlic, and olive oil ($5 cup or $7 bowl). Simply wonderful.
Of course, all good meals must come to an end, and since Iâ€™ve been watching my sugar intake, passed on the rich chocolate cake, dessert empanadas, and arroz con leche for dessert. That, Iâ€™m afraid, will have to wait until my next visit to a bit of Spain in San Franciscoâ€¦Canela.