Dennis Leary, the ultimate hands-on chef — who prepares the entire menu each night at his miniscule dinner house, Canteen — must have decided that he wasn’t cooking enough. At The Sentinel, a tiny new sandwich shop across the street from the Palace Hotel, he again personally produces everything each day, from pickles to mustard.
The whole operation, at the corner of Stevenson Street, is about as big as a cigar box, with two sides open to the outside. Most of the rebuilt space is a compact kitchen where Leary works nonstop with two assistants. Patrons order at the vintage cash register, the very one from the historic corner cigar store that once stood in this spot. The line doesn’t stop until the food runs out.
Leary talks to almost everyone — he knows a lot of his customers — without missing a beat. He assembles, wraps and raps, all at the same time.
The blackboard menu changes daily. Lately, creamy fresh tomato soup ($4.50), tart and sweet just like ripe tomatoes, is ladled into a white cardboard container over hunks of soft rye bread, which melt into the soup to form a caraway-scented bread pudding.
Some sandwiches appear regularly. The elegant smoked salmon ($8.50) is built on a tender and eggy house-baked roll with cream fraiche-draped cucumbers and soft butter lettuce, and is one of my favorites. Leary’s Rueben ($8.25), which includes corned beef, fresh cabbage slaw, melted Swiss and piquant Russian dressing on toasted rye, somehow comes off just as light and digestible. Every part of it radiates Leary’s signature: bright flavor with perfect proportion.
In the Sentinel version of a deviled ham sandwich ($8), little cubes of fresh pork leg, enrobed in spicy, homemade mustard, are piled into a crusty roll with gherkins, shredded carrots and butter lettuce. When I remarked that I was expecting something different, he knew exactly what I meant. “That stuff in a can,” he said. “That can be delicious too.” Leary, it turns out, is an anti-snob.
Each day he makes a special salad ($11) in a three-compartment box. Mine featured cubes of delicately marinated raw tuna and cucumber exquisitely topped with a single, thick slice of black peppered avocado; sweet corn and parsley salad in lively cider vinaigrette; and perfectly ripe sliced sweet peaches — a flavorful and satisfying summer meal.
For dessert, which runs out early, I’ve been able to score a huge warm chocolate cookie with melted chocolate chips ($2.25) and a warm blueberry muffin ($3.50), like none I’ve ever had. It’s flat, with a buttery, tender crumb and a crunchy crumble on top, bursting with berries. No one would call this a muffin, it was more like cake.
Of the thousands of sandwiches consumed at desks in the Financial District at lunchtime, I think the Sentinel’s must give the greatest pleasure. Instead of being a solution, Leary’s sandwiches are expressions, small culinary masterworks that riff on American classics but reinvent them with unexpected originality and perfect execution. Hand-in-hand with the artistry, the blushing freshness of every ingredient, every element, makes them so charming.
For those who work downtown, a Sentinel takeaway lunch is a dream come true. Those who don’t should look for any excuse to get down there to pick one up.
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 37 New Montgomery St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 284-9960
Hours: Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Price range: $4.50 to $8.50; one daily special at $11
Recommended dishes: Rueben sandwich, smoked salmon sandwich, chicken salad sandwich, blueberry muffin, morning coffee
cake, tomato soup
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
Reservations: None, to-go only; pre-orders accepted the day before