Restaurant spotlight: Meet the fellas from Canela
For over 25 years, 2272 Market Street was home to Capri, an unassuming, uninspiring red sauce Italian joint which—in its last years—offered a weeknight dinner special of green salad, pasta, and a glass of non-descript wine for 10 bucks. Like all too many Castro district eateries, it was less a dining destination than a filling station, a place to lay down a base for the evening’s alcohol intake elsewhere.
Things have changed. Radically.
Just shy of a year ago, Madrid-born Paco Cifuentes—who works in biotech—and his partner, chef Mat Shuster dramatically transformed the space into Canela. The warm, charmingly designed dining room features comfortable, cheerfully striped banquettes, dramatic floral art, and clever bottle-bottom styled lighting fixtures. Its a setting that invites you to linger, and combined with Shuster’s lengthy menu of Iberian-accented small plates and Cifuentes’ personally curated collection of hard-to-find Spanish wines, it makes Canela the single restaurant along the Upper Market/Castro axis of our gayborhood that merits a special trip from elsewhere in the city. Canela deserves to be known not as a “Castro restaurant” but as a “San Francisco restaurant,” happily located in the Castro.
Cifuentes and Shuster have been a couple for almost 9 years. Over that time, they’ve made many trips to Madrid to visit Cifuentes mother, who speaks no English. Shuster, as it happens, speaks no Spanish. Mother- and son-in-law bonded in the kitchen, with Shuster shadowing Madre Cifuentes as she cooked her son’s favorite dishes—always by eye, without measuring cups or spoons.
According to Cifuentes, Shuster—who has been a culinary instructor as well as a chef—is a stellar participant-observer, almost osmotically absorbing the soul of his mother’s cooking—and then successfully integrating modest twists that take advantage of local produce without compromising authentic flavors. Among the don’t-miss dishes are the seared calamari served with sautéed white beans—at once briny, and earthy with a terrific textural contrast; okra with Serrano ham, garlic, and lemon—the pencil-thin okra, cut lengthwise, is entirely slime-free and snappy; and two exemplary renditions of traditional standbys: rich ham and béchamel-filled croquettas, and a perfectly textured Spanish tortilla, the egg simply layered with potatoes and onion.
Cifuentes is a passionate oenophile, but also focused on value. Among the wine list’s surprises are an affordable house blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot made exclusively for Canela by Joseph Gary Cellars and a showcase of choice Spanish sherries and reds—including a mouthwatering 2006 Montecastro. If you’d like a charming tutorial on Iberian vintages, be sure to ask for Cifuentes personally.
Canela was previously cited in one of our Insider Tips columns…check out author Jim Provenzano’s recommendation here.