The idea of renowned chefs branching out of their flagship restaurants to open more accessible spots is old news. Though it usually means a brand extension more than a side job–you won’t see Craft’s Tom Colicchio wrapping sandwiches at ‘Wichcraft. But that’s exactly what you’ll find at Dennis Leary’s new downtown sandwich shop. The talented chef that at night commands the small kitchen at Canteen seems to have found an even smaller kitchen to run. Every weekday, you’ll find Leary himself expediting and personally wrapping each sandwich in white butcher paper. Welcome to The Sentinel.
I usually don’t write about takeout sandwich shops but this one deserves a mention. First, because there aren’t many good options for takeout food in downtown; but most importantly, because someone is out to change the whole idea of a takeout sandwich in the land of takeout sandwiches. Welcome to America.
In nine out of ten sandwich shops you really don’t need to look at the menu; the choices are always the same. Tired, lazy deli classics like turkey club, tuna melt and ham & cheese; everything on it. Not at The Sentinel. Here, sandwiches are created and prepared like dishes in a good restaurant. With a point of view, thought and care. By a chef that has proven he can do it well.
The tiny space that used to house a cigar shop on the corner of New Montgomery and Mission streets works like a “walk-through” restaurant–enter through one door, leave through the other. Think a nicer “Soup Nazi”. Your order is taken by the cashier and pasted as a color-coded post-it in front of the chef. Sandwiches are made to order while you wait, but even with long lines, you won’t have to wait long. Service flows like clockwork.
The paper menu pasted on the door lists about 8 different sandwiches and 2 or 3 daily specials. All at very reasonable prices. Some of the sandwiches ($8) also change daily and the specials usually include soup, dessert and a 3-course meal to go ($11.50). In the morning, the shop also sells coffee cakes and muffins with Mr. Espresso coffee.
The Sentinel is mostly a sandwich shop and that’s what you should expect from it. The daily special dishes are sometimes better than others but are usually a good deal for what you pay.
The best sandwich is the Fresh salmon and smoked salmon, with fennel and dill, soft roll. A fresh combination of flavors that proves what Leary is all about–good food. The salmon is complemented nicely by the aroma and texture of dill and fennel and peppered by the contrasting acidity of chopped tomatillos.
Another great option is the Corned beef on flatbread with gruyere, cabbage, russian dressing. A tasty warm sandwich with juicy slices of corned beef and melted cheese.
Other sandwiches on the winter menu include Deviled pork loin with butter lettuce, cream cheese and walnuts; and Chicken salad with sesame, lemon, and chili. All of them come with a house-made pickle–a nice treat, although it is said that asking for an additional pickle may bring the chef to a fit of pique. “No pickle for you!”
Dessert options change daily and usually include oatmeal or chocolate-chip cookies. If you're lucky, a tasty Blondie that is almost a meal on itself.
The lunch special meals are served in 3-compartment clamshell containers. I tried the Veal and pork meatballs and Scallops ceviche. I can’t say they were great or anything I’d order again in a restaurant. But depending on how you look at it, this is not a bad deal–especially if you have a high tolerance for over-dressed salads and somewhat dry meat. It’s a 3-course lunch for $11.50 after all; dessert and tax included.
My favorite so far is the Pork shoulder with white beans, horseradish dressing + mint - pear crisp for dessert. The star of this dish is the tasty creamy white beans that together with the pork make a pretty good entrée. A small yellow beet salad and a crispy-indeed pear crisp bookend it nicely.
The Sentinel stands out among a myriad of tired lunch spots in downtown San Francisco. The tiny corner store offers original options that bring welcoming new flavors to the “eating at your desk” dining experience. Lunch special dishes are okay, but I’d recommend sticking to the sandwiches. Point is, you probably won’t find a better takeout sandwich shop in the city. Maybe because you also won’t find another shop with a renowned chef wrapping sandwiches behind its counter.
The Sentinel is at 37 New Montgomery St.
Call early for pick-up 415-284-9960, check the menu here.