Valentine's with Chef Mat Schuster & Wine Expert Paco Cifuentes

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Paco and Mat in San Sebastián, Spain. Photo courtesy of Canela
Paco and Mat in San Sebastián, Spain. Photo courtesy of Canela

This is the sweet story of love and a restaurant. Chef Mat Schuster and wine expert Francisco "Paco" Cifuentes opened Canela Bistro & Wine Bar in the Castro in 2011 and are partners in business and life. They aren't your typical "mom and pop" restauranteurs, but rather "pop and pop" restauranteurs who put all of their effort and passion into Canela as sole investors. Bay Area Bites recently caught up with the two to find out about delicious Spanish-inspired Valentine’s food and wine recommendations. Their comments have been edited for clarity.

Bay Area Bites: How did you two meet?

Paco: The old-fashioned way, at a neighborhood sports bar. The first time I saw him, he was having a conversation with somebody else so I did not pay that much attention. Then I kept running into him and thought it was a bit strange and too many times for it to be by chance.... Then we met at that same bar again and Mat asked me if I would let him buy me a drink and invited me to join him and his friends. The rest is history!

Bay Area Bites: Paco, you are known for your wine expertise. Who pours at home and what are you drinking lately?

Paco: I pour at home. Mat is almost perfect on everything else, but he is not a wine drinker. I am the one who chooses the wine for dinner parties and am always drinking from several bottles at a time. I don't drink several bottles on the same day because I have a wine preserver system. Right now I am drinking a Godello from Spain, a great Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, and an amazing 2004 Brunello di Montalcino. I am in heaven with all of them!


Bay Area Bites: What is it like to work together? How do you negotiate work versus home life?

Mat: People told us that we were going to fight if we started working together. We have a spirited relationship anyway and now we fight about much more interesting things then whose turn it is to buy toilet paper! We do have to make an effort to stop talking about work to maintain just a little bit of sanity.

Paco: It is hard but fun at the same time. There is nobody that I trust as much I trust Mat and I think he feels the same way. We are constantly leaning on each other to move the business forward. It is also hard because the lines between work and home life are blurry. I don't mind. I think we know each other in a way that most couples can not and I always love what I see.

Canela interior. Photo courtesy of Canela
Canela interior. Photo courtesy of Canela

Bay Area Bites: What’s new at the restaurant?

Mat: We are constantly changing things to make ourselves better whether it be the food, decor, processes. We never sit around too long to pat ourselves on the back. As a relatively new business, there is always something to improve! I just got a small smoking gun food smoker and I have been having fun with that smoking different oils. I am going to try a smoked gazpacho next!

Paco: One of the things I love about this business is that no one night is the same as another. We went through a major renovation that has brought a more intense "soul" to Canela, the kind of soul that Mat and I always envisioned. Mat also changes the menu all the time.

Paella at Canela. Photo courtesy of Canela
Paella at Canela. Photo courtesy of Canela

There are also some new fantastic wines that we started introducing this fall: Riojas, Albariño, Toro, and our first vino from Navarra.

Bay Area Bites: What are you serving up for Valentine’s Day? And what recommendations would you give for food and wine?

Mat: We are doing 3 seatings and 4 courses with optional vegetarian courses and wine flights available. The menu is:

Amuse of grape and almond white gazpacho

Cava saffron braised fish cocochas (Cheeks)
Wild mushroom buenuelo with tarragon Aioli

Calamari en su tinta (squid ink) with puree of Spanish white beans
Castilian onion and garlic soup with Manchego crouton

Braised lamb shank with chocolate lentils
Potaje of garbanzos and spinach

Leche frita with creme anglaise and honey poached fig
Trio of chocolate truffles: vanilla cinnamon, toasted sesame seed and hazelnut sea salt

Paco: We love that day, and take it very seriously. Mat spends tons of time developing the tasting menu and it is very special for us.

For wine, I would start with some bubbles, such as a glass of "Font i Jordana," an amazing Cava from Spain. Then I would follow with a glass of a well-rounded white wine, with some floral notes, such as the 2010 "200 Cestos" an amazing Godello from Valdeorras, Spain that will help you feel the enchantment of the night. And then I would definitely go with a sophisticated but bold red, like a Rivera del Duero or a Toro. A glass of 2009 "Viña Sastre, Regina Vides" is perfect for the main dishes. These wines will make you love everything that night.

Bay Area Bites: Where are your Bay Area favorite romantic spots?

Paco: The combination of farmland, wild nature and charming little towns makes Sonoma County incredibly romantic! I always want to bring Mat to Sebastopol and the Russian River and get him out of his kitchen. For brunch or dinner, we end up at The French Garden and Martha's Old Mexico.

Bay Area Bites: What’s your guilty food pleasure?

Mat: Chinese Food pig out. I love to try lots of things, either old favorites from a new place or new items I have not had before. To be a little bit adventurous, I like the more authentic Szechuan style restaurants.

Paco: Chocolate croissants. I can eat hundreds of them.

Bay Area Bites: Where do you get work inspiration?

Mat: My collection of Spanish cookbooks that we have brought back from our many different trips to Spain. It is fantastic to see how I can take traditional Spanish ingredients and make them my own, either infused with a modern technique or a California ingredient.

Paco: It is such an amazing feeling knowing that you have contributed to someone grabbing a moment of pleasure and happiness enjoying our food and wines.


Twitter: @Canela_SF
Facebook: Canela Bistro Bar