Thursday, September 3, 2009

Incanto - San Francisco

IncantoThey smelled good. They were topped with bacon. When I asked if he wanted to know what he was trying before he took a bite, he declined. And that's how my 11-year old son came to eat lamb balls at Incanto.

lamb fries
image via @offalchris
Before you accuse me of some form of child abuse, please keep in mind that he should well have known better. I have long been a fan of the so-called "fifth quarter," or offal. Tongues, cheeks, ears, feet, livers, sweetbreads, tripe, hearts, intestines, marrow, gizzards. They're all my friends. These are things I eat not on a dare, but because they have the capacity for deliciousness. They offer depth of flavor you often won't discover in the "prime cuts" (though in fact many are actually quite mild), and unusual, sometimes luxurious textures. And it is often the measure of a chef's talent what they're able to do with the misnamed "nasty bits." Anyone can take a prime New York strip and make it taste good. It takes some skill to make lamb balls tasty.

Chef Chris Cosentino has that skill, and has been one of the most prominent and vocal champions of offal cookery (along with perhaps his kindred spirit in England, Fergus Henderson). So his restaurant in Noe Valley was one of my "don't miss" destinations on our current San Francisco trip. And Frod Jr. was on clear notice that whatever he was taking a taste of could have come from just about anywhere on or in the animal.

Incanto looks much like many other Italian restaurants, with rough-cut stone floors, simple dark wood furniture, and a series of columns and arches that separate a partially open kitchen from the bustling, boisterous dining room. One thing that's a little different is the glass case of house-cured salumi on display as you walk in (this love of cured meats has expanded into a side business for Chef Cosentino, who now produces several "tasty salted pig parts" for retail sale through Boccalone, with an outpost in the Ferry Building). Many of those pig parts can be sampled on an antipasto platter at Incanto; and the menu, with a leaning towards starter-sized items and almost all pastas available in half portions, lends itself to trying a variety of dishes.

We started with the antipasto platter, which our server helpfully advised was also available in a 1/2 portion, even though this was not listed on the menu. My memory has faded a bit at this point, but I believe it featured some mortadella, prosciutto cotto (a cooked ham, delicately spiced and more sweet than salty), soppressata, porchetta di testa (rolled pig's head, thinly sliced), and a pork paté, along with some nice bright pickled vegetables. All were quite good, and surprisingly conservative with the salt - almost to the point where I thought they could have used a touch more. Some nice crusty bread, along with focaccia and breadsticks, were accompanied by a black olive tapenade.

lobster mushrooms
image via @offalchris
We followed with a simple dish of lobster mushrooms, sea beans and a sizzled egg. The lobster mushrooms are truly beautiful things, gigantic firm mushrooms, almost white in color, but with a gorgeous orange-red blush to the caps like the color of a cooked Maine lobster (they're actually the product of a parasitic fungus that grows on the mushroom). Here they were sliced thin, sauteed, sprinkled with a scatter of sea beans, then topped with an egg quick-fried in olive oil (I'm guessing) which made its own sauce for the mushrooms. I enjoyed this though I found (as I've experienced when cooking them myself) that the lobster mushrooms are actually somewhat short on flavor, though they have an interesting firm, almost steak-y texture.

The lamb fries were also a starter, and were done in a piccata style with bacon. They came, as I guess can be expected, two to an order.[*] The fries were actually a wonderful delicate texture, similar to sweetbreads or fish quenelles. They had a lightly meaty flavor with maybe just the slightest hint of iron, as in liver. And they were soaking in melted butter spiked with capers, topped off with a few strips of salty savory bacon. I thought they were genuinely delicious; Frod Jr., while he didn't go back for a second bite, didn't think they were bad (until after I told him what they were; and even then, he admitted he was more bothered by the idea rather than the flavor).

Next, a 1/2 order of the spaghettini with Sardinian cured tuna heart, egg yolk and parsley. I've had and enjoyed a similar dish at Sardinia Ristorante in Miami made with bottarga, the dried and cured roe sac of a tuna. The cured tuna heart has a flavor very similar to the bottarga, salty and with a deep funky marine whiff to it. It was generously shaved over the hot spaghettini, which had been tossed with olive oil, many slivers of browned garlic and a handful of fresh parsley, and topped with a raw egg yolk which is then lightly cooked by the heat of the pasta as you further toss the pasta yourself.

But Chef Cosentino's cooking is not just about offal. A handkerchief pasta sauced with a pork ragu was just flat-out good cooking. The pasta was just about perfect, supple and smooth without being insipid and limp; and the rustic meat sauce was rich, tender and hearty. Nothing unusual or exotic about this, just a delicious pasta dish.

beef rib
what was left of the beef rib
Frod Jr.'s appetite was not so thrown by the lamb fries that he couldn't dig into a Fred Flintstone-sized English-cut beef rib (a massize length of short rib), topped with "God's butter" (Chef Cosentino's name for beef marrow), dandelion greens and a simple onion salsa. Indeed he made pretty good work of that rib. We also had a braised duck leg, with contrasting notes of sweet and salty provided by grapes and pancetta in the braising liquid. Also very hearty and satisfying.

The wine list, if I recall, was almost exclusively Italian wines, and showed some nice breadth both regionally and in price ranges. A 2003 Fanetti Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva hit the appropriate note of refined rusticity to match the food.

And that is perhaps the best way I can think of to describe the cooking at Incanto - refined rusticity. While much of the attention is paid to Chef Cosentino's work with offal, I think perhaps that angle is overworked to a degree. It's exciting to explore the different flavors and textures that can be offered by the "fifth quarter," but unless it's done well, it's just something to brag about to your friends, which to me is infinitely less rewarding than a genuinely great meal. In our experience, whether it was lamb fries or pasta with pork ragu, this was just good, satisfying food.

1550 Church Street
San Francisco, CA 94131

Incanto on Urbanspoon

[*]As good as they were, I don't think I could eat 28:

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