Ofal-ly Tasty Dishes in Noe Valley
1550 Church St. (at Duncan), San Francisco
Noe Valley neighborhood
Open Wed.–Mon., 5:30–10 p.m. (closed Tuesday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
I spot Chef Chris Cosentino often around town, whether it’s at the farmers’ market or at some food event. And I always remind myself that I have to check out the restaurant where he made a name for himself — Incanto, in the young family-oriented Noe Valley.
So last week I jumped on the J-Church and headed for some rustic Italian cuisine under the hands of this Iron Chef competitor. (He lost in his recent Iron Chef appearance, and the secret ingredient was offal. Ouch.)
When I arrived, the twinkling lights dangling from the awnings reminded me of a cozy Italian joint in Little Italy in Manhattan, except Incanto sits on its own in a sleepy street filled mostly of baby clothing boutiques and my old dentist’s office when I used to live in the city. I pulled up to the long, handcrafted stone bar and who do you think was sitting at the end with his young son? That’s right, Chef Cosentino.
Turns out he had the night off and he was getting some early dinner with his son before heading home. At first I was disappointed thinking he won’t be behind the stove, but when I looked into the efficient kitchen and the sharply dressed kitchen staff I felt more at ease. My worries were totally erased as I started to dine on the menu crafted daily by Cosentino and deftly executed by his team.
Cosentino has built a reputation for himself as an advocate for incorporating offal — an animal’s organs and extremities — into your cooking. He’s started his own blog on the topic and his own sausage and cured meats company (including a store front at the San Francisco Ferry Building called Boccalone). So I was set for an adventurous evening of Survivor-type dining.
Turns out that offal is sprinkled throughout the menu, and in no way dominates the Italian dishes that are inspired primarily by fresh, sustainable ingredients of the season.
Side note: Incanto has a unique approach to serving its customers. Little touches like serving filtered still or sparkling water (they were one of the early ones) and placing paper notes around the foot of your wine glass to remind you what you’re drinking indicate the careful attention they provide to make sure you have a comfortable yet conscientious dinner.
Glancing over the many appetizers, I saw a bruschetta with cow brain and the popular pig trotter with foie gras. I settled for the special Spicy Trippa Neapolitan ($10.50) or tripe. When the plate arrived, it was a whole lot of tripe in a tomatoe sauce with bits of mint.
The tripe was tender and the sauce was bold and, well, quite spicy. You definitely need some bread both to calm your taste buds as well as to sop up the sauce, if you’re so inclined. (I did a few times and the sauce was more comfortable for my palate when defused by the bread.)
The pasta dishes are available in large and small sizes. So I ordered a small plate of the Spaghettini with Sardinian cured tuna heart, egg yolk and parsley ($16/$10). This is a classic Cosentino dish that is consistently on the menu. The bartender says that when the chef drops it from the menu, diners cry for its return. And I can see why.
The wholesome, earthy pasta is topped by thin shavings of the tuna heart, which gives it a deep ocean flavor similar to squid ink or seaweed. This strong flavor of the sea is luxuriously blended with the pasta by the nearly raw egg yolk.
My entrée was rather tame in comparison, but still elegantly presented. The Braised Veal Breast with Umbrian lentils, erbette chard and black garlic aioli ($26) skillfully represented Cosentino’s view on eating the whole animal. The tender piece of braised veal was presented along with some fatty parts still attached for richness and a charred skin to provide another texture in the meal while still using all the parts of the veal breast. Nothing is wasted, and everything is enjoyed.
The dishes at Incanto are definitely on the rich side, so it’s important to wash everything down with several glasses of Italian red wine. Incanto’s wine list is made up of bottles strictly from Italy, and I enjoyed a nice 2006 Anglianico from the Campagna region.
I ended my dinner with the Heirloom Apple & Quince Crostata with Rose Geranium Ice Cream ($8). (Most people recommend the panna cotta, but I wasn’t feeling the bay leaf version offered that night.) The crostata was just all right — the apple and quince slices leaned more on the firm side and the pastry wasn’t as flakey or crumbly. I did love the refreshing rose geranium ice cream and wished they gave a larger scoop.
Incanto’s dining room has this mixed feel of a casual Italian restaurant with its straw-back chairs, and a touch of Vegas with its dramatic arched columns and faux marble walls. On your way to the bathrooms, you see a well-lit prep station where you can see all the action in the kitchen, and on the right is the Dante Room where you can host a private dinner and order up Cosentino’s “whole beast” dinner where dishes are made out of an entire animal of your choice.
I can’t say that every dish was better than anything else I’ve tasted in other fine restaurants in the city, but they were all solid, and I’m still thinking about my experience even though it’s been days. I guess that means I should make another trip back soon.
UPDATE: You be the judge. Incanto has just posted a special prix fixe dinner featuring Cosentino's tasting menu performed on his recent appearance on Iron Chef America. He's going to recreate all five dishes, from lamb heart tartare to his county fair gut fry, for $95 per person. The menu is only for parties of four or less (kind of like the Iron Chef judges' panel) and will only be offered on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from Nov. 13 to Dec. 20 (except Thanksgiving when the restaurant is closed). You have to reserve a week in advance by calling the restaurant's reservation line and confirming with a credit card. Click here for more details.
Single guy rating: 4 stars (Italian that's uniquely Californian)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Ofal-ly Tasty Dishes in Noe Valley