Incanto Always Surprises
After all, it’s the easiest thing in the world to attract diners with perfect grilled salmon or a great roast chicken.
But enticing them with organ meats — especially long before they became trendy ingredients — is one tough challenge.
Fortunately, Cosentino doesn’t buckle easily.
Thanks to his persistence and his delicious way with offal, so many more diners have learned to appreciate the odds, ends and bits that they once shunned.
Recently, my husband and I had a chance to dine at this popular Noe Valley restaurant. Although we paid our tab, Cosentino sent out a few dishes gratis that he wanted us to try.
All around us, we watched as Flintstone-sized pork chops, sheep’s heads and whole pig’s trotters were paraded out to diners. Incanto gets in whole animals and uses every part imaginatively. In fact, it’s well-known for its “Leg of Beast” dinners that revolve around a whole beef shank and plenty of marrow bones, as well as its “Whole Pig Dining” that centers on a roasted pig and plenty of fixings. The evening we were there, a group of about a dozen men were seated in the private dining room, going to town on a whole pig.
As celebrated as it is, Incanto very much remains a neighborhood restaurant. As such, prices are moderate. Pastas come in two sizes, ranging in price from $10 to $18 each. Starters run $4 to $18. Larger plates for two can run $30 or more.
A chalkboard by the bar lists that evening’s “Odds and Ends” or specials.
From that list, we couldn’t resist an old-school egg preparation, in which a whole, poached egg is encased in gelatin of broth made with 2-year-old-aged Iberico. Summer truffles are shaved over it all. Cut into the egg and it’s miraculously still oozy. It’s a beauty of a dish.
I’ve always loved fresh garbanzo beans. Tender and still encased in their papery shells, they’re the perfect finger food after just blistering in the pan. Cosentino does it one step better by frying them in duck fat, of course. A sprinkling of lemon basil is the crowning touch, giving a burst of brightness.
Leave it to him to add porky fattiness to a salad, too. Sweet, ripe slices of nectarine are draped with thin slices of marinated, meaty pork belly. Chile oil adds a kick of subtle heat.
Then, there are fresh strawberries blanketed with paper-thin slices of lardo. Yup, the berries are married with cured pork fat redolent of salt and rosemary to create a wicked sweet-savory first course.
I’ve had bottarga or cured fish roe shaved over pasta before. But not one made from sea urchin that Cosentino, himself, shaved over a tangle of noodles set before us. Deep coral-colored, the bits of urchin bottarga were like a taste of the sea — briny and complex.
Next, a deep, dark dish of pasta that resembled rooster crowns. The pasta is extruded with a brass pasta dye that Cosentino special-ordered from Italy. The pasta is sauced with a creamy reduction of chicken livers and shmaltz (rendered chicken fat). It’s a super rich dish with an explosion of minerality. Think liver pate made into a sauce for pasta. That’s how decadent it tastes. Chrysanthemum greens, with their acidic sweetness, help lighten the dish just enough.
That was followed by buccatini with my favorite ramps. The pungent wild onions are only around briefly, so enjoy them when you can.
Hankerchief pasta with pork ragu is a long-time classic here. You can get it with a sizzled duck egg for an extra $4. Often, that farm egg turns out to have a double yolk like ours did, too, so you’re really getting your money’s worth.
Soft, chewy, fat noodles get napped with porcini ragu. It’s an earthy, sublime dish.
Spaghettini hides a raw yolk, along with cured tuna heart. You toss it all together to create its own luscious sauce. The tuna heart has a slight bitter, minerality that stands up to the richness of the eggy pasta.
For dessert, you can’t go wrong with the bay leaf panna cotta. It has a beautiful texture — soft and sensuous like cream that somehow has been solidified but just barely. The bay leaf adds an herbaceousness and the buckwheat tuille a hearty nuttiness.
A plate of sweets also arrives with a sugar-dusted cream puff, salted shortbread, chocolate ganache truffle and a canele with a marvelous burnt sugar-caramel taste.
Which just goes to show that in Incanto, it’s not just offal good; it’s all good.