Incanto (San Francisco, CA)

1550 Church Street
San Francisco, California 94131
Phone: (415) 641-4500
Hours: Sun.-Mon. 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Tues. Closed, Wed.-Sat. 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.

Anyone who has seen Food Network is probably familiar with Chris Cosentino.  He’s the bespectacled chef with a dark goatee and a shock of blond, spiky hair either running through  foodie scavenger hunts on Chefs v. City or offering up his ideas for the Best Thing I Ever Ate. But, Cosentino’s true claim to fame is his “nose-to-tail” approach to cooking, and his celebration of offal (think livers, hearts, and other often discarded animal parts).

On a recent trip to San Francisco, we made our pilgrimage to Incanto, meeting up with some family in the Bay Area who had previously sampled the Incanto wares.  The restaurant is a bit off-the-beaten path in a largely residential area, but is a quick car ride from downtown San Francisco.

Incanto’s menu changes daily, depending on what’s locally available and sustainably grown and harvested.  The restaurant even grows many of its own herbs on its own rooftop garden.  The daily menu items generally include at least one or two “odd cut” or offal choices, so check your skittishness at the door.

We visited on a chilly winter night, and were ushered to the cozy Dante Room, a back room also available for small private parties.  The warmly light room featured antique brick, rustic mahogany tables and chairs, and the star attraction–a huge mural dedicated to the namesake author’s Divine Comedy (the complete text of which also adorns the walls).

We began our meal with a trio of starters. First, we sampled the foie gras, trotters, and citrus.  The mix of textures harmonized perfectly, with the foie gras offering a luscious, rich antidote to the sweetness and acidity of citrus sauce. You would never know that pig’s feet was one of the key elements of this delicate dish.

A serious crowd-pleaser was the liver with scallions and fra diavolo sauce.  Throw everything you think about liver out the window. This is not your grandmother’s liver and onions. The metallic tendencies of the liver were transformed by the spicy bite of the diavolo sauce.  This dish was unexpected, playful, and delicious.

We also sampled an off-menu porchetta–a cured meat made from the face of the pig. Although the porchetta was flavorful, it was a bit on the fatty side, and was probably the least favorite of the three starters we sampled.

Our dining party included six people, so we decided everyone would select a dish, and we’d simply pass them around the table family style–an approach I highly recommend.  We agreed to divvy up our choices, including pasta, risotto, and protein options.

We started with Handkerchief Pasta with Rustic Pork Ragu. Although certainly not the most adventurous dish on the table, the fresh pasta and hearty ragu were hearty and delicious, and hit the spot on our wintery visit.

Our other pasta selection came at our waiter’s suggestion. This dish featured Spaghettini with Sardinian cured tuna heart, egg yolk, and parsley. This dish is the type of unexpected oddity diners should seek out at Incanto. The tuna was cured until crunchy and salty. It was presented atop the spaghettini in tiny shredded pieces. The striking appearance of this dish (reminiscent of a sea urchin) paired with the unexpected crispiness and saltiness made for a surprising textural composition. Perhaps most importantly, though, the whimsy of this dish just made it fun to eat and talk about. (Oddly enough, as I prepared to write this review, I flipped through the April 2011 Food and Wine magazine that was just delivered to my mailbox.  Chef Cosentino coincidentally offers a recipe for a simplified version of this dish that readers can make at home).

Next we tried the Hedgehog Mushroom and Burdock Root Risotto. Like all great risottos, this dish was creamy, warm, and delicate. The hedgehog mushrooms offered an earthiness that was perfectly complemented by the subtle sweetness of the burdock root. I would eat this dish over and over again.

From the risotto, we moved to the entrees. The Tuscan Tilemakers’ Stew featured slow cooked venison that was accompanied by pear, root vegetables, and black pepper.  The stew was pure comfort food goodness with a hearty broth and cut-with-a-fork tender chunks of meat. The only complaint about this dish was the large circular pastry that came resting atop the stew.  The pastry’s size and hardness made it difficult to maneuver and eat.  So, we pushed it aside and finished off the rest of this tasty dish.

Next up was the Roasted Lamb Neck, which was perhaps the most beautiful dish of the night.  The lamb neck was cooked to perfection with the outside afforded the perfect crispiness.  The lamb was served with potatoes, sauteed tasoi, and finished off with a gremolata that provided the perfect zip of acid to the dish.  I felt badly for the dining companion who ordered this dish… I wouldn’t have wanted to share it.

The final dish we sampled featured pork cheeks, cippolini, and polenta.  Now, granted, this was not the prettiest dish of the night, but the pork cheeks were cooked to perfection with a richness and tenderness that married perfectly with the polenta and jus below.  This dish (like the liver and tuna heart before it) underscores point that Incanto is out to make–that often forgotten or discarded parts can be delicious, elegant, and whimsical.

What Chef Cosentino and the kitchen at Incanto do that makes this restaurant exciting and worth a trek is takes cooking extremely seriously without taking themselves too seriously.  The food at Incanto is unexpected, crafted with care, and above all, fun.  Incanto is the kind of place that encourages experimentation, talking, and laughter.  You might find yourself forgetting that your eating faces, feet, and internal organs… but then again, I’m pretty sure that is the plan.

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