Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Incanto


Incanto
Incanto, Noe Valley, SF
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Cleveland was a time when haute cuisine had not yet come to Northeastern Ohio. My mother made a passable split pea soup around the holidays with the left over ham bone, and a dish with left-over spaghetti formed into a pie shell with tomato sauce and summer squash from the garden.

Much of the rest of it was unremarkable, or worse, topical (pita pizza made in the microwave comes to mind). Bless her, mom was no great cook.

My grandmother on my dad's side kept myriad clippings from over 7 or 8 decades, much of the lot were pretty gnarly Depression and WWII-era recipes featuring meals made of canned meat, canned vegetables, canned soup, margarine and Jello. Terrifying monstrosities made of Jello.

While I had tried to run from this legacy my Aunt Jane, sister of my father, quietly preserved it over many years. On the occasion of the 10 year anniversary of Gramdma's passing, all of us were presented with a three ring binder called "Meals With Mildred" containing the entire canon of those 7 or 8 decades of clippings.

She was the book-keeper, librarian, and historian of the family and I'm thankful to her for doing so.

Cecil is my Uncle's brother's widow. Jane, her husband Ted (Cecil's brother-in-law), and my cousins live in Bolton Landing (except for Ruben, who runs a architecture firm in Brooklyn).

Cecil is of the Kentucky wing of that side of the family -- realizing what I was leading both her and Jane into made me feel a pang of devious guilt; neither of them strike me as the most adventurous of eaters (although Jane is a dedicated lover of gardening for food and makes a mean loaf of bread).

The two of them met me recently to buy me an early birthday dinner. I picked the restaurant.

--

"Incanto" is chef Chris Cosentino's temple to offal, a palace of trotters, sows ears, hearts, livers, kidneys, cheeks and tongues served in a rustic Italian and Italian-American inspired style with Cosentino's own locally cured charcuterie.

"The young folks down in Louisville are into all that organ and scraps too," Cecil offered, looking at a menu that may as well have been in Mandarin. Jane would scrunch her nose at me as I grinned ear to ear while the waiter described the pig trotter special (note to self: next time).

Our very patient waiter explained the many items on the menu they (and, for some things, admittedly me too) were unfamiliar with:
  • A cardoon is a relative to the chrysanthemum, which resembles a stalk of celery but must be cooked down like a thistle and has some similarities to rhubarb - but in savory applications.
  • A sugo of duck is prepared like a ragu of buffalo, only the sugo uses the left-over meat once the breasts and legs are taken - wing, back and neck meat, cooked long in a mirepoix like mixture of aromatics and reduced duck stock.
  • The sea urchin butter is a compound butter with the roe.
  • Pasta made with blood instead of egg as the binder.
And so on..

Lamb kidneys
Lamb kidneys
This special enticed no one but me: lamb kidneys with chickpeas and stewed tomatoes. 

Waiter: "It's a big deal because you have to get the lambs absolutely fresh and just at this time of year. The kidneys are soft and not too mineral-y."

Not too, but just enough thankfully, and silky smooth. I offered Jane and Cecil chickpeas, but they graciously bowed out.

Having been to Scotland a number of times, Jane's feeling about kidney are understandable.

Had I thought of it, I would have reminded Jane about some of the Meals with Mildred:  while there is a logic to this kind of appeal ("if you can eat ambrosia salad, you can eat.."), it could potentially backfire (Jane: "do you have any idea what's in SPAM, Christopher?"*).

--

The bread and tapenade started out the meal, as did a plate of warm olives served with a sage-garlic infused oil. Bread, a safe and familiar choice, made in-house every day according to wine director Zane Fiala.

Next up, starters: the lamb kidneys were dispatched in short order by yours truly, and all shared blanched spring vegetables (tiny radishes and carrots, sea beans, celery shoots); I mopped up most of the sea urchin butter.

For $15, the spring vegetables were a bit twee for my taste.

Calcots, Spanish spring onions, steamed in cartoccio (comparable to "en papillion") over hay topped with field hay (not served) with an herb aioli on the side was shared by all, and the left over onions are going to be part of my scrambled eggs tomorrow boy-o!

As a side the onions work, but featured the way they were I thought there was something missing.

I related the story of Bourdain charring cebollitas verdes in Spain and dipping them in that weird peanut, pepper sauce - something like that instead of the aioli may have worked a little better for my taste.

[ Note: the morning after I chopped up the onions for a scrambled egg. I don't know what Cosentino did to them but the kitchen was filled with an indescribably wonderful, savory essence of onion, leek, garlic and a whiff of something almost ethereal. I'm glad we didn't finish it, because it made for g-d damn delicious breakfast: savory corn chowder crepe (this is what I do with leftover cream soups) with scrambled egg and onions. ]

Twee Vegetables.
Bread, tapenade, twee little veggies.
Cecil enjoyed a Porterhouse-style chop of lamb with cardoons, with a bean purée and lamb sausage.

Jane had the sugo of duck with rigatoni. I never even had a chance to sample that dish. I was busy with a spaghetti with grated canned tuna heart, parsley and a duck egg yolk - which when mixed in carbonara style formed an unctuous sauce.

Desserts are made in house. They were all good but nothing we picked blew my head off.

The first was a chocolate mousse and a quenelle of caramel ice cream with sea salt.

The second was a riff on a strawberry shortcake with a sort of loose marshmallow.

Very good, but not revelatory like the kidneys were...or in keeping with the realm of desserts, not inspired like the first time I had a chocolate perogie with bananas or ice cream with lardons of bacon at Lola Bistro in Cleveland.

Sadly, there's no Fernet Branca to be had after the meal, as the ABC license is beer and wine only (although the waiter suggested that what he doesn't know won't hurt him, wink wink).

A quick note about the wine list: I drank mostly beer with dinner, our server paired my Aunts up with a Spanish white of a varietal I can't recall but it was a very successful pairing (enough for two small carafes to be ordered). I had a Washington red paired with my kidneys and pasta. In both cases, our server did an admirable job pairing challenging food with complimentary wines (the Spanish onions presented a particularly difficult pairing given it's flavor profile similarity to artichokes on the back of the palette).

--

"Now, don't forget to call your cousin Sam!" Jane gently but firmly admonished me, walking down Church Street as I made my way down to the J-Church.

"Oh, well, now I have to - I just gave his maple syrup to a famous TV chef."

Rewind about ten minutes, Cecil and Jane are haggling over who will pay how much of my birthday dinner (Readers: send gifts to Donor's Choose); Jane insisting on paying it all, Cecil insisting on paying half.

I look over and Cosentino is slicing meat at a deli slicer behind the bar. He'd been floating around the restaurant, but he was actually there (I'm looking at you, Symon!), stopping by the occasional table, checking dishes going through the pass.

Meals with Mildred
Bixby's Best Maple Syrup
Sam, the younger of my two cousins by way of Aunt Jane and Uncle Stretch (Ted, 6'9" and 9 1/2 fingers) has decided to make a living as a bearded tree vampire: to wit, a maple syrup maker.

In the off season it's construction, but from the end of January until the end of March: collecting sap,  boiling it in the sugar shack, bottling and dipping bottles in hot wax consumes Sam's every waking moment.

I couldn't pass up this opportunity to bring the two together: the passionate king of all things pork in San Francisco; the shack-in-the-woods Adirondack maple syrup maker (and mushroom cultivator, and pig farmer, etc, etc). 

"Chef, I'd like you to have this with my compliments."

"What is it?"

"My cousin Sam makes maple syrup up by Lake George. It's the best maple syrup you'll have had in a while."

Chef reaches his hand out to shake mine, smiling, "Thanks! Hi, I'm Chris."

"Me too. Thanks for a delicious meal, chef."

I may have done a small dance upon getting back to the table. I'm such a fan-boy.

--

Of course I'll call Sam. Hell yeah I'll call him!

Now I need more syrup. Not only that, but I intend to pull the same stunt on Chef Sawyer in Cleveland at The Greenhouse Tavern

Both chefs love pig, love the fifth quarter, and both are up for James Beard Award recognition - my congratulations to them both.

Worlds collide.

--

* "Everything but the squeal."

[ Editor: correcting the source of bread and details for one of the appetizers. Added some details about the alcohol selection. ]

1550 Church Street,
San Francisco, CA 94131
(415) 641-4500

Sam Caldwell
518.636.9792
bixbysbest@gmail.com
www.woodbizarre.com