By Herb Gardener –
“Old Blood and Guts” may be an appropriate sobriquet for a field general, but what about a chef? Chris Cosentino of San Francisco’s Incanto Restaurant honors both animal and consumer by preparing “snout to tail” dishes that my wife Flora, for one, found difficult to swallow when I showed her an online sample menu.
Nonetheless, Flora finished up our recent California vacation’s fine dining experience extolling Incanto as “intimate,” “special,” and “pampering.” For me, the rewards were compounded because I chose to submit to the chef’s philosophy and vision, which is all about offal – animal entrails and internal organs.
Innards are no stranger to French bistro cooking, for example, and great cuisines worldwide create winning fare from cheeks, ears, or tails. Organs and cast-off cuts are often inexpensive, too. Have you priced chicken gizzards lately? Be careful, though. Offal has a limited shelf life.
On his web site “Offal Good,” Chef Cosentino claims Incanto is where he is “cooking all the time.” Sure enough; upon entering the Sa Francisco restaurant at 1550 Church Street we spotted Cosentino bouncing between stations in the kitchen and stepping out in dress whites for the occasional photo with guests.
I was then emboldened to pay attention to nightly chef specials scrawled on an “odds and ends” blackboard. Offal, here I come. Flora and I ordered a “mystery flight” of three obscure Italian wines as we scanned the menu. They were all delightful and remained mysterious even after we revealed their identities via cards slipped onto the stem on the glasses — a clever touch and today, a nice meal souvenir.
We agreed on a salumi (Italian cured meats) appetizer as the Chef is renowned for chacouterie. Flora found the prosciutto, among others, irresistible. Pickled zucchini slices and chard provided a counterpoint to all the fatty goodness. We next enjoyed the concentrated earthy flavor of matsutake mushrooms atop a mushroom puree, garnished with buckwheat sprouts.
By this point, I was convinced to hand Chef Cosentino control. I ordered two odds and ends: blood paparadelle with braised trotters, fois gras, and raisin grapes; and, wait for it, calves fries (culinary euphemism for testicles) served with bacon burre blanc and capers. I remember both dishes for depth
and balance; a pleasing interplay of textures, richness, acidity, and sweet notes. In a word, they were soulful.
Though she wanted nothing to do with my offal selections, Flora handed me a forkful of her handkerchief pasta with pork ragu and insisted that my homemade meat sauce aspire to this ideal.
Mocha mousse with coffee caramel and cocoa nibs appeared dense on the plate but decadently light on the palate. Like a dreamy chocolate magnet our spoons were continually drawn to the dessert despite protests of being too full for another bite.
Servers were friendly and relaxed and we enjoyed the leisurely pace between courses. Everything about Incanto suggested thoughtfulness, including what we believe were modest prices. The restaurant operation is dedicated to sustainability and wage equity.
The name Incanto is a nod to the great Italian poet and author of The Inferno, Dante Aligheri. Some may find eating hearts, brains, or tripe worthy of a hellish punishment. Chef Cosentino and his staff have combined Old World craft and outsized talent to give “nasty bits” the heavenly treatment they deserve.
Rabbit Braised with Hay
The chef at Incanto likes to poach baby carrots in the braising liquid to serve alongside the rabbit.
2 2½- to 3-pound rabbits, each divided into six pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
1 carrot, peeled and cut in half
1 head fennel, cut in half
1 head garlic, cut in half
½ cup white wine
1 fresh bay leaf
1 handful of hay
2 quarts chicken stock
Heat the oven to 250°F. Season rabbit pieces with salt and pepper, then dust lightly with flour. In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Sear the rabbit pieces one or two at a time, taking care not to crowd the pan. When the pieces are golden brown, remove and set aside. Add the vegetables and cook until they just begin to brown. Add the wine, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let cook until it’s reduced to about 2 tablespoons, occasionally scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits. Add the bay leaf and hay. Set the rabbit pieces on top of the hay, add the chicken stock, cover the pan, and braise in the oven until the rabbit is tender, about 1½ hours. Transfer the rabbit pieces to a platter and serve warm. Six servings.