A sign hangs in the window at San Francisco's Incanto with the quote:
"When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world." - George Washington Carver
This statement, in so many ways, sums up how chef Chris Cosentino approaches his beautiful, thoughtful, and rustic dishes that are served up at Incanto. For our dinner, we chose Il Quinto Quarto, or the "fifth quarter" tasting menu. The "fifth quarter" represents the traditional cuts and offal that are left off most modern menus. Tonight's menu, and the manner in which it was served, was memorable, captivating, beautiful, and...delicious.
Here is an outline of our dinner:
Chile and Bones
Sweetbreads, Cannellini Beans, and Nervetti
Trotter Cakes, Snails, and Cress
Beef Heart and Foie Gras
The "Chile and Bones" started our dinner off with fireworks for both the eyes and the taste buds. Three large tuna spines were stacked amid a pile of fried chiles, orange zest, and herbs. Any fan of barbeque beef ribs would be at home with this dish; the meat of the fish was melt-in-your-mouth tender. Chef Cosentino stopped by the table half way through this course to say hello and offer a tip, "Find the little place between the bones and you can get the marrow." Thank you, Chef, for this tip. If you have never had tuna marrow, Jen perhaps described it best as "ocean jelly." Briny, delicate, and delicious. Chef also illuminated the origins of this dish, explaining that fisherman were once offered such cuts as compensation for their labor. Very old school.
The spice of our "fish course" was cooled by the homey goodness that was course number two: sweetbreads, beans, and nervetti. Nervetti, or beef tendon, was cooked into creamy oblivion and paired with the beans to make a creamy pillow of comfort on which the perfectly roasted sweetbreads rested. What could be next?
The third course featured trotter cakes, and arrived with another visit from the Chef. Chef Cosentino explained that pigs, to remain healthy, must live near flowing water, and that snails and water cress also live near streams. Pigs eat both the snails and the cress. It was like a beautiful (and tasty) window into a healthy little ecosystem. This was food as nature intended. The trotter cakes were crispy on the outside and unctuous and creamy on the inside; the snails were meaty and the cress was a perfect companion with its slightly bitter greenness.
The evening's entree course was a beautiful culmination of our adventure into the Fifth Quarter. Perfectly seared beef heart was sliced thin and served with a tantilzingly-huge slice of foie gras. Unbelievable. For those put off by the words "beef heart", the meat resembled a very finely grained, flavorful, and in the hands of Cosentino, tender cut of traditional steak. For the foie, well, it was seared perfectly, and its creamy texture paired wonderfully with the beef heart. What dish isn't enhanced by a huge slab of foie, anyway?
Dessert was a play on the traditional panna cotta. Instead of gelatin or corn starch, blood was used to thicken the dish. Paired with spiced plums, this dish tasted homey, and was nowhere near as challenging to eat as its name might suggest. The holiday spices, such as cinnamon and clove, that flavored the panna cotta, along with the pudding-like texture, evoked...Christmas!
Our journey into the fifth quarter proved even more enchanting than we could have expected. The attentive staff and the visits from Chef Cosentino explaining his inspiration for each course only added to our enjoyment of the meal.
This was easily the most creative (and calorically challenging) tasting menu we have enjoyed. I am already looking forward to my next trip into the fifth quarter and to Incanto.