Some chefs’ legacies extend far beyond their restaurants or cookbooks. Julia Child can be credited for making French cooking accessible to the home cook. Juan Mari Arzak spearheaded the New Spanish Cuisine; José Andrés made it popular in America. Chris Consentino will be known as a proponent of what most cooks leave out: offal.
Offal includes everything that, as the name suggests, falls off the butchering process; organs, entrails, brain, trotters and tongue to name a few. And while variety meats have been popular for generations in Europe and Asia, their presence in fine dining menus in America is now bigger than ever. They attract the more adventurous foodies and create a sense of bravery. In an era of home butchery and extreme cooking, offal is the ultimate manly trophy.
For some foodies, gobbling up a plate of tripe is as exciting as savoring a priceless Wagyu steak. For others, it’s akin to a reality show challenge in which bravery must be proved for self and social praise. As if ordering cod milt or veal sweetbreads was a definitive proof of epicure achievement. The Purple Heart of foodies. If you ever watched “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain, you know what I mean; it’s all about sucking the poor shrimp’s head.
I grew up eating skewered chicken hearts and many other offal items. But while I agree that many variety meats make exquisite delicacies (Range’s chicken liver mousse comes to mind), I don’t think you need to like every animal organ to say you like food. I certainly don’t. But if you think you can stomach it, you may as well try it.
Consentino’s passion for offal is contagious. The charismatic chef behind one of my favorite food brands–Boccalone is trading time in the back of the house to be in front of the cameras. His name doesn’t show up on IMDB yet but his TV appearances include "Iron Chef America" and his own show on the Food network, "Chefs vs. City"–a mix between Amazing Race and a hot dog eating contest.
Consentino is said to be writing a book on the joy of offal cooking and currently sells a line of branded merchandise under the "Offal Good" brand. His persona is as big as his appetite, and he’s not shy about it. The perpetual Twitterer often promotes his daily specials and public appearances to about 3,500 followers. But despite his booming career, the chef hasn’t abandoned the place where he still holds the title of Executive Chef.
As you enter the Noe Valley restaurant, an irresistible aroma of olives, herbs and cured meats blend together teasing your appetite. A poster stands on an easel promoting the chef’s TV show as Consentino himself stands behind the bar wearing a brand new Offal Good hat.
Incanto’s welcoming atmosphere is peppered with Italian clichés and ornaments of faux authenticity like the hanging Latin parchments posters. The dining room design is simple; solid wood tables and straw chairs under an arched ceiling. Nothing to be excited about. But this is a place to feel comfortable and eat well. If offal is acquired taste, Incanto is the place to acquire it.
The restaurant serves more than offal, despite Consentino’s passion, specialty meats normally appear in only 2 or 3 dishes every night. A special 5-course head-to-tail tasting option is sometimes available. The rustic Italian fare includes about 12 starters ($4 to $13), one of them is an Antipasto platter for 2 featuring Boccalone’s artisanal salumi ($20). Five pasta dishes can be ordered as appetizers or main courses (about $10 and $16). For entrées, 6 options include meats, fish and a vegetarian dish ($17 to $25).
Like many San Francisco restaurants, Incanto promotes its support for sustainability. Complimentary water is filtered and carbonated in house and served in reusable carafes. Most ingredients come from local purveyors.
To start, a tasty selection of bread and black olive tapenade.
Spicy trippa Napolitano, tomato, red onion & mint. A classic offal dish made with beef honeycomb tripe (from the cow’s second stomach chamber). After meticulously washed and cooked for hours in salted water and vinegar, the tripe is simmered in an aromatic marinara sauce that gives it a sweet and spicy flavor.
If you never had tripe, its tender, gelatinous, slightly spongy texture may be the biggest barrier to entry. But 2 ingredients in this dish add a welcomed contrast in both flavor and texture; fresh mint and onions. Try it with some bread; despite the large portion, you may find yourself asking for more. If not, you don’t need to eat the whole thing–I didn’t. Tripe is definitely an acquired taste; I’m still in the process of acquiring it.
Potato gnocchi, green zebra tomatoes, cherry tomatoes & basil. In total contrast to an offal dish, Consentino’s vegetarian gnocchi is creamy and tasty. Season’s peak sweet tomatoes and olive oil give it a fresh summer flair.
Boccalone sausage, cranberry beans, San Marzanos & soft cooked egg. From the chef’s salumeria, the pork sausage with a hint of fennel is flavorful and juicy. The soft egg yolk dissolves into the delicious sauce guaranteeing no been shall be left behind. A very successful dish.
Braised pork shoulder, grilled peaches, pickled baby peaches & rucola. A hearty meat dish contrasted by fresh accompaniments that highlight the pork shoulder flavor.
After a fulfilling meal, I was hopping for more appetizing desserts. Of the 7 options ($7 to $8), I can’t say anything is mouthwatering.
"Milk & cookies"-chocolate chip cookies & vanilla egg cream. The freshly baked cookies are good, served warm, gooey, they melt in your mouth. But the vanilla egg cream falls flat on the palate.
Prosciutto panna cotta, melon & maple. Unfortunately the prosciutto flavor is too subtle, almost imperceptible. Not to mention the not so flattering presentation.
Chris Consentino’s flavorful Italian fare makes Incanto worth a visit. For offal enthusiasts this is a Mecca; for first-timers, there’s no better place to try. But if you are not ready for offal, no worries, most dishes on the menu are suitable for squeamish diners. Here, no guts doesn’t necessarily mean no glory.
Incanto is at 1550 Church Street