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Monday, July 03, 2006

Incanto: "Strawberry Sagra" Dinner

After months of reading positive reviews from several esteemed food bloggers, I finally found some time last week to make my way over to Incanto -- the charming Italian restaurant located in San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood.   The meal that I had that evening reflected some of the most innovative cooking that I've seen in the Bay Area in quite some time, particularly for Italian-inspired cuisine and especially at that price point.

My visit just happened to fall on the night that the restaurant kicked off its Summer Sagra Dinner Series for 2006.   A "sagra" is an Italian festival held to celebrate a particular seasonal food item, so that should give you a pretty good idea of the general concept behind this event.   Basically, on four selected evenings between late June and the end of August, Executive Chef Chris Cosentino prepares a four-course meal showcasing a specific ingredient from a local farm.   The star ingredient on the night of my visit?   Strawberries from Dirty Girl Farms.   Here's the special menu that was handed to us as we sat down:
  • Crudo of Diver Sea Scallop with Seascape Strawberry

  • Chandler Strawberry Risotto with Pecorino

  • Strawberry-Braised Pork Shoulder with Dandelion, Shaved Onion & Strawberry Salad

  • Strawberry Gelato Panino with Creme Fraiche Shooter
Now, we were also handed a copy of the restaurant's regular menu, which is still available on the nights when the sagra dinners are offered.   But really, could I possibly turn down the opportunity to sample a menu using strawberries in so many unusual ways, particularly in the context of savory courses?   Of course not.   I was immediately intrigued and irrevocably hooked, so I gave the regular menu no more than a passing glance before placing my order.
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Overall, the "Strawberry Sagra" menu worked very well, and certainly much better than I expected.   The Crudo consisted of delicate sea scallops bathed in olive oil, accented with a combination of fragrant basil, balsamic vinegar and pepper.   Sweet strawberries, sliced thinly and possessing just the barest hint of sour taste, played beautifully against this backdrop -- paradoxically standing out while at the same time melding seamlessly with the other flavors on the plate.   Perfectly distributed grains of kosher salt, meanwhile, seemed to explode on the tongue, markedly amplifying and heightening the overall taste sensation.   This was, to put it plainly, an outstanding dish from Cosentino.

The Risotto, which was lent a pinkish hue from the strawberries used during cooking, simultaneously highlighted the sweetness from the fruit, the nuttiness from the Pecorino cheese, and the herbal notes from the fresh mint.   Here again, I marveled at how Cosentino achieved such an ingenious balance, a culinary high-wire act in which the slightest tip in any direction would have sent the dish plummeting back to earth.   The execution was flawless as well, with the risotto cooked to just the right consistency and cool pieces of strawberry mixed into the rice just before plating.

Although the Pork was billed as having been braised with strawberries, the flavor of the fruit was apparently no match for the heft of the meat.   Still, the pork was incredibly tender, the accompanying sauce was intensely rich, and the combination was deeply satisfying.   Moreover, when I borrowed some strawberry slices from the accompanying salad and ate them with the pork, the result was amazingly good.   So, even though the strawberries used in the braising process had seen their contribution washed out by the pork, actual strawberries were more than able to hold their own with the boldly-flavored meat -- and to outstanding effect.

The Panino consisted of creamy strawberry gelato sandwiched between two thick pizzelle cookies.   A very small pool of chocolate and caramel sauces sat to one side, and a demitasse containing creme fraiche infused with lemon verbena sat on the other.   One problem here was that the ice cream sandwich had not been given enough time at room temperature before service -- making it nearly impossible, at first, to cut through the frozen pizelles with a fork.   The gelato itself was quite tasty, although the strawberry flavor was perhaps a bit more subtle than it should have been.   Finally, the so-called "shooter" of creme fraiche struck me as ill-conceived;   it added little to the panino, and I can't imagine anybody actually wanting to do a stand-alone shot of creme fraiche.   I must say, it's rather ironic that on a four-course tasting menu devoted to strawberries, it was the dessert course that impressed me the least.

Incanto will be holding three more sagra dinners over the next two months, and I have little doubt that Cosentino will present menus that are at once innovative, enticing and satisfying.   Here's the schedule:The Pepper and Eggplant Sagra dinners will cost $50 per person, while the Fig Sagra dinner will be $60 per person (all exclusive of beverages, tax and gratuity).

Everything that I've read to date about Chris Cosentino has impressed me, from his support of sustainable agriculture and local farms, to his commitment to procuring animal products that have been Certified Humane, to his desire to honor the whole animal and avoid waste through the serving of offal -- the animal parts that most chefs simply discard.   And now I've had the pleasure of experiencing Cosentino's creative cuisine for myself.   Still, having visited Incanto only once so far, I'm not yet in a position to offer any sweeping conclusions or pronouncements about the restaurant.   All I can say is that I can't wait to go back.


Blogger K & S said...

what a nice way to try new foods! I really enjoy sample menus and this "sagra" sounds like a great way to eat some of your favorite ingredients.

July 04, 2006 4:55 PM  
Anonymous Olivia said...

Despite all the high praise, my introduction to Incanto wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Your post, however, has been the tipping point for putting it on the schedule again. I have a weakness for Figs, so it sounds like the perfect opportunity - thanks for sharing!

July 14, 2006 2:02 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Kat: I've always thought that tasting menus centered around a single ingredient are particularly interesting, because they tend to show both the range and creativity of the kitchen. Other than the white truffle tasting menus that spring up in top-tier restaurants at the end of each year, there aren't many single-ingredient menus around -- which is why I appreciate Incanto's sagra dinners.

Olivia: I'm curious to see whether Incanto will live up to the glowing praise that I've heard from others -- and the promising first meal that I enjoyed there -- as I make additional visits to the restaurant. Of the three remaining sagra dinners, the one that's focused on figs is definitely at the top of my list. So, I will hopefully see you there!

July 14, 2006 3:22 PM  

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