Incanto: a mixed bag
Being a first class carnivore, I went to Incanto for the first time a week or two ago with very high hopes. But like many on this board, I was somewhat disappointed by both the service and the food. My boyfriend, though, seemed to like it a lot. What puzzled me is that though meat is supposedly the restaurant’s forte, the best parts of our meal were the homemade breads (focaccia, breadsticks and peasant-type loaf) and a seafood pasta dish. Go figure.
We came in at 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday. It was packed (largely with septuagenarians), and I was glad we made a reservation. While we were seated shortly after arriving and had a lovely waitress who did a very good job describing the food and pairing our dishes with wines, we didn’t get our bread until after we had olives and salad. That was at least 40 minutes after we were seated.
The salad was a kind of dandelion green nicoise, with chopped egg, capers and anchovy(?). Again, my boyfriend loved this. But I found the citrusy dressing way too tart, especially considering the bitter nature of the greens. (Both of us also found the greens to be of an unwieldy size.) The olives were warm and house-cured with garlic, which pleased us. But olives do not a meal make.
What really annoyed me is that the table next to us seemed to get some type of starter immediately after they were seated, which we were not offered. Perhaps they are special, I don’t know. Or maybe they ordered a different type of appetizer that just came out sooner than our salad. Regardless, it irritated me because we were starving and didn't get any food for a solid 20 to 30 minutes.
Our next course was pasta. We split a spaghetti (was it cavatelli?) topped with shavings of cured tuna heart. This was a most unique and delicious dish. The noodles were perfectly al dente and the fish heart – wow. Salty, earthy, and not even made of pigs. An A-plus!
For the entrée, my bf had the beans with sausage. He felt this was the epitome rustic Italian cuisine. I thought the sausage was too mild and the beans too … crunchy. Almost like they were underboiled/simmered (or maybe I’m just used to overcooked beans). My dish was the milk-braised pork with polenta and greens. While the polenta was delicious, if a tad cheesy, the meat was way too soggy. I would even venture to say stringy. Not what I expected. But in the end I hoovered it all down, so how bad could it have been?
We finished with espresso and a bay leaf panacotta. Got the coffee at least 10 minute before the dessert, which made no sense to me, but whatever. The panna cotta, milky and light in texture, was ok. But I could not taste the bay leaf. Maybe that’s for the better.
Lastly, I must comment on their surcharges. We were aware of the additional 5% surcharge they put on the final bill to ensure fair payment of their kitchen staff, but essentially you end up ordering food thinking it costs way less than it will in the end (this surcharge is not included in the menu price). I don’t know why they don’t just incorporate this extra cost into the price of the food itself. It would save diners a lot of acrimony.
The 5% surcharge attempts to reconcile the discrepancy between front of house and back of house wages in SF restaurants. FOH employees receive the majority of their pay through tips, and frequently earn several times as much money as BOH employees. SF Minimum wage laws force restaurants to spend a significant portion of payroll on the already well compensated FOH employees. Consequently, many BOH employees are compensated poorly. Incanto's 5% surcharge goes to the hard working dishwashers, line cooks and expediters, and they deserve every penny.
Why not just raise prices? Because that would essentially result in giving FOH employees a raise, as tips are a product of the total bill. This would defeat the entire purpose of the surcharge. On the restaurant's encouragement, many customers deduct the surcharge from what they would normally tip, i.e. if you often tip 20%, you might tip 15% or 16%.
I realize it's a bit counterintuitive. However, I think it's one of the most forward-thinking policies practiced by any restaurant in town. It's no coincidence that Incanto was serving house-filtered water years before Chez made it trendy, or that they're one of the only restaurants in town that offers their employees health insurance.
Incanto specializes in offal. I am not surprised that the tuna heart was your favorite dish.
re: Morton the Mousse
Maybe that's the thing. It is counterintuitive. (We did, upon recommendation of no one, lower our usual tip in consideration of the 5%.)
I agree that the dishwashers and cooks are definitely not getting as much as servers and that Incanto is perhaps looking out for its employees in ways that other restaurants might not bother with. I just think that there are other ways to try and remedy the disparity besides this method. And after reading other posts on this topic, I am not really sure that the 5% is directly going to cooks and other BOH workers anyway.
As for the food: I know they specialize in offal. That's why we went. But that does not excuse them for making a stringy piece of pork.
We went to Incanto last weekend for the first time as well. I loved it and thought it was tasty rustic Italian food. We ordered the Sardines, which were quite good and the antipasto platter, which was great-particularly the mortadela. As a main course I thought about ordering the sausage and beans or the pork (after reading your review, I’m glad I didn’t), but I ordered the beef stew, which was superb. My partner had the cod which I thought was just ok. I would definitely go back though.
I had the spaghetini myself for this first time this week and thought it was excellent (it has a raw egg yolk that you stir into the pasta). I also had an exceptional appetizer of pig's trotter, foie gras, bacon, and cherries--perhaps their best dish since the lamb neck.
I find Incanto the most ambitious restaurant in San Francisco, and when a dish works, it's remarkable. That said, it helps to share half portions and appetizers to maximize your odds.
And despite often excellent service, it can be hit or miss. This week I got the complimentary lardo while at other times it can feel like the table next to you is getting more attention. I tend to sit at the bar, where at least you can enjoy watching the kitchen or flag down an extra glass of wine.
I do agree on the surcharge. Well intentioned, but they should just pay their non-tipped workers more, or pool tips, or adopt a fixed service charge. Anything that doesn't add complexity for the diner at the end of a challenging and ideally satisfying meal...