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May 20, 2009 11:45 PM

Feed your body, feed your soul, eat at Incanto

Dined at Incanto sola tonight. I first ate here a year ago, on the recommendation of Robert Lauriston. I had a meal that I think of whenever I’m very, very hungry. The starter was pig’s trotter on foie gras, the pig’s trotter being not the gnarled lump of knuckle I’d imagined but somehow a slender strip of meat, like a slice of a sheet of pasta, imbued with the savory flavors of my most intense umami dreams, and it sat on top of a foie gras that was, well, light, and flavorful, and I know foie gras is not meant to be light, I’ve had far too many that sat there like a lump of lard, but this was. Then I had rabbit. The sauce was a soupy, herby, flavorful delight, the rabbit itself above average, but not exceptional. The only off note was the bartender (we ate at the bar that night,) who was off-hand.

Cut to 2009 – I’m eating alone so am eyeing the bar as I come in, but the diffident and charming host suggests I eat in the main room, as the bar is empty, and he thinks I’ll “tune in on some good conversations” and be less lonely there. He tucks me in against the tapestried wall. Sparkling water from Hetch Hetchy arrives, gratis, and I order the “mystery flight” and a grilled beef heart. I’m determined to eat the famous offal. The white wine is tasty, but I have to skip straight to the dark, heavy red to stand up to the beef heart, which is rare and strong, and sitting on a bed of miniscule mushrooms both brown and white. Good, but overall too vinegary for my taste. I should have taken the waiter’s advice to try the mackerel crudo, but I was cold when I came in (what’s with it in San Francisco, always freezing,) and wanted to warm up.

Next came boccalone sausage and smoked escolar. I am an ignoramus and had no idea I’d ordered fish, but so, so glad I had – it was intensely smoky, nicely balanced by the sausage, with a creamy horseradish sauce with just a nice amount of burn, the whole lightened up by a peppery bite of watercress. I abandoned the flight at this point and asked for a recommendation from the sommelier; happily, the barkeep of last year was replaced by an industrious and knowledgeable man who served a Valpolicella, which was delicious and did not overwhelm.

One hour later, still eating … had a cheese plate, just asked for their recommendation, and a totally divine dessert wine – which, and it would be so excellent here if I had put the little wine names that come thoughtfully tucked around the base of one’s glass in a proper place so that I could find them later, instead of tossing them in my bag to rattle around with loose coins and stale starbucks nuts, but by now I was sinking into a haze of cheesy, winey happiness. I was reading the Latin inscriptions on the wall hangings, and anticipating visits from the friendly owner, the sommelier, the boy waiter, the girl waiter, all of whom talked just enough to make me feel happy and at home, but not so much that I was overwhelmed with details about the elevation at which the goats grazed to produce the cheese (hello, Gary Danko.) But it was a great, full, port-like but much lighter with lots of, um, I’m going to say top-notes here, and you’ll just have to go in and ask for something to go with the cheese and hope you get it.

Then I had the plum granita, which they call dessert but I’m going to say is a palate-cleanser and should have come before the cheese, and for good measure I had the flourless chocolate cake which was very, very good, and I make a lot of these at home, and then a cappuccino. Go and eat, but expect what you’ll find: this is not a see-and-be-seen place; the crowd was sixty-percent fiftyish, with a huge, younger table in the private room at the back, and a round table of high-tech/finance go-getters in their twenties discussing hedge funds (I guess they didn’t get the memo,) a family celebrating a birthday … warm and lovely. Nor is it a place for twenty-five two-inch tasting courses (love them too.) It’s charming corner restaurant where with a combination of some slam-dunk, world-class menu items and a lot of savory goodness, great wines, and good-hearted, knowledgeable people to talk to and watch, you can, for an evening, touch the sublime.

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  1. Welcome back and thank you for the report, no joke.

    1. Thanks for the report. I have had some good meals at Incanto, but have always found the service to be annoying. I have to say that while it sounds like you had lovely service once seated, overall your post reinforces my thoughts about the place. The only thing that would annoy me more than being told I should sit in a certain area of a restaurant so I could evesdrop on others' conversations would be to be at the neighboring tables and somehow know that the host had said that to someone he or she sat at the table next to me.

      IMO (and here, while I agree with your observations, I disagree with your conclusion about them): in fact Incanto is about seeing and being seen, actually (and heard).

      1. i was considering dining solo at the bar at incanto when i came across your report, which sealed the deal. ate there once last autumn and had a fabulous meal, and had been wanting to go back. my plan was just to eat a plate of pasta and have one glass of wine, so i headed over tonight. ended up having a full meal.

        i also started with the beef heart. i wasn't crazy about it, but it was good. there was quite a mix of marinated mushrooms: white and gold enoki, cremini, oyster, shimeji, and exactly one woodear. had a light red wine with a germanic sounding name, though it was italian.

        next i had a half order of trofie with ramp pesto, morels, and potatoes. i love pastas here. the trofie, or thin roughly rolled pasta, resembling long, pointed, stretched out spatzle, were coated in a rich ramp sauce that was just delicious. generous serving of juicy sliced morels, and the small discs of potato were perfectly cooked. had a glass of...uh..i'm going to murder the name...anglianico? a nice light red that i preferred to the first.

        i had the plum granita as well. it was definitely palate cleansing, but palate pleasing, too. the cherry compote on the bottom was nice. i'm glad i ordered that instead of the panna cotta, which i was leaning towards before i remembered that i don't really like strong herby notes in most desserts (like lemon thyme. the kaffir lime sounded interesting, though).

        service at the bar was comfortable. next time i go alone i should just realize that i'm not going to just order a plate of pasta.

        3 Replies
        1. re: augustiner


          I almost always sit at the bar, even when I go with someone. That doesn't make it a cheap meal, and service is always uneven, even when it's attentive. Service at the tables is better, but you don't get to watch the kitchen or the meat slicer.

          I disagree with Susan that it's about being seen--this is Noe Valley after all. Who are you going to see, Mark Leno? And the dishes aren't always successful (acorn soup), but when they are they're sublime.

          I often hesitate recommending Incanto, for all the reasons mentioned here and for the adventurousness of what they do well. Glad to hear you chose successfully and were treated accordingly.

          1. re: Windy

            We always eat at the bar at Incanto and sit where the bald wine dude serves. He's terrific. He can't always be attentive because he has to pour the wine for the servers, but I've never seen him stop working and ignore people.

            1. re: Windy

              I like the bar best also. It really is a better spot for dining alone, or IMO even with someone, because the bar tables are fairly well spaced, but we'd have to have a glass of wine there and argue over the see and be seen business, and maybe that is the wrong word for what I am trying to describe. Perhaps it is just a sense that they would really *like* to be a seen and be seen type of place, even in Noe Valley.

              I do think it is possible to get a good meal there without being too adventurous; indeed the only true clunker items I've had on the menu were two fairly straightforward poultry dishes that were just not well-executed.

          2. we ate there about a year ago so it's a good reminder of how much we enjoyed the rustic, but adventurous approach. Cant comment on dining alone but I didnt find it a place to be seen and heard - not esp noisy and my partner is one who is very attuned to ambient noise. We had an amazing plum tart for dessert. I did some sleuthing on the type of plums they used - Red Dolly - and they are a new hybrid. I'm still trying to track one down to plant. So many places just use the ubiquotus insipid Santa Rosas
            Only complaint we had was the sommelier steered us towards a wine that was the opposite of what we described as liking but we fixed it on the second bottle

            1. link

              Incanto Restaurant & Wine Bar
              1550 Church St, San Francisco, CA 94131