Archived in 2022

Originally posted on 22 May 2007

Back in March when I was making reservations for dinner at Incanto{.broken_link} with JR and Jen I noticed this in the event listing on the restaurant’s website:

4th Annual Head-to-Tail Dinner
Date & Time: Monday May 21, 2007, 5:30-9:00 p.m.
The dinner for which Incanto is known best. This once-a-year event honors our culinary hertitage, highlighting the deliciousness of sustainable eating. Please be advised that this will be an adventurous menu, not necessarily to everyone’s taste.
Cost: $70 per person for 5-course menu, exclusive of beverages, tax & service.

An adventure? How could I pass that up? So I made reservations for four and then asked Guy and Megan whether they were free that night.

Truth be told I’d already heard of this yearly event and had been wanting to try it. It was dumb luck that I happened to have found out about it this year in time to make reservations. Chef Cosentino is known for his love of

offal. You know, those “nasty” bits of the animal which in America will end up in the pet food if they’re used at all but which are prized in the rest of the world. I didn’t have much experience with the stuff, but in the hands of this chef I was willing to bet that such food would be edible at least and most likely would end up downright delicious.

As I said, I made reservations for four and any child can tell you that me + Guy + Megan does not four make. Last week I scoured my address book looking for someone willing to take this plunge with us. The replies were polite but almost all identical in meaning: “Put what where? In my mouth? Are you serious?” It wasn’t until Sunday morning that my friend John stepped up to take one for the team and the fourth slot was filled.

Despite the fact that four people arrived in three different cars we all managed to arrive (and therefore be sat) early. We were seated in the Dante Room{.broken_link}, the space which is often rented out for private events such as their Whole Beast{.broken_link} dinners. It was a comfortable, warm space filled with wood, brick work, subdued lighting and Dante-themed decorative elements. The acoustics in this space were surprisingly good as I could hear the people at my table but those at the neighboring table did not intrude on my consciousness at all.

Our evening’s menu came printed on a 5.5″ x 8.5″ piece of paper, accompanied by a write-up for the meal in general. Of course, I took these with me. Here’s a transcript of a selection from the write-up (with my apologies to Incanto for not receiving their permission in advance for reproducing this):

Welcome to Incanto and thank you for joining us at our fourth annual Head-to-Tail Dinner. Offal and variety meats have been an important part of the human diet since the beginning of recorded history. Nobility in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Aztec and Chinese societies all placed culinary and symbolic value on various animal parts, including kidney, liver, tongue, intestines and heart. Preparation of offal and variety meats have long been at the center of some of the world’s most influential cuisines and directly responsible for the development of many modern cooking techniques, such as marinating, braising and charcuterie. It is in the best spirit of these food traditions, but with a firm sense of our current time and place, that we are pleased to present this evening’s menu incorporating many of the foods we most love to cook and eat.

Which brings us, of course, to the menu itself. The faint of heart may wish to take this opportunity to switch to a milder post. And now, the food…

  • Fried rabbit ear with carrot aioli
    Right now the entire reading audience has visions of a long thin strip of something, rounded on one end. No, it wasn’t like that. According to our (very helpful and capable) wait staff, the skinned ears are sliced into bits before frying. The bit I got was about one inch on a side. A small dollop of carrot (oh the cruel irony) aioli was placed atop the bit. It tasted remarkably of pork rind though the texture was much crunchier rather than the bubbly, crispy nature of pork rinds. I liked it and though I admit to having some small remorse for the adorable bunny which gave its life for culinary purposes I was glad that this particular piece of the critter wasn’t going to waste.
  • Crispy sweetbreads & warm beef tendon with chillis & mint
    Arugula acted as the base for this salad. Its peppery bite worked very well against the mint and chillis, which themselves were a perfect complement for the mild sweetbreads. These were lightly breaded and fried and were very enjoyably crisped in the process. Of all the items on the night’s menu this was one of my favorites. The tendon was unremarkable for me. It was well-prepared with a lovely gelatinous consistency, so I cannot find fault with the kitchen. It’s simply not a critter bit which does anything for me. I prefer to have a nice chunk of flavor in my food, that’s all.
  • Lamb tongue & fries terrine with lamb’s tongue lettuce & pickled grapes
    Incanto prides itself on its fine housemade charcuterie so I would have been surprised has any not shown up on the menu. Thankfully I was not disappointed. Wafer thin slices of this terrine were nestled among the leaves of lettuce and punctuated by cool crisp grapes. The flavor was good but very mild and in the end I appreciated it more for the impeccable use of the lamb and the beautiful cross sections in each slice than for its taste.
  • Fish maw with chickpeas & agretti
    So what do you think when you see the word “maw?” Mouth, right? Not so in this case. I learned something new, which is that the word “maw” also refers to the intestines and stomach of a fish. What came to our table were not four bowls overflowing with squiggly guts but rather bowls of very pungent and refined fish soup with chickpeas, halved grape tomatoes and sprigs of agretti with the occasional small bit of fish floating by. We all agreed that this dish, though fishy (or even because it was), was excellent and very satisfying. I personally wouldn’t mind having a nice big bowl of it for lunch, accompanied by a hunk of crusty bread. I’m sure that the key ingredient in this soup was the stock and I regret not finding out more information about how they made it.
  • Pork tripe, beans & blood cooked in vescica with creamy polenta
    Vescica is Italian for bladder and that’s just what we got here. A pig’s bladder filled with pork tripe, pork blood and a few white beans. No, you are not to eat the bladder. By the time it reaches the table it’s given its all to the dish and its final purpose is to serve as a vessel and decoration. For each bowl, the bladder was slit open and some of the contents displayed across the bed of polenta. This was the first dish which did absolutely nothing for me. The flavor of the tripe was lost in the overwhelming iron-y flavor of the blood. The blood which had been cooked and congealed into what I deemed a very unappetizing flavor and consistency. Megan, with her unique veterinary point of view, also disliked this one. Guy, on the other hand, ate both his and Megan’s so the meal’s principle of “waste not” was obeyed. There was not a lot of the mixture so I ate pretty much all of it. My polenta was very over salted so the one part of this dish I might have enjoyed was left un-eaten while the other part ended up in my stomach. I think I did that backwards…
  • Candied cockscomb with cherries & rice pudding
    Yes, the cockscombs are what you think: that floppy bit of decorative skin on the head of a rooster. They, accompanied with ducks’ tongues, are an oft-featured appetizer on the regular Incanto menu though for the life of me I don’t know why. Arrayed across the white rice pudding they made for a very striking presentation. These cockscombs were gelatinous and virtually flavorless aside from the faint cast of sugar around the edges. I took a few bites then decided that the lack of flavor had placed me into the camp of diminishing returns so I set down my fork. Even the rice pudding was uninspiring and overly-starchy, which made this entire dish a flop for me though John seemed to like it a fair amount.

Of course a dinner like this required wine and we were not about to dodge that sort of requirement. We went for the by-the-glass option rather than bottles as we all had long drives home. When serving a wine by-the-glass Incanto has this brilliant policy of slipping a paper label over the foot of your glass. This label tells you exactly what wine you’re drinking and allows you to take the label home as a reminder should you find something you like a great deal. I’ve never seen another restaurant do this but I really wish that they all would. It’s really the most helpful thing.

Here, without commentary, is the list of wines served to us that evening. I tried each of them so should you need further information feel free to write and ask:

  • Derthona, 2004 Vigneti Massa
  • Nero d’Avola Rossojbleo, 2005 Gulfi
  • Montepulciano di’Abruzzo Cerasuolo, 2005 Torre dei Beati
  • Barbera d’Asti Ca’ di Pian, 2004 La Spinetta
  • Brachetto Rosa Regale, 2006 Banfi

Although two of the dishes didn’t really work so well for me in the end I was very pleased with the meal overall. Chef Cosentino did a very good job of preparing a menu which showcased otherwise neglected portions of the animals. I can’t say right now whether I’m ready to start cooking sweetbreads in my own kitchen but I do know that I will be much less intimidated when I see it and its offal brethren on a menu.