Home-made Spam with cippolini onions, fingerling potatoes, bacon broth
In square bowls came a lovely little spam and broth, to be sopped up with great bread. I felt like a character in a Dickens novel, wanting some more, but probably slurped more graciously in my broth-swigging.
The spam was made by the Dissident Chef by combining various meat parts into a mixture that included bacon and odd parts like trotters. The texture was indeed Spam-like, or perhaps like a softer, more robustly flavored sausage. The fingerling potatoes were the country cousins who didn’t add much to the party and were probably embarrassed to even be there. Another nice surprise; another amazing little taste mob. Really a small but great dish.
Unless you grow up in a culture that appreciates the many wonderful parts of animals and how to prepare and cook them properly, you might cringe a bit when reading a menu that offers lamb heart. But in the hands of Coco 500 Chef Mike Morrison, this is one of the best lamb dishes you might ever eat.
The heart slices are layered across the long, narrow plate and delicately decorated with arugula, generous smatterings of super-soft cheese, and a sprinkling of fennel pollen. The fennel pollen is wondrously subtle and plays out as one of those rare, unique ingredients that can integrate various tones and flavors into a harmonious dish.
But the heart is the, uh, heart of the dish. It is awesome and should be on more menus., if only more people would put their adventure mouth on when dining out.
Grilling Lamb Heart – Flatiron
An entire lamb heart itself is brined, sliced into thirds, flatiron-grilled to a lovely warm rare, and has a fantastic flavor with simple sea salt, ground pepper, and extra virgin olive oil. Lamb heart tastes much like a steak-foie gras hybrid with an earthy hint of liver. The meat has wonderful tones, is absurdly tender, and would be a conversation starter for anyone who can get out of their own prejudices to try it. The foie gras taste is less rich and overwhelming, and the liver is there ever so slightly; heart’s just a great meat.
The Grade: Awesome / Exceptional(my highest grade)
The Skinny: Coco 500 – 500 Brannan St, San Francisco CA
The prospect of eating a meal comprised of many unusual animal parts was exciting. I’m a big fan of Chris Cosentino. who enjoys toying with and serving innards and other ghastlies and crumbs, officially called offal in the culinary world. Chris was born into a winemaking family and was probably custom built to grow into his current status as one of America’s most interesting chefs. He’s not as famous as, say, Boulud or Andres or others, but he’ll probably get his TV show one day and then all hell-fame-and-flame will break loose for him.
Again, the concept alone of eating the oddities thrilled and, while the dinner was even more challenging than I expected, it was still a fun and wonderful ride. Not all the dishes were great, but the entire meal was a great experience (hence the great grade). But, to be sure, it’s not the multi-course meal to suit everyone; not even those who are flesh fanatics.
But hey, how many times do you get to have beef tendon and berries? Or sheep’s bladder bruschetta? So if you think you’re adventurous, I highly encourage you to visit Incanto for the annual Snout-to-Tail dinner. You’ll have a party-starter conversation for the rest of your life.
Course 1: PIG EAR TERRINE
Beautiful presentation; just gorgeous. Pig ear, being really chewy (cartilage), can be a challenge.
Course 2: CHORIZO & DUCK EGG
I enjoy a good spicy chorizo, in combination with just about anything you hit with it. The presentation of this was a bit messy, perhaps because duck eggs are big and unruly. This was pretty good, but excessively portioned and not as well balanced as some of the other courses.
Course 3: TONGUE PASTRAMI (and rye seed) SALAD
I love pastrami, too. This was a super-clever reinterpretation of pastrami on rye, with the tongue pastrami (excellent) and sprouted rye seeds on a light salad. This was a terrific course, perhaps my favorite of the evening.
Course 4: SHEEP’S SPLEEN BRUSCHETTA
Now when you go to the grocery store, I’ll bet you a zillion dollars you have never gone up to your butcher and said, “Hey I’m really in the mood for sheep spleen. Do you have some fresh spleen today?” Incanto is an Italian restaurant and Chris Cosentino’s quirky bruschetta had its high points but, for me, the earthy chewiness of the meat involved made the portions again too large. We ate about half and that was plenty. Gold star for originality, though.
Course 5: GOAT POT PIE
Again, a terrific idea from Chris here, to invert the chicken pot pie All-American concept with goat meat. I’m not a huge fan of desconstructed dishes, especially when the deconstruction takes away the best part of the dish. In the case of a pot pie, a crusty pie is paramount, even beyond what’s put inside. So the flaky top was good, but I needed more. The onions, potatoes, carrots, peas, also good.
Now I actually am one of the few people I know who’ll seek out goat meat. Having chivito (baby goat) in Argentina opened my eyes to how awesome goat can be. Unfortunately, the goat procured for this meal had a bit of dirty funky taste that some goat meat can have. I’m not sure what causes it; one day I’ll find out. I think Chris will fare better in the next batch but again, this was an excellent reinterpretation of a classic, and given a beautiful presentation.
Course 6: DESSERT – BEEF TENDON & BERRIES
My girlfriend couldn’t deal with this. One could say it’s like chewing on a torn prophylactic (and someone did), but I thought it was a pretty good dessert. And fun. You know, considering we were eating beef tendon. It did have a similarly bland, chewy textture that the pig ear did, but not as intense. The beef tendon was a nice textural balance to the berries and cream.
This certainly won’t win over the breakfast at Wimbledon crowd but, who knows….stranger things happen.
Like their signature filet mignon capped with creamy morels & truffle butter, the sautéed veal sweetbreads at Chez Spencer are simply over the top. This pheromone-jolting little plate is rich, rich, rich. Not bourgeois rich, not nouveau-riche, but dirty-old-money, we-don’t-look-at-prices rich.
Chez Spencer’s sweetbreads draw that perfect balance of slightly crisp outside and wonderfully chewy within, with sienna brown gravy (sherry wine vinegar and truffle vinaigrette) that’s waiting for a pirouette of torn bread to dance across its muddled floor. The little glands have a fallen ceiling of crisp baby spinach and a big, flat roof of a Parmesan crisp to add a tiny cheese-tang to the mild tang of the sherry wine vinegar. Some of the best sweetbreads in San Francisco, to be sure, and thankfully, they’re a staple on the menu of this little French hideaway where the Mission District meets the even more grungy South Van Ness and 14th Streets.
The Grade: Exceptional (5 out of 5). This is a large appetizer that should be shared, preferably by 3 people. The Damage: $17 The Skinny: Chez Spencer 82 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: (415) 864-2191
I’m the kind of guy who automatically orders certain things when they’re on the menu, no matter the restaurant, time of day, season of year, or price of the certain thing in question. One of those things is sweetbreads.
Sweetbreads are definitely not everyone’s idea of food. And contrary to popular rumor, they aren’t pan-fried bull testicles. But if you get caught up in the concept of them (or definition of them, actually) as animals’ endocrine glands, without the experience of them (tasting what a great chef can transform them into), you’re missing out on a potentially sublime food.
When done properly, sweetbreads are among my Pantheon of great things to eat. But when done poorly, sweetbreads can be gooey and gross. People’s revulsion to foods, curiously, are usually aligned more with unsatisfactory texture than taste. So, needless to say, there’s a wider opportunity for error with sweetbreads than the clear, thin line to sweetbreads glory. This is a round-up review of three San Francisco restaurants that serve sweetbreads on a fairly regular basis. I left prices off, as they will likely change more over time than regular menu items.
The Spot #1: Canteen, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Awesome (5 out of 5)
I don’t know if the grade is high enough, because Canteen’s sweetbreads are likely the best I’ve ever eaten in my life. Like most dishes that Canteen owner/chef Dennis Leary puts out on the bright green countertop, his sweetbreads are just phenomenal. I wish they were on the menu more often, frankly. They are simply prepared and plated, and have the perfect sweetbreads texture: slightly crisp on the outside and tender inside. The appetizer is large enough to share (as most sweetbreads are), but I didn’t share mine. (I’m not cruel; I was just dining alone.) A little blanched spinach and jus with the sweetbreads, and that’s it. That’s all you need. It was simple and it was incredible. Kudos to Dennis Leary.
The Spot #2: Fringale, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Great (3 out of 5)
Fringale is an under-recognized French restaurant, perhaps because it’s neither new nor trendy after over a dozen years in its quaint SOMA location on 4th Street between Bryant and Brannan. Fringale consistently serves up classic French cuisine at pretty reasonable prices, so it should probably be back on people’s radars, if it fell off or if they’ve not dined there yet. Fringale’s sweetbreads are a bit larger in size, doused with a darker, richer gravy, and laid atop fresh asparagus spears. The sweetbreads are nicely prepared, and the pairing of the asparagus offers a nice counterbalance to the richness of the sweetbreads in gravy. This is definitely one you should share.
The Spot #3: Piperade, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Very Good (2 out of 5)
Piperade is a restaurant sporting high cool factor, due to its proximity to the many ad agencies in the neighborhood, and the cool agency folk who frequent it. Unable to say no to sweetbreads, I tried them at Piperade and, while I enjoyed them, they do have a few shortcomings. For my palate, the sweetbreads were a bit too soft all the way around. A bit crisper exterior would have been a major improvement. And, while I don’t mind sweetbreads being sloppily plated, I think the swamp of gravy didn’t elevate the taste or presentation. It had a good taste, but fell short of the gravies from Fringale and Canteen, and the amount of sauce here may have also contributed to keeping the sweetbreads too soft. So Piperade gets a ‘very good’ grade, along with my hearty encouragement to improve the dish.
THE SKINNY FOR SWEETBREADS IN SF, VOLUME 1:
1.Canteen 817 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 Phone: (415) 928-8870 Web:www.sfcanteen.com
2.Fringale 570 Fourth Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 Phone: (415) 543-0573 Web: www.fringalesf.com
3.Piperade 1015 Battery Street, San Francisco, CA 94111 Phone: (415) 391-2555 Web: www.piperade.com
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