Near the end of April, the Food Network's popular Iron Chef America program featured a contest between two Italian Chefs, Mario Batali of Manhattan's Babbo and Chris Consentino of San Francisco's Incanto. The secret ingredient was garlic--after all--what could be more Italian? The contest was a close one with Batali edging out his West Coast challenger by only two points (and they weren't important points - "plating" of all things).
Soon after the show was aired on April 22nd, Incanto announced they would be offering the Iron Chef Menu from May 18 to June 30 on Friday and Saturday evenings. I sent out a call for action to the local Gourmet Corps and made a reservation for four. Last Friday the Corps arrived at Incanto at 7:00 p.m. expecting an interesting experience. One of the highlights of the Food Network show had been watching Consentino persuading Jeffery Steingarten to suck out the squab brains. I was really looking forward to the evening.
Since the Gourmet Corps is an elite unit of the Wine Army, our pre-battle planning included reading the menu, and deciding what kind of wine we wanted to bring. Scallop crudo suggested sake, but this was overruled and we settled on some Diatom Chardonnay. We also brought along a 1997 Flowers Chard, and a 1999 Testarossa Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir. Stymied by the cardoon honey-garlic mousse with pinenut-garlic brittle, and not having time to post on eBob for pairing advice, we decided to put ourselves in Incanto's hands for the final wine of the night.
The amuse was a rapini, garlic and ricotta cheese crostini. On the TV show, the judges complained about too much raw garlic. That certainly wasn't the case with our example. It featured a properly crispy slice of bread with sautéed rapini (broccoli rabe) and creamy ricotta cheese. It was much larger than your average complimentary starter, requiring a number of bites to polish off. We all agreed that the "large" size was admirable, as it was delicious. So far so good.
Next up was the sizzled diver scallop crudo with pickled garlic. Since crudo is raw fish, we wondered what "sizzled" had to do with anything. We were especially interested when we got the dish, as the glistening white slices of scallop were clearly raw. We decided that the olive oil must have been "sizzled" with garlic before it was poured over the scallops. The slices of fish were each topped with a paper-thin slice of pickled elephant garlic, which we thought was an excellent idea, as elephant garlic is quite mild, and it also is big enough to cover diver scallops. It was a great combination with the creamy fish, the crispy & spicy garlic slices, and the aromatics of the olive oil. The 2005 Diatom Clos Pepe Chardonnay had great acidity, beautiful fruit, and steely minerality. Made without any oak, and in 2005 no malolatic fermentation, the crispness from the acidity balancing the richness of the fruit made for a great match.
Course #3 was spaghetti alla chitarra with snails & garlic butter. Although I consider myself obsessed with food, I had no idea what "Spagehetti alla Guitar" could possibly mean. The clue to the mystery is the pasta itself, which had a square cross-section. From the square shape, I was certain the pasta was fresh. It turns out that a pasta guitar (or in this context, Chitarra) is a frame strung with music wire, used to cut fresh pasta. This dish was another clever idea, building on the French cliché of snails with garlic butter, adding pasta to make something both new and Italian out of it. The pasta was excellent, with a complex texture, and there was just the right amount of garlic to compliment the snails. Peeled cherry tomatoes added some balancing acidity.
As the popular Diatom chardonnay had, by this time, mysteriously disappeared, we opened our emergency bottle of 1997 Flowers Chardonnay Camp Meeting Ridge. It certainly made for an interesting contrast with the Diatom. Had we not known both wines were made from the same grape, we never would have guessed it. Whereas the Diatom had a severe austere richness, the Flowers was friendly and familiar with oak and butter perfectly showcasing the fruit. At ten years of age, it was in perfect shape, still a light gold and without any trace of oxidation. The traditional richness of a well-made and familiar California chardonnay went well with the buttery pasta.
And now, the dish we've all been waiting for, Squab Brains with a bunch of other stuff, though on the menu it had the much more prosaic title of 'roasted squab with garlic chive sformato and sauce royale.' A picture of this is worth at least 1,000 words. Note (or imagine) the squab leg with the clove of roasted garlic in its claw; the eggshell, and the thing that looks disturbingly like a bisected birds head.
A ''sformato,' for those that don't know--and I didn't--is made from beaten eggs and traditionally cooked over a simmering bath of water so that it doesn't set up too firmly. I'm certain it is a lot more complicated than this, but it tastes like a soufflé with a texture which is not as airy. And sauce royale is a rich concoction based on cream and bread.
Now that those preliminaries are out of the way, what did it taste like? The squab was done to perfection, with a crispy golden skin and perfectly moist and tender meat. One member of our party ate the claw rationalizing that it was probably better than chicken feet dim sum, but I settled for the roasted garlic clove which I rescued from the clutches of the claw. The sauce was rich and satisfying, and while the garlic chive sformato was interesting, it was the least successful item on the plate. Oh yes, I almost forgot: a squab brain tastes like creamy liver.
For this and the next dish, we opened the 1999 Testarossa Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir. It was another youthful tasting wine with excellent aromatics, and fine complexity. It was made in a refined and elegant style without the extraction and concentration you find in many wines from the vineyard. I loved it.
So far, this had been a dinner exhibiting remarkable creativity. Would it continue? Absolutely. The eighty-clove braised pork belly with duckfat-fried tripe & treviso was served atop creamy polenta, with the treviso making a salad above the meats. There was a piece of pork belly, both tender and crispy, that melted in your mouth. But the most amazing item in this dish was the twice-cooked tripe. It had been braised in pork stock, and then deep fried. It, like the pork belly, was also crispy and tender, and seemed to be flavored with vanilla. I don't often have tripe, and certainly not twice-cooked tripe deep fried in duck fat, and maybe this was from a special heirloom pig that had been fed vanilla beans, but whatever was responsible for this delectable morsel it was amazing, and I would have gladly taken a second helping had it been offered.
As we slowly sipped the last of the Pinot Noir, we wondered how anything could top what had gone before. When the final dish was placed before us, we stared at a plain small glass of yellow-green something, and a square of what looked like peanut brittle. It was almost a letdown. The cardoon honey-garlic mousse was frothy and citrusy, though far richer than any citrus I've ever tasted. However, it was the pinenut-garlic brittle, which had been innocuously sitting there on the saucer, that ended up being the best part of the meal. It was just fantastic. It was a brittle with serious butter content, making it sinfully rich, and the garlic had been sautéed (no doubt in butter) until it had arrived at that special nutty state that garlic achieves when it is perfectly browned, just before it burns. This square of butter, sugar, pinenuts and garlic was like ambrosia, and we all said almost at once, "you've GOT to try this!"
The wine for the course was a 1999 Fattoria Montellori Vin Santo which was good enough, but in all of the excitement over the garlic brittle, it didn't make much of an impression.
Four hours after we had first sat down, the Battle Garlic dinner was complete. Can you tell I liked it? I liked it. There were some long pauses in service, but we didn't really mind. There were only two parties on Friday having the special menu, the rest of the place was full of folks ordering off the standard menu. It is a wonder the kitchen was able to whip up our meal at all.
I had only been to Incanto once before, and while I thought the food was good, I hadn't been impressed. But this was something entirely different. It was great food: the product of imagination and creativity fused with super technique. It is a meal I will remember for a long time, and it is a meal that has insured that I'll be back to try Incanto again.
Pictures are available here: http://www.sweetandsourspectator.org/...
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