Last night my wife and I ate dinner at Incanto's in San Francisco. I had been there a month ago with my dad and brother, and since then had seen the chef, Chris Cosentino, battle Mario Batali on Iron Chef. Cosentino lost, but only by a hair and looked about 10 times cooler than Mario, with his good build, and frosty blond mohawk and gotee. Mario -god bless the man he's my hero- looks like a chef. Cosentino looks like someone you'd see at Cannes by a pool with a cell phone.
But his restaurant is great. An Italian, Dante-themed place with nothing familiar on the menu. No meatballs, no marinara, no Carbonara, but lots of house made head cheese, tuna-proscuitto and roasted lamb necks. No Cannoli, instead you find olive leaf panna cotta softer than the divine thighs of Beatrice herself, and a plum crostata with a crust so soft, grainy, and flaky all at the same time that you'd swear the pastry chef had sold her soul for her talent.
So my wife and I ate there last night with the unreachably high expectations with which we all go to restaurant these days, expecting revelations and epiphanies in each course. Impossible. Like the Molto man said himself (in his latest glossy cookbook which of course I have) the opening of a new restaurant has replaced the opening of a new play as pure anticipated event.
Last night Mr. Cosentino himself was behind the bar, plating desserts and appetizers, his mohawk lay flat, and he was more relaxed than he'd been with the TV camera and the big red haired god of Guanciale cooking across from him.
Appetizers were nice but not ethereal. A grilled peach buried in a snappy salad of wild arugula, and the cured proscuitto made of tuna was nice and fishy but too salty even for me, which is saying a lot as I sprinkle salt on everything but ice cream. And I've tried that too.
We both had the braised pork shoulder which was fall apart soft, laid on top of thin gondolas of grilled eggplant, half a roasted tomato, bread crumbs. It was very good. Satisfying.
Then in walked Michael Chiarello. Chiarello of the Napa Style stores and all the TV programs of him casually whipping up great feasts in his modest Napa Valley home. Founding chef of Tra Vigne and dude behind the first big cookbook I ever really cooked from and ogled over, "Casual Cooking".
"There's Michael Chiarello", I said to my wife, trying to act casual since she is the one who informed me, in therepy, that I am in fact a "fame whore" . She's right of course. I confess I am a total fame whore. If you and I are sitting in a restaurant having a deep conversation and Mario or Thomas Keller, or Nigella Lawson walked in, I would totally blow you off mentally and be thinking about what that person is thinking and doing and saying because they are who they are and they are famous and they hold the secret of food wisdom somewhere deep within their sparkling personalities.
Hi, My name is Jordan Winer and I am a fame whore.
But God is testing me because I am always seeing famous people! Chiarello walked right up to me in his store about two months ago and started telling me about the salvaged cigar rolling blocks I was looking at. "Aren't these great? " he said with that big smile and casual tone, like you're in his house and he's welcoming you with a cold drink, "I found these in Germany, I keep cigars at the house so, this is sort of a conversation starter, if anyone can figure out what it is- they get a cigar."
And I actually bought one for 65 bucks. And it is a conversation starter.
Then the next week at Bouchon in Yountville, Thomas Keller walked bumped into me as I came in the door.
But last night I stayed focused. I glanced only a few times at Chiarello being led down into the hidden wine cellar. Chiarello slapping hands with the Maitre 'D.
The onions helped. Just on a whim, Rebecca ordered a side dish of "Suckling Cippoline" and I went with it, figuring it'd be those little flying saucer shaped onions, maybe carmelized with some Balsamic. Whip-ee.
But these were a modest revelation. The onions themselves were white and no bigger than garbanzo beans. They had their roots attached like tiny whiskers. Best of all, their green stalks were still on too, so they were a wonderful tangle of mermaid hair with the little glistening pearls of the onions hidden like jewels.
They were only sauted in oil, but they were the best thing about the meal. They crunched like greens and got caught in your teeth, and were so young a sprout that they only hinted at the mature onion heat and taste. We twirled them on our forks like pasta, stirred them into the braised pork juice on our plate. In a meal that cost 125$ bucks, I will remember most these onion sprouts which probably set them back 2 dollars. Perhaps that says something about Italian food. Or simplicity, or something.
Yes dessert was nice. The crostata I spoke of, with Honey-Lavender ice cream that was as deep as Purgatorio, and as soft, and blonde as the hair of Dante's beloved Beatrice.
But nothing was more poetic than the onions. With their roots in the underworld, and their sprouts heaven bent, I can still taste them now.
As we left, Chiarello was paging through the wine list the size of a phone book. He'd been there half an hour, and still no wine. What price fame...
I do have one regret. Not that I didn't go over and say high, or get an autograph, or thank him for inspiring me to cook this or that... I should have just approached him, as one eater to another, and suggested he order the cippoline. I hope he did.
From the point of view of the onions, we are all the same.