When you receive an email inviting you to partake in a feast entitled ‘Leg of the Beast’ at San Francisco’s Incanto, you would have to be either incredibly stupid to turn it down, or at least not a meat lover. Luckily for me, I am neither of these things.
A fantastic group of friends had invited me to join them for a meal which guaranteed that by the end of the night I would be chock-full of meaty goodness. I was staying just north of San Francisco in a town called Novato with some good family friends and had been enjoying home-cooked meals and a little peace and quiet after just over a month of travelling; as such I would only have a day and a bit in San Francisco, but it had been with great anticipation that I looked forward to the meal that would define my city experience. I wasn’t even entirely sure what it involved: there would definitely be a beast’s leg in there somewhere and I was ready.
I’d like to say that I starved myself in anticipation of this meal, but I really didn’t. Instead I’d spent a very rainy day wandering around town, dining on toasted sandwiches bigger than my head and smelling of butter and garlic at Tartine Bakery & Cafe, grabbing gelato so cold it made my teeth sing at Bi-Rite Creamery, and warming up by sipping absurdly-named teas (‘Monkey Picked Iron Goddess of Mercy’ anybody?) at the Samovar Tea Lounge. It was a day filled with food, laughter and good friends. You might think this would satisfy me, but who are we trying to kid? I was hungry again after an hour. Evening rolled around, the rain ceased and, my tummy grumbling, we headed out to feast on our beast.
It turns out the meal is a group set-menu, beginning with a selection of cured pork cuts from San Francisco’s salty piggy specialists, Boccalone, followed by a roasted split half of bone marrow (aka. God’s Butter) each, and then finally an entire braised beef shank. As the honoured guest at the table it was my job to carve the beef shank. I say ‘carve’; all I did was pick up the bone and the meat came sliding off it in a beautiful glistening pile on the plate. Yes, this meal was all about the meat.
If you’ve never had roasted bone marrow spread on crunchy toasted bread then stop reading this right now; go out to your butcher’s and buy some, then roast it in the oven for about 20 minutes or so until golden, bubbling but still firm and giving off a scent that will draw carnivores from miles around. Even better, find somebody who can do this all for you: all you need do is bring a spoon. You could even smother it all over your face; I promise I won’t tell anybody. There is nothing on earth that tastes better than this beautiful substance spread on toast with a light sprinkling of salt. The smell hits you in tidal waves, gently at first but gradually stronger, making your nose hairs tremble and your mouth water profusely. Then you take a bite, your mouth encountering the crunch of the toasted bread first, then, slowly but surely, the fatty oily marrow seeping through, gliding onto your tongue and slipping down your throat. It’s probably known as God’s Butter because when you eat it you’re in absolute heaven.
The meal was incredible, the sheer quantity of food obscene. Our waiter even suggested that we perhaps might want to order a pasta dish as a side, just in case. I’m certain that if we had I would have exploded. Besides all of the above, our table was also graced with copious quantities of garlicky focaccia, golden and so crisp we could hear the crackle of the crust through our teeth; slippery tender nervetti (beef tendon) served with cannellini beans, so soft it was as though you were swallowing velvet; roasted broccoli served with anchovies and lemon, and raddichio and flower petal salad, the vegetable sides which were indeed sides and almost neglected; and the two choices of desserts, chocolate polenta cake, topped with whipped cream, or saffron panna cotta, studded with vanilla and served with clementine segments.
At the close of the meal we sat almost catatonic at our table, staring at the remnants of our gorging. The bill had been very reasonable considering the amount of food and wine we were surrounded by that evening and the standard of the service. There might have been other patrons around us; it might have been late; I’m not sure. All I could focus on was the beast sitting in my stomach. I was stuffed to the core, felt I could never eat another thing, but you know what? If they’d asked me to return the next day to do it all over again my answer would’ve been a resounding “yes”.
Incanto, 1550 Church Street, San Francisco, CA 94131, USA. Website.