In Cockscomb’s gorgeous, two-level SOMA temple to all things meat, you don’t quite feel like eggplant is what generates the energy.
When revealing that I'd be eating vegetarian, my server's reaction was surprise mixed with a little pity, especially since the Falstaff-ian feast of a blood-rare, pin bone steak with bone marrow dip happened to be a table away. The feeling was more in line with when I order a glass of wine at a dive bar while my peers are downing PBR and Jack-and-Cokes.
[jump] The centerpiece of a vegetarian meal at Cockscomb must be the only meat-free main plate Chris Cosentino offers. His roasted eggplant summons the spirit of a classic eggplant parmigiana, except it's far lighter and summer-driven. (A cheese-laden brick in the stomach this is not.) Half of an eggplant, sitting skin-down, is crispy, one notch below charred. It's plenty meaty, too, covered in vinaigrette-doused arugula, then dotted with slivered yellow and red cherry tomatoes, wispy slices of snow white, nutty ricotta salata here and there, and no shortage of basil. It’s pleasant. It’s beautiful to look at. It’s extremely seasonal. It’s absurdly virtuous in a room that doesn’t share much in that department with Café Gratitude.
But, the eggplant California, if you will, is far from special. No vegetarian should make a trip to Cockscomb just for eggplant (especially when Marlowe's Brussels sprout chips and burrata toast are nearby). But you gotta eat, and vegetarians’ choices outside of eggplant are slim. There is a compact side of oven-roasted beets ($7) with a dollop of labneh and a couple crushed pistachios that is perfectly fine, a summer squash a la plancha with duck fat and mint, and an escarole with anchovy, chili, and breadcrumbs.
In all, there are vegetarian choices, just aren’t many. And the ones available aren’t particularly inspiring which is slightly disappointing knowing what talent Cosentino has and what a blast a full-on meal is at the restaurant if you eat everything.
That being said, there's no rule saying a restaurant has to cater to vegetarians. (We learned what a disappointment Big Chef Tom’s Belly Burger’s veggie burger is.) I’m just saying I expect a little more from this kitchen because the talent is there and the emphasis on smartly sourced produce and ingredients. They can do it; they have simply chosen not to.
Incanto, Italian in spirit, still had a steady emphasis on meat, particularly offal (as does Cockscomb). There, Cosentino generally had a couple salads, maybe shaved artichokes, a vegetarian pasta, and two vegetable sides, almost exactly like Cockscomb’s format. The short-lived Porcellino had a strozzapretti with basil pesto and green beans that earned a rave from fellow SF Weekly writer Julie Kramer. And outside of maybe a farro and squash salad and a mozzarella appetizer composition, that would be the selection.
The point is that there are the restaurants where vegetarians can tag along and get some great choices — Cotogna! Nopa! — and then there are others where they can eat a couple items, but it won’t be a special meal. You never know, though. Maybe even some devout nose-to-tail eaters will look away from that smiling pig head with a gold leaf, and spring for some eggplant. Cherry tomatoes in their peak are gold, after all.
Cockscomb, 565 Fourth St., 415-974-0700.