More Than Baked Goods at This Neighborhood Bistro
561 Valencia St. (between 16th and 17th Streets), San Francisco
Open for dinner, Tues.–Sun., 6 to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. Thu.–Sat.), closed Mondays; brunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., weekends
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
People always ask me if I’ve visited the cult favorite Tartine Bakery on the edge of San Francisco’s Mission District. Apparently they failed to read this old post.
But whenever they mention the bakery (and yes, I have visited often), I always say, “you know they have a restaurant, too.” To bolster that statement, I decided I needed to try the restaurant first hand to see if it’s even worth mentioning.
So recently I found myself at the heart of Valencia Street, the block that was once the epicenter for this neighborhood’s emerging culinary reputation with the original Slanted Door leading the way. Slanted Door has moved on to the Embarcadero, but I believe restaurants like Bar Tartine are maintaining the area’s reputation as a food destination.
When strolling along Valencia Street, you might miss Bar Tartine, by the same owners of the bakery, Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt. The name isn’t prominently displayed outside the green, wooden exterior. All you see are some paper menus hanging in the windows.
You walk into this cozy restaurant with small tables on the side and a giant marble bar, which is where I claimed a seat for dinner. From the bar, you can see the tiny open kitchen. (The night I was there, I don’t think the guy behind the stove was Executive Chef Jason Fox, but I could be wrong.)
I was on the far end of the bar, next to the bread station. It’s no surprise that the restaurant has freshly baked bread lined up in this station, where the servers come and cut the bread to bring to the tables. Throughout the night it was a symphony of knives cutting into the crusty bread. It was pretty good to eat as well.
The menu reflects contemporary California cuisine of seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. It had typical offerings like duck breast and lamb, and other trendy items like sweetbreads and bone marrow.
I started with the sweetbreads, something I’ve seen popping up in many menus but have yet to try. Sweetbreads are the glands or pancreas of the animal, and are often thrown out but in some cultures are a culinary treat. I often see it deep-fried, I guess to make it more pleasing for American eaters. But since I’m not a fan of fried foods, I was glad that Bar Tartine’s sweetbreads were braised.
The Braised Sweetbread ($14) arrived with a beautiful green swirl of ramp puree and served with chunks of porcini mushrooms, sweet corn, a poached quail egg and the ubiquitous foam. I wasn’t quite sure what the flavor of the foam was, and I still don’t understand how foam adds to a dish. Beyond the foam, the sweetbreads were incredibly tender and tasty, and they were nicely counterbalanced by pickled onions and quail egg. I was also impressed that the porcinis were nice big slices so you really could appreciate them.
Next came a Baby Beet and Hearts of Palm Salad ($13). It was another beautifully plated dish that predominantly featured an assortment of baby beets, from red to golden to a mixed pink and white. I love beets so this was a surefire hit for me, with the beets complementing the goat cheese slices. The overall salad with arugula was dressed in a light vinaigrette and topped off by these interesting and innovative delicate wafer croutons. You’re probably wondering why I’m not going on and on about the hearts of palm. That’s because, while good, they seemed to play a minor role in the salad, with just small quarter-size pieces dotting the plate.
For my entrée, I went with the Potato Gnocchi with Morels ($19). It was prepared in a way I’ve never had before—naked. Meaning it wasn’t sitting in sauce or in any broth, which are the different ways I’ve had gnocchi in the past. On Bar Tartine’s menu, they were simply pan-fried, giving them a nice golden brown exterior and served with sweet corn and bits of the morel mushrooms, topped by a nice helping of grated parmesan cheese.
The gnocchi were incredibly fluffy, like little puffs of clouds. I thought the simple approach was nice and light, especially for a summer night, but I think it would have gone to another level if it had a tasty sauce—even just a drizzle—to create another layer of flavor to go with these delightfully fluffy gnocchi.
Because Bar Tartine is known for its bakery, you know I definitely had to order dessert. And I wasn’t disappointed at the nice variety of items on the dessert menu (everything priced at $8). A sign of how the dessert menu is so different is the fact that there was no chocolate cake offering, which is on every dessert menu at most restaurants.
I settled for the Tres Leche Cake, which is served in a parfait glass and is a layered creation of coconut custard and vanilla-flavored cake, topped with cream and fresh strawberries. It came with these interesting sugar-spun twisters that immediately melted in your mouth when you bit into them. Overall, the cake was good but not nearly as good as the passion fruit cake at the bakery. I especially liked the coconut custard in the dessert. The dessert reminded me a lot of a blond tiramisu, and I was thinking it would have been even better if the cake was soaked in rum.
Side note: Service at Bar Tartine is perfunctory bordering on soulless. While the greeters and bar staff were all cordial, they weren’t engaging. Near my seat at the bar, I could see how servers who didn’t have anything to do would stand by the bread station looking like guards, without a smile or friendly glance.
In the end, the food at Bar Tartine is innovative and fresh, executed with an expert hand to bring balance between the flavors of the ingredients. The dishes aren’t drenched in sauces, but instead showcase the natural flavors and features of the quality ingredients.
The restaurant has a nice neighborhood feel and is still popular after more than two years in operation. I can now confidently steer people to Bar Tartine after they’ve experienced the lines of Tartine Bakery.
Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (well worth the wait)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
More Than Baked Goods at This Neighborhood Bistro