Six years after it opened, Bar Tartine, the restaurant offshoot of Tartine Bakery, has become Hungarian at dinner and Scandinavian at lunch. Both meals are fantastic–original and luscious. The lunchtime Danish sandwich bar was created when Bar Tartine expanded into a space next door and installed bread ovens. There, Chad Robertson bakes whole grain northern European breads which are sold at the counter.
The chef behind the transformation, Nick Balla, made his name cooking Japanese at Nombe down the street. It took him awhile to figure out how to execute Hungarian dishes evoked by a childhood in Budapest until the age of fourteen when his family moved to Michigan. Now he’s got it down.
You might wonder at such a change in cooking predilection, but a culinary bridge does exist between Japan and Eastern Europe: pickling. Nick Balla is obsessed. He puts everything up. Jars of pickled fruits and vegetables have become part of the decor in the rustic, wood lined rooms of the restaurant, and their contents are used in everything.
Grilled tripe ($14) probably doesn’t make your heart race, but I’m in love with Bar Tartine’s preparation of crisp edged innards, slightly smoky, with that mysterious soft yet elastic texture, drenched in a velvety, mahogany, paprika sauce with an intense, meaty flavor.
Of many chopped salads in town, Nick Balla’s is the most fun to eat, an Eastern European tilted combination of raw and cooked vegetables including cauliflower, cucumbers, mushrooms, celery and lots of dill, in a lemony vinaigrette, piled onto a swatch of yogurt at the bottom of the plate ($14). Each bite tells a different story. A Cal-Ital salad of chicories in anchovy dressing ($14) nods to Mitteleuropa with the addition of soft rye croutons, soaked and tender, garnished with shaved watermelon radishes.
A plate of exceptional bread– thick slices of moist, chewy, dense, just out of the oven whole grain with a crunchy crust–served with butter and sea salt comes out with small dishes. Because the bread is so complex and irresistible, it becomes a course in itself. I’ve tasted no better, anywhere and you get just enough so that every crumb is devoured.
Balla’s interpretation of gulyas (goulash), makes this typically everyday stew an exciting dish. Slices of moist brisket with a little chew left in them rest against a huge roasted marrow bone atop a bowl of dark brown jus infused with the flavor of green and red peppers. A roasted quarter onion and marble-sized yellow fleshed potatoes with a melting texture are bathed in this intense, fat free, gravy. The marrow supplies the richness. A second round of bread comes with the main courses, this time the classic Tartine campagne, white, almost sticky, full of yeasty holes, with a crackling crisp crust. What heaven!
Light Austrian red and white wines, always a treat to find on a wine list, go brilliantly with this food.
For dessert ($9) salt roasted pear and pear sorbet with goat buttermilk-soaked rye bread and chestnuts, all molded to look like a half pear, tastes light, refreshing and completely Hungarian.
The open face sandwiches ($6) at self-service lunch (order at the bread kitchen counter and the food is brought to your table) astound with the inventiveness of their composition, especially one topped with velvety cold smoked black cod on a coarse puree of finely red beets on a big swatch of horseradish cream all topped with tiny elderberry capers, on a thin slice of Danish rye, so full of whole grains, it reminds me of pate. This delivers one of the best bites of food ever. Equally sexy is his house cured prosciutto on a quarter inch of house churned butter on a softer whole grain bread with expressive crust. At a recent lunch there were six to choose from, including one thickly layered with green walnut tapenade on a contrastingly mild layer of ricotta-like farmer’s cheese, the whole thing crowned with a mound of juicy rapini.
Finish lunch with bay leaf-infused yogurt scattered with grapefruit segments and shards of crispy meringue ($4). Hot tea drinks ($4)–peach leaf with toasted barley, green pu-erh with buckwheat and cold ones like white coffee dairy kefir shake ($5)–open up a realm of new flavor possibilities. Whether Japanese or Hungarian, Balla dishes are driven by his imagination. Who knows what will come next?
561 Valencia (between 16th and 17th streets) San Francisco 415 487-1600 www.bartartine.com
Open daily for dinner, Saturday and Sunday brunch, sandwich shop Wednesday through Friday at lunch.