Off the Map

Carta
1772 Market (at McCoppin), 863-3516. Open for lunch Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Open for dinner Tuesdays through Sundays from 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday brunch is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Mondays. Parking is difficult. Muni via the F Market, 6 Parnassus, 7 Haight, 26 Valencia, and 71 Noriega. Reservations for weekends advised. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible.

During World War II, when England was suffering the Nazi blitzkrieg, American publisher Abner Doubleday lent W. Somerset Maugham his country house for the duration. "But I have to warn you," said Doubleday. "There are only two servants, and they're ignorant country people from South Carolina. They know nothing about cooking the foods you're accustomed to."

"Never mind that," Maugham answered. "Come visit in a week, I'll have dinner for you."

A week passed, and when Doubleday arrived, the house was sparklingly clean. The formerly ill-dressed servants were in livery. At dinner, they impeccably served out a veritable feast, with all manner of exquisite delicacies. Doubleday expressed amazement that the poor pair had been so quickly transformed into Continental chefs.

"It was simple, my dear Doubleday," said Maugham. "The only problem was -- eating the same thing every day for a fucking week!"

Chet told this story about a month ago, as we nibbled olives and dipped our bread in olive oil at Carta, a midsize, cheerful room that combines a sense of informality with the luxury of real damask napkins. Chet's a "regular" diner, and by coincidence he recognized the current nominee for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg dining a few tables away. On that midweek night, however, there was otherwise a surprising amount of room. "Given the quality, this place should be packed every evening," Chet said.

"Carta" means both "menu" and "map," and the restaurant's aim is to fulfill both definitions. Instead of serving a single cuisine, or (in the currently fashionable style) covering the waterfront, the map-menu concentrates on one ethnicity per month. Often, it's a locally underrepresented area: August, for instance, was Peru, and September was Gascony, the area of southwestern France whose residents are famed for their boastfulness, their longevity, and their diet of duck, goose, goose fat, fatted goose liver (foie gras), black truffles, and red wine. The current menu features foods of the Middle East's "Fertile Crescent," which is actually well-represented locally, although to get an overall picture you'd have to travel throughout the city -- to Maykadeh, Ya Ya, and Just Like Home, among others, each offering tastes from segments of the crescent.

The region is decided, a waitress explained, at a meeting of the staff. The chef plunges into research (mainly through cookbooks, given the impossibility of cooking and eating out simultaneously). Later, he tries dishes out on the staff and, during the last week of the old menu, presents a final audition of the menu candidates. Again everyone on staff gets to vote. If a chosen dish fails to meet expectations, the menu can change midmonth. The typical menu includes a host of "small plates," about four "large plates," and several representative desserts.

Each menu highlights several recommended wines (available by glass or bottle) chosen to mirror the cuisine; unfortunately, these regional wines -- cheap in their home locales, and worth it -- can be pricey at the restaurant. The full wine list on the back of the menu offers bottles at all prices, at markups of about 250 percent over retail, with ample selections available by the glass (most about $6).

Carta's "regulars" show up often, knowing that they won't have to eat the same food every month for a fucking year. While many crowd in during the first weekend of a new menu, Chet advised us that the cooking is typically best in the second and third weeks.

At the Gascon dinners last month, the "small plate" standouts were a duck foie gras salad ($10) and a chanterelle and leek tart ($7). The former had exquisite morsels of force-fed duck liver sprinkled with pistachios and walnuts with halved grapes -- a delectable combination albeit with rather too much salad and too little foie gras, the six small bites scarcely constituting a Gascon's portion. The thin-crusted tart's creamy, sumptuous filling highlighted the wild mushroom flavor. Another hit was a gratin of pumpkin, tomatoes, zucchini, and Cantal cheese, spiked with fresh thyme ($7). "Every bite has a different taste," marveled TJ. But the salmon rillettes ($7) were an unexciting fish pate, the duck breast (on another vast heap of rabbit food) was slightly overcooked (pink-brown) for my taste, while dreadfully undercooked sorrel fritters ($7) tasted only of wet dough.

Our main course cassoulet ($17) had firm white beans in a delightfully complex sauce with a smoky undertone, a few shreds of pork, and a topping of sausage slices coated with bread crumbs and thyme. The meat content was spare compared to the array of poultry, lamb, pork, ham, and sausage you might get in a genuine Gascon bistro, where you'd find the leftover-absorbing bean casserole perpetually simmering on the back of the stove. Since Carta doesn't have perpetual Gascon leftovers, their version was more an Abstract of Cassoulet, with a genuine rich taste despite a narrower range of ingredients. In hindsight it seems an emblematic dish: Carta apparently doesn't re-create ethnicity in detail, given the monthly shift in cuisine, but can do a fine job in recapturing overall flavors or, sometimes, fancying them up. We finished with good espresso, and excellent desserts ($5 each), the best being a classic velvety, boozy prune and armagnac ice cream.

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