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In the old game of "If you were stranded on a desert island, what three food items would you take with you?" I always say the same thing: really, really (really) good sourdough or German brown bread, a selection of heirloom tomatoes (emphasis on green zebras and orange Mr. Stripeys), and some fantastic variety of goat cheese, like Redwood Hill Farm's bucheret. That's it. That's all I'd need. Oh, and maybe some Vietnamese iced coffee made in one of those personal-size drip machines ... and perhaps those irresistible Choco Leibniz cookies -- dark chocolate, of course. But that's definitely it. OK, except maybe choucroute the way my friend Gisele in Strasbourg makes it. And a croque monsieur, that classic French grilled-ham-and-cheese sandwich, but only if it's from Tartine Bakery(600 Guerrero, 487-2605).
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
(Now before you get all huffy and start sending me know-it-all e-mail, I'm well aware that this game is usually played by naming your top five all-time favorite albums, and yes, obviously, if I was really stranded on a desert island and could only have five items of sustenance, I'd probably take along something practical like, um, a lifetime supply of fresh water.)
But I digress. The point is, Tartine, the French bakery opened last summer by Liz Prueitt and Chad Robertson, who previously ran Woodfire Baking in Point Reyes and Mill Valley, makes so many things that might go on my desert (and dessert) island Top Five -- a nearly perfect croissant, chocolate bread pudding to make you weep, cake aux olives (a slice of savory "cake" made with olives, Gruyère, vermouth, and white wine), and a country French bread already legendary in some circles -- that it was downright painful to whittle the selection to the croque monsieur.
But oh là là, the croque monsieur. Tartine takes the pedestrian Parisian snack -- its literal translation is "crunch, sir" -- and elevates it to a whole new level. The place usually offers three varieties daily (inventive adaptations that currently involve asparagus and caramelized onions, and roasted black and white trumpet mushrooms), but the traditional one, to my way of thinking, is the pièce de résistance.
In this version, luscious, creamy fromage blanc and chewy Gruyère are mated with Niman Ranch applewood-smoked ham atop a thick slice of Tartine's French bread, then crowned with béchamel sauce, a hint of nutmeg, and black pepper, and oven-toasted to a bubbly, crispy perfection.
"When it comes out of the oven, it's almost like pudding inside, and when you put béchamel on top -- it's amazing," says Prueitt, who credits Robertson's bread and their brick ovens as the key ingredients. "A lot of what we do is a texture thing. In this country, we don't like baking things until they're really dark. But here, we do. It's part of our European training. We want to see nice caramelized cheese on top. We want the outside to be crusty, and the inside soft and puddingy."
Prueitt adds that while chefs have taken a liberal hand to recent interpretations of this French staple, Tartine's recipe has stayed pretty true to its roots, though "we add finely chopped onions sweated in melted butter to our béchamel, which actually is a soubise."
(After this description, all I can do is nod, drool, and mutter, "Mmmm ... sweaty onions," in a Homer-like trance.)
Later, after I snap out of it, I remember that I do have one tiny quibble with the presentation of Tartine's crunchy sir, an addition that would vault it to the Top Three of my Top Five. Throw a tart little cornichon on the side of my plate and I could easily die happy -- and thirsty -- on that desert island.