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It's All Good 

Our critic can't stay away from the buttery pastries and cheesy savories at Tartine

Wednesday, Dec 17 2003
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Certain words don't show up in my writing because they set my teeth on edge: "veggies," for instance, or "winners," as in "Other winners were the stuffed artichokes and the baked clams casino." (A few years ago, much sport was made of a restaurant critic who used the word "nuggets" in virtually all of his pieces, applied to sweetbreads, or ham, or pineapple. I thought the word itself was OK, though probably a trifle overused by him, but I wondered why nobody minded that, once or twice in every article, "Other winners" showed up, regular as clockwork.)

I don't think I've ever used the word "addictive," either -- as in "The chocolate mud pie was addictive" -- because I find the term facile, and rather insensitive in the face of real addictions. (I remember snorting with derision when I read a tobacco industry spokesperson commenting cheerily, "Most of our customers tolerate price increases well," as the cost of a pack of cigarettes crept up toward $5. "Yes," I wanted to scream at him, "BECAUSE YOUR CUSTOMERS ARE ADDICTS!")

But then I began to notice my feelings about one particular local purveyor and its products. Despite certain discomforts and difficulties, my visits were increasing in frequency, and my expenditures there were increasing, too. I would buy much more than I could consume in one sitting -- hoarding, really -- even though I knew I was using more than I should. In between visits, I thought about those products longingly. Once I showed up and found the place closed, and felt the pangs of withdrawal. When it was open and I stood in line, waiting my turn to make a buy, I felt a combination of anxiety and excitement, plus a sense of impatience with the people ahead of me if they took too long while ordering. "Hey," I wanted to snarl, "it's all good."

Enough with the metaphors: The products to which I am, if not addicted, certainly habituated, are the exquisite baked goods sold at Tartine Bakery on Guerrero. In the year and a half that it's been open, I have eaten there (and on my own nickel) more often than at any other restaurant, circling the spot in ever-wider swaths, searching for the elusive parking place that will allow me to linger at one of its tables over a fat chunk of quiche or a delicious hot pressed sandwich oozing goat cheese or fontina before toting home a big white box filled with croissants, morning buns, and pain au chocolat. And not just run-of-the-mill excellent croissants, morning buns, and pain au chocolat, either, but transcendent ones. The enormous, almost too-airy croissants could be stuffed with gooey, fragrant frangipane, an almond cream scented with kirsch; the morning buns exude a seductive whiff of orange; and the chocolat tucked inside the pain is dark, winy Scharffen Berger.

But I love Tartine as much or more for its savories -- baked goods and sandwiches built on sturdy bread -- as for its sweets. I'd never tasted the bread that made the reputation of baker Chad Robertson (who first baked with wood-fired ovens at his Bay Breads in Point Reyes Station, and then moved to Mill Valley) before he opened Tartine. The bakery's ovens are gas-fired, but fans say his chewy, crusty loaves are as good as ever. I look at the list of hot pressed sandwiches, eight different ones (not all available every day), and realize I've tried almost every one of them. My favorites are the soppressata, the porky Italian sausage combined with Strauss Dairy's jack cheese and tangy pickled red onion on country bread, and the coppa, thin slices of dry-cured ham stacked with meaty roasted trumpet mushrooms and creamy Italian fontina. Both come with a few leaves of salad in a lemon-and-shallot vinaigrette.

To be honest, my real favorite is the decadent, haunting foie gras and fig jam sandwich, which costs about twice what the others do. I treated us to one when Cathy and I were at Tartine for a lush ladies' lunch while she was still able to enjoy the experience relatively unencumbered: She was in the third trimester at the time. In fact, there were a number of pregnant women in the house that day; I counted five, including one who got up from the communal table just as we came in, allowing us to snag a pair of seats.

The warm, cozy place, with glass counters that take up most of two walls (where you line up, order, pay, and tote your food yourself), has only half a dozen small cafe tables inside, most of which seat two, and that communal table, which can seat eight. When the weather permits, Tartine adds three sidewalk tables. In my experience, people who snag tables inside or out are loath to give them up, whiling time away quite happily with a croissant and a cup of coffee, as many writing as reading. (When I commented on the number of expectant women to the attractive girl sitting next to me, scribbling away on a yellow pad, it turned out that she, too, was pregnant -- though not so you'd know -- and working on a novel.)

Cathy had an explanation: "We like to pamper ourselves." And what better way than with the best baked goods in the city, made with organic flour, sugar, local eggs, Niman Ranch meat, and, as often as possible, organic produce? This stuff is good for you, and it tastes good. In addition to the rich sandwich of creamy liver pâté and fruity jam (I decided I'd prefer its delicate flavors on the less assertive country bread, rather than the chunky, salty walnut bread it comes on), we shared one of Tartine's trademark croque monsieurs, not the classic grilled sandwich of ham, cheese, and béchamel between two slices of bread, but massive open-faced ones, with ham, Gruyère, and other good things (caramelized onions, perhaps, or sliced red and yellow tomatoes fresh from the farmers' market, or mushrooms) layered atop a thick slice of béchamel-slicked bread and sprinkled with fresh thyme. Most days the place also presents a tray of vegetarian versions made with mushrooms and cheese, or leeks. Alongside every croque come a few vinegary pickled green beans, for crunch and contrast.

If I'm on my own, I order a savory (a sandwich, a croque, or a slice of towering quiche, at least 4 inches tall, the eggy custard encasing chunks of ham or shreds of smoked salmon or other tasty morsels, in a daily-changing variety) and a sweet (an éclair stuffed with heady vanilla-bean custard and glazed with dark chocolate; a bowl of moist bread pudding jeweled with fresh seasonal fruit, raspberries, or tart cranberries; or my favorite, a banana cream tart that gilds the lily with a chocolate-coated flaky tart shell and caramel as well as the expected bananas, custard, and whipped cream). And I ask for a couple of to-go boxes at the same time, because I know I'll be taking half of each course home. (Well, if it's the éclair, it'll be just a sweet memory. Unless I've bought a second one for the road.)

Finally, I order treats -- pastries created by Robertson's wife and partner, Elizabeth Prueitt -- to bring back to the house. Next day, I'll breakfast on a hefty gougère, a puff pastry dome filled with Gruyère and herbs, or a thick slice of the cake aux olives, a witty loaf that looks like a fruitcake but is made with ham and olives instead of candied fruits and enlivened with white wine and vermouth in lieu of brandy.

Two flaws with my Xanadu: I wanted an enlivening glass of white wine myself, with my quiche or croque on my first visits chez Tartine, but all the place offers is coffee, fresh-squeezed juices, and bottled fizzy lemonade. And it was a gloomy Monday when I scored an excellent parking place only to find the bakery dark and shuttered.

But a couple of weeks ago my father and I walked past after a Monday lunch in the neighborhood and Tartine's door was wide open. "Are you open on Mondays now?" The answer was yes. It turns out that I'm not the only one drugged by the baked goods; neighbors, walking by and seeing the bakers hard at work, would rap on the windows and beg to be allowed in to buy just a few things. Monday's hours are shorter (maddeningly, my father and I got there just as the shop shut at 2), and there are no tarts, cakes, or loaves of bread available, but if ever there was a "by popular demand," this is it.

The very next Monday found me there, in possession of a table all to myself, with a ham-and-tomato croque monsieur and a bowl of bread pudding. I had plenty to read, but I cast an idle glance at the printed list of baked goods ("choice of breakfast pastry, cakes, and tarts will vary according to season, availability of produce, and the whims of the pastry chefs"), just in case there was a new creation I didn't know about.

I caught my breath. There was a list of wines! Two dozen! By the glass! (Or bottle, but that way madness lies. I was by myself, after all.) "How long have you been serving wine?" I asked, with a catch in my voice. "A few months," I was told.

It's not fair. I'd been planning to cut back. I swear.

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Meredith Brody

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