The Raw and the Cooked

Curious George, of Aqua and Fifth Floor, opens his quirky new jewel box

For sentimental reasons, I knew just where I wanted to take my 11-year-old godson, Chester, for dinner a couple of months ago, when he was visiting the Bay Area from the East Coast: George Morrone's new restaurant, Tartare. Two years ago, when Chester lived in Berkeley and I was in Los Angeles, I had come up for a few days and taken him to Redwood Park, the chef's previous place. It was a warren of huge, high-ceilinged rooms in the base of the Transamerica Pyramid, where we'd enjoyed an extraordinary prix fixetasting menu. Near the end of the lavish and delicious meal, Morrone came out from the kitchen to tour the dining room. He's a dark, intense man, with the compact build of a boxer or wrestler, who obviously enjoys give-and-take with his customers. He asked Chester how old he was, and said that the boy was an even better eater than his daughter, who was around the same age; he also invited Chester into the kitchen to make his own banana split for dessert.

Chester told Morrone that he collected signed menus from his favorite restaurants: "I knew I wanted one from you," he said, charming him, "from the first course." When he returned to the table with his suitably baroque ice cream confection, he had a menu inscribed "To Chester -- I think someday you will have my job." "Should I tell him I'd rather have yours?" Chester asked me wickedly. "Being a chef is too much work!"

It can also be heartbreaking: The multimillion-dollar Redwood Park closed within the year. Morrone, famed as the only local chef to garner four-star reviews for his efforts at Aqua and the Fifth Floor, took his time before opening another place. But S.F. foodies didn't adopt a wait-and-see strategy; the just-opened, unreviewed spot was fully booked for the Saturday night I wanted, a week hence.

Class Act: Tartare's simple luxury is the 
antithesis of Redwood Park's grandness, 
though its food is anything but simple.
Anthony Pidgeon
Class Act: Tartare's simple luxury is the antithesis of Redwood Park's grandness, though its food is anything but simple.

Details

Elderflower aperitif $9

Ostrich tartare $15

Tuna tartare $16

Trio of tomato soups $11

Tuna foie gras "melt" $25

Creamed corn $7

Pistachio soufflé $9

434-3100

Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: valet at night $10, otherwise difficult

Muni: 1, 15, 41

Noise level: moderate

550 Washington (at Montgomery)

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We were wait-listed, so I tried to book us at another top-of-the-line eatery. Only the brand-new Frisson could take us at a reasonable hour; Michael Mina and Fifth Floor offered 10 or 10:30 p.m. reservations; and Gary Danko was fully booked. "Hey," I thought, "things must be looking up if there are so many people not only willing but eager to spend hundreds of dollars on dinner." I felt a flash of pride in San Francisco.

And a flash of pleasure when we got a call saying we had a table at Tartare. The pleasure continued when we walked into the beautiful little restaurant, located, I thought somewhat ironically, across the street from the Transamerica Pyramid. Cozy and snug, with an arched, woven-wood lattice ceiling, the single room seemed the antithesis of the very grand Redwood Park. Not that it's any less designed: Not an inch or an aspect of the place, from the smoked-wood paneling to the ostrich-skin hanging back-cushions along the banquettes, has been ignored. But the overall effect is simple luxury, partly because of the warm, all-encompassing lighting.

We were led to a table for two along the banquette and began perusing the deceptively short menu. I say "deceptively" because, although there were only 18 dishes with brief descriptions, the imaginary tastings they set off in my brain -- the part that decides what I'll be eating -- were complex. The menu has four categories: "raw and rare," comprising five tartares; "naked and natural," including two carpaccios, oysters, and a salad; "simply soup," with four offerings; and "old and new," five entrees. Classic hand-cut beef tartare -- well, the mind thinks it knows what that will be, but even if you've had numerous tartares, and I have, I've never had one with habanero-infused sesame oil, plums, and mint before. King salmon tartare with house-ground banana curry? Carpaccio of opakapaka with orange oil and toasted cumin? And the "simply soups" weren't simple at all: How about a garlic parsley bisque with black mussel flan?

While crunching an exotic and refreshing amuse-bouche of tiny vegetables (onions, carrots, and mushrooms) pickled in what the menu called Indonesian spices, we decided on three courses, perhaps unconsciously trying to duplicate something of the elaborate tasting menu we'd shared before at Redwood Park: We started by splitting a soup, then moved on to two tartares, followed by Morrone's signature tuna foie gras "melt" for Chester and a poached poussin in almond milk with sour lime for me.

The soup was an ethereal yet deep-flavored cream of corn, with a dusting of smoky paprika and a knot of boned pork sparerib meat, infused with ginger, in its center. The cream of corn was genius on its own, and didn't quite seem to need the chewy meat, even as an interesting textural contrast.

The tuna tartare was a fresh take on a dish that has become a cliché -- heated with peppers, cooled with mint, and sweetened with diced plums. Chester adored it, as he did the ostrich tartare, wittily served in what I thought was an exceptionally thick-walled oval soup bowl, which turned out to be an actual ostrich egg shell. The beefy meat was well served by its chunky Roquefort vinaigrette and cracked pink peppercorns: a crunchy and creamy dish.

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