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Feels Like Home to Me 

More than a tasty pastry, the Bar Tartine is urbane, witty, and fits in nicely

Wednesday, Sep 13 2006
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Sometimes a place opens and from day one it's a hit; it fits into the landscape as if it had always been there. Just such a success was and is the iconic San Francisco bakery-cafe Tartine, beloved for its chocolate-lined coconut cream tarts and foie gras and fig sandwiches, as well as its extraordinary breads. You can't consider yourself a serious San Francisco eater if you haven't stood in line at Tartine (or bemoaned the lack of fresh bread on Monday and Tuesday). Tartine's spinoff eaterie, Bar Tartine, which opened last November, enjoyed similar acclaim, landing on lots of top-10 lists, despite churning through three chefs in less than eight months. (As Saki wrote: "She was a good cook, as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went.")

Bar Tartine's stylish, dark-wooded setting, on a block of Valencia that's alternately scuzzy and sleek, is just right: a long banquette, under a mirror strip, runs down one wall, opposite a bar wide enough for dining that features tall stools and a good view into the adjacent open kitchen. It feels like Paris, New York, San Francisco: urbane, lively, elevated from the generic by such witty touches as a massive antler chandelier and two equally impressive art-deco sconces flanking the big mirror behind the bar.

The room feels like a classic bistro. But the menu, at first glance, seems a trifle imbalanced: about a dozen starters, four salads, and four main courses (at two recent meals, fish, lamb stew, quail, and corn risotto). (There's also a separate page featuring about a dozen cheeses.) I overheard the paucity of entrees inducing panic at a nearby table, on the order of "Where's the steak? Where's the chicken?," but I found it to be an exciting list, inviting you to graze a bit, to match a dish to a glass of wine (18 available by the glass, in addition to the interesting list of bottles), to snack and nibble with tacit approval.

But we were hungrier than that, and ordered conventionally, that first dinner, starting with bruschetta, the sturdy bread grilled and topped with suave avocado, crisp shaved radish, and pickled sardines, and big squash blossoms stuffed with a mixture of Bellwether sheep's ricotta and fragrant borage, breaded and fried, the warm, creamy stuffing a bit ill-served by the rather thick breading that obscured the delicate squash. The two of us conscientiously shared the five gougeres that came fresh and hot, enfolded in a linen napkin: tiny peppery spheres of cream-puff pastry flavored with Gruyère and thyme.

We went on to a thick chunk of California white bass, whose pan-searing created a lovely golden crust (but I would have preferred a rarer center), set in a pool of roasted yellow tomato sauce, with summer "succotash" that disappointed me: I liked the combination of small brown beans, green beans, wax beans, and tiny onions, but summer succotash means corn to me, and there were only a sprinkling of corn kernels. Still, I liked the fish much more than the North African stew of grass-fed lamb with prunes and almonds, which sounded exciting, and looked exciting in its glazed pot, and smelled excitingly of cumin, but tasted way, way overcooked: The lamb was so soft that at first I thought it was eggplant. The meat collapsed long before the touch of a fork.

The desserts we ordered, from a summery list featuring berries and stone fruit in many guises, also promised more than they delivered: I thought the malted crème brulee needed to be maltier and creamier, and its garnish of sliced Mariposa plums and candied corn didn't really make sense in my mouth. The muscat-poached yellow nectarine, on a slice of almond sponge cake, with an oval of the palest green basil ice cream, garnished with plump blackberries, looked beautiful (in fact, I spied it the next day gracing the cover of a local magazine), but I thought the pool of syrupy broth insufficiently fragrant, and made the sponge cake soggy. The basil ice cream was, however, extraordinarily good.

On the whole, it wasn't a genius meal. I was surprised, however, when my companion pointed this out. I had been sufficiently beguiled by the setting, the superb service, the delicious wine and bread and butter, the freshness and beauty of the produce and the promise of the high-summer menu, to overlook any stumbles in the kitchen. I'd had a very good time.

So I returned with three friends and high hopes. This time we ordered more eccentrically, and happily Bar Tartine snapped into brilliant focus. We started by sharing the richest, fattiest dishes possible: the charcuterie plate, featuring the smoothest chicken-liver pâté, chilly on the tongue like ice cream, a heap of divine rillettes, shreds of pork mixed with creamy pork fat (never had better), plated with sharply dressed greens, sliced cornichons, and a little heap of chunky seeded mustard; and two roasted marrow bones, their soft insides waiting to be scooped onto grilled bread brushed with persillade, sided with another heap of well-dressed arugula. We alternated gobbets of marrow and pig fat with bites of long, thin crisp French breakfast radishes, austerely dressed with sea salt or decadently dragged through butter mixed with Parmigiano-Reggiano. And we couldn't resist the evanescent gougeres, wishing only that there were more of them, but somehow reluctant to order a second plate of five puffs of air at $4, charged more for skill than substance.

The two fat roasted quail with an excellent bread stuffing flavored with shallots and a bit of pâté, sauced with Riesling, with sliced nectarines atop a simple salad of curly frisee, were superb. The charred sweet corn risotto was a trifle bland despite its Parmesan and shreds of Greek basil — what I think of as an elegant nursery supper. We were hungry for cheese, and couldn't narrow our choices down to only eight of the dozen on offer (at $6 each, $15 for three, $23 for five, $36 for eight), so we ended up with nine generous portions elegantly displayed on two massive slabs of wood, carefully garnished with blackberries, saucers of honeycomb, and little heaps of Marcona almonds. We had a cheese orgy: You could compare the French goat cheese, Le Chevrot, with the Spanish, Can Pujol Nevat, or alternate slivers of the raw cow's milk Couserans, again French, with the Spanish raw sheep's milk cheese, La Serena. We smeared Fior de Langa, a creamy combination of cow, goat, and sheep's milk from Italy, on bits of Tartine's excellent walnut bread, or chunks of its peasant loaf. I loved the Windsor Blue cow's milk cheese from New Zealand. I loved the Abbaye de Belloc, a raw sheep's milk cheese from the Pyrenees. I loved the crunchy sticky honeycomb. This was one of the best cheese plates I'd ever had. And despite the best efforts of the four of us, there was still plenty to take home.

We toyed with two of the simpler desserts on offer: a scoop of toasted almond ice cream, served by request on a slab of almond sponge cake (and dressed up with blackberries and nectarines), and an affogato: a shot of Blue Bottle espresso poured over Tahitian vanilla ice cream.

That divine charcuterie plate, those perfect cheeses: I wanted more of them. "Why aren't you open for lunch?" I asked, and the reply was that they would be. I hope soon.

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Meredith Brody

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