As culinary power couples go, Nick Balla and Cortney Burns’ partnership seems to be based on a solid foundation, which includes bonding over the slaughter of a goat. But clearly there is dynamism, and almost simultaneously with the announcement of their imminent departure from Bar Tartine (as of Dec. 31) they’ve opened Motze, four blocks away. This is a temporary space, doomed to redevelopment in 18 months’ time. So get at it.
Named for an anti-Confucian philosopher from the fifth century BCE who argued against blind obedience to ritual, Motze has taken over the space on Valencia Street that was once Herbivore. It developed out of the “Friends and Family menu” and Monday night pop-ups at Bar Tartine — which was going to become Crescent, although that will now be located elsewhere. And the $58 Motze menu is a great deal (especially as the gratuity is already folded in). It consists of seven small courses, and you’ll still wind up sharing if you’re in a party of two who each orders one, as things are plated that way. You’re free to order a la carte, but don’t.
The vibe is global, with a strong connection to Japan. Although it’s highly probable that no two menus will be much alike, I suspect that narezushi will show up a lot, night after night. A method of preserving fish through fermented rice, it fell out of practice in 19th-century Japan, but, as with everything in the world of fermentation, anachronism is no impediment to resuscitation.
Beyond that, Motze is a delight, never veering into weird for weird’s sake or intimidating anybody with long lists of obscure ingredients. As a proving ground for a proven duo, it’s basically a place for them to have fun. All that is solid will soon melt into air by mid-2018, so let these cold noodles hit your tongue before then, because they are mighty fine.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, because the noodles were among the second of the two trios, which is a harmonious way to present everything. In the first, was a bowl of pickled beans and radishes, citrus-y sour from their yuzu brine, that were quite lovely and restrained — the opposite of, say, a mediocre nopal salad where the texture suffers and everything starts to take on the character of everything else. A matsutake soup was deliciously earthy, it’s forest-floor miso broth somehow reminiscent of a minestrone made with Japanese ingredients. It’s rare for me to enjoy reconstituted sun-dried tomato, but it’s marvelous in this context. A dish of sprouts and withered kale in tahini was even better.
Although it could have benefited from a touch of salt, the chicken nake rice porridge drew equally from a range of sources. It’s basically a soupier bibimbap, but with schmaltz right out of the Mission Chinese playbook, and meaty bits that could have been sourced from a Tú Lan imperial roll. Tremendous. And a pork belly dish also had minor salt distribution issues: The pork itself lacked much pizzazz but the minor players were plenty salty — as well as gritty, earthy, and rustic. There’s funk here, but also mercy.
Lunch is also lovely — and, if this isn’t altogether obvious, entirely a la carte. Pray that you might get the gem lettuce salad with trout, which if it was slightly overdressed for my taste, came speckled with a fearless quantity of sesame seeds (both black and white). And the soup with squash, kale, and a chili egg (as well as peanuts, parsley, bok choi, and plenty of rice) was crammed so full of vegetables that the mushroom broth was almost entirely soaked up. More is more in here, but the one victim was the chili in the chili egg, which got lost.
Drinks are the weak link. I grumbled three years ago about the ubiquity of $9 cocktails, a complaint that seems as amusingly quaint as fear of a hypothetical President Mitt Romney now that cocktails are almost always $12 or more. But at least they’re boozy — usually. Now we have low-ABV cocktails going for the same price, and to be honest, soju and vermouth’s range as a base spirit is limited.
Motze’s $12 smoked buckwheat and persimmon cocktail was decent, if unexciting. But the lemon balm and toasted rice cocktail, which was the exact same unappealing color, was not. I’m not going to mince words with this one: It was probably the worst, least-balanced cocktail I have ever tasted. As my dinner date put it, it had a high note, a low note, and a gaping void in the middle where the other 70 percent should have been. With the caveat that I realize low-ABV snoozers are nobody’s preferred outcome and most restaurateurs would get a full liquor license if they could, I think I’m done with soju forever. And in fairness, Motze has one sake, eight wines, and five beers as well, so nobody’s marooned on soju island. But a server-recommended glass of Palmina Subida, an orange wine that’s probably similar to what wine was like a thousand years ago, tasted less like the kombucha it was described as and more like Chardonnay that had begun to turn. It didn’t have the courage to go all the way in the direction it wanted to go.
So focus on the food, but keep in mind that Motze is an experimental space, and an evanescent one. For every “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” you might get a “Lady Godiva’s Operation” in there, too. And $58 for seven courses is a good deal in 2016 S.F. The best things in life may or may not be free, but hey, sometimes you don’t even have to leave a tip.
Motze, 983 Valencia St. 415-484-1206 or motze.xyz