The first time I ever went to the Googleplex, I was with a close friend who does something really boring involving the company’s internal security system but who organizes his day around which of the 20-something eateries is serving the most interesting things. This is why we’re buds. I was a broke-ass with a lot of free time, so I took Caltrain to Mountain View and had lunch with him at a Basque-style cafe, followed immediately by a scoot across campus to lunch No. 2 at a New American spot. Tech perks are old hat now, but this was 2009. I felt like Google had achieved what the Soviet Union desperately wanted, a surveillance state of unimaginable superabundance (minus the agitprop about tractors).
Tartine Manufactory makes me feel like that. Not the totalitarian part, but the impression of limitless plenty, more or less catering to the elite (as defined by people who will pay $9 for apple butter toast with ricotta). Taking the concept of an open kitchen to its logical endpoint, Chad Robertson and Liz Prueitt have placed their ovens front and center, like an altar. This is way outside my area of expertise, but I suspect Tartine sunk a lot of money into climate control, because when it’s packed inside and 70 degrees outside and there’s large-scale baking happening, it should probably feel like the Santa Ana winds are blowing in there, but not even the slightest warm puff is detectable.
As with the original Tartine Bakery, window-shopping the pastries can be a joy in its own right. Here, though, you’re handed a menu and a golf pencil by an employee at the top of the stairs (who may also function as a de facto bouncer if the place has hit capacity, which it will) and the tension between “ooh, that sounds good on paper” and “ooh, that looks good in the case” might cause your muscles to tense up. The only disappointment I uncovered in that department was an argula hazelnut danish ($4.25) which, while a technical marvel of airy flakiness, was as stingy as a European airport cafe with what amounted to a pesto filling. Instead, go for the sour cherry crème fraîche scone ($3.50) or the Gateau Basque ($8), a buttery, rustic jewel with wine-soaked apricots.
But Tartine Manufactory serves meals, not just nibbles. At their best, the sandwiches display a kind of culinary liquefaction — but instead of unstable soil turning to jelly in an earthquake, the cheese under the bread soaks through as you bite it. That delicious phenomenon happened with the roasted mushroom and raclette ($13) and again with the eggplant, stracciatella, and harissa — although the eggplant desperately needed salt because even that tangy-spicy harissa can’t do all the work. Yet the ham, cheese, and pickle sandwich ($14) — a Cubano, essentially — walked right up to the border between salty and too-salty. If you should happen to share that along with, say, the prosciutto, roasted pear, and pecorino sandwich ($14), eat the latter first or else you will never taste a thing. It’s not just because the individual ingredients are milder, although they are. In a rare misstep, the bread is too thick, dwarfing the contents — and, in my case at least, the greens were wilted and lifeless.
Little treats abound, from a peanut-almond cookie as light as meringue to a butterscotch pudding; up and down the line, quality and variety go hand-in-hand. For brunch, the Liege waffle ($4.50) and its slightly caramelized, almost thin-candy-shell-like crust is the closest thing to a must; there’s no need for syrup at all. (Now that Suite Foods in Bernal Heights is gone, they’re harder than ever to find in this town.)
Beyond the coffee station, the Manufactory has a wine bar that serves low-proof cocktails and mixes its own sodas, and collectively, the drinks are no slouch. A michelada ($7) — or “smoked pepper chelada,” technically — was less challenging and more juice-like than it sounds. It was almost chelada-ade, and it would quench your thirst if you’d crawled across town on your knees in desperation. The effervescent, water-based, turmeric ginger kefir ($7) might be the electric shade of a sports drink or the color of pee after an overdose of multivitamins, but it was equally refreshing. I wasn’t surprised that it’s made in-house, but I was surprised to learn it’s on tap. Kefir on tap: Put some in a time capsule to be opened in 2516 and let’s confuse the hell out of the future.
This dizzying swirl of artisanal mayhem might almost be secondary to the space itself, which is meant to astound through its combination of industry, aesthetic restraint, and Heath ceramics on built-in shelves. My eye kept wandering to the stacked ovens, one technological stratum below a flying-car factory staffed by sentient robots, and then to the gently swaying Japanese paper lanterns. One must have cost tens of thousands, the others a couple bucks each online. And apart from neat rows of wine bottles in one corner, almost everything is white or wood. While clutter wouldn’t mesh well with a busy atmosphere — this is no diner — it almost feels too clean, like it’s just been staged for a catalog shoot.
I’ve been in about five or six times, on weekdays and weekends, and always at a different time of day — which makes a big difference when the sun is streaming through the factory windows. It’s pretty much always busy — and mostly in a cheerful, orderly way, although waiting in line in order to wait in another line isn’t my jam. Walking past the carb-porn display of Tartine Bread Service ($32 for fresh loaves and ramekins full of fixings) toward the restrooms, I kept wondering if Tartine Manufactory could have been any bigger without fracturing into more of a food hall, or whether, like a freeway that gets widened, increased capacity would only lead to more traffic.
Happily, there is now ice cream, made partly from water buffalo milk sourced from a farm in Petaluma. Tartine Cookies and Cream is a separate counter from the main action, which naturally means yet another line. While admiring the ice cream jerk’s finesse with filling a sample-size cone of soft-serve without overflowing, I learned that the water buffalo have names. At $3.50 for a small cup, $5 for a large, and $5.75 for a cone, it’s a notch pricier than Humphry Slocombe or the Bi-Rite Creamery, which Cookies and Cream slightly resembles. Be it a silky flor di latte or the fruity, complex Askinosie dark chocolate, the texture was richer than either of its competitors, which use Straus as their base.
Consumed with indecision, the people ahead of me asked about toppings for their Concord grape sorbet, which is an even prettier color than the ube ice cream at Mitchell’s.
The staff recommendation was telling: “If you’re gonna Instagram it, sprinkles.”
Tartine Manufactury 595 Alabama St., 415-757-0007 or tartinemanufactory.com Hours: Mon-Fri, 7:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sat-Sun, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.