The New Bar Tartine

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About a year ago, I was writing a story for The Bold Italic about Bar Tartine. I interviewed the then-brand-new chef, Nicolaus (Nick) Balla, about the menu he was creating, and talked with Chad Robertson, Tartine’s proprietor/co-owner (with wife Elisabeth Prueitt), about the overall changes in the restaurant’s appearance, like the wall that was knocked out to make room for the sandwich shop that was coming soon, back then.

But as team Tartine made the necessary moves to transfer attention from dinner to a new daytime focus – and the sandwich shop’s opening date kept moving back – my story went on hold. The team installed a 15,000-pound oven, which meant relaying a steel structure under the sandwich shop, while they continued to build an impressive larder program and develop a fairly young menu in the restaurant.

They’re so busy that it almost seems impossible to describe all that they’re up to. I think it’s partly that they like to keep things hushed and surprise us. Or maybe they don’t know exactly what’s next themselves. They’re always starting relationships with new purveyors, or taking trips across the world, like to Noma in Copenhagen, and finding new sources of inspiration and new elements to bring to the table. The people of Bar Tartine are less concerned with deadlines than with innovation, but I’ve found that it’s worth the wait. If only all rumors turned out to be this delicious.

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Bar Tartine jumped headfirst into a new menu last September (after a few months of experimental toe-dipping), officially making the shift from California/Mediterranean to Eastern/Northern European. “It’s not because I don’t like [Cal/Med], but because in this town, it’s done so well already. If I can add something to the dining experience that doesn’t already exist, I’d much rather do that,” Chad told me.

Kapustnica (sauerkraut soup) may seem like a stretch for Nick, who made a name for himself as the opening chef at Japanese fixtures O Izakaya and Nombe, but it’s in his blood. He was born in Budapest and lived there until he was 15. Bread is a necessary staple in Hungarian cuisine. No upscale SF chef knows Hungarian like Nick. No one knows bread like Chad. Nick said that even before meeting Chad, he had Tartine’s bread in mind to pair with a Hungarian menu. But until now, it seemed unfathomable.

Before my first sit-down with Nick’s new menu last fall, I didn’t know much about Hungarian cuisine beyond chicken paprika and the fact that it’s heavy on the cabbage. Seeing as cabbage has never made me scrape my plate, my expectations weren’t too high — that is, until Nick arranged a pickle selection for me one afternoon. The red cabbage sauerkraut and shredded cabbage with anchovy-chile paste made me ask for seconds.

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In my life, curing my own bacon would indicate higher enlightenment. For Bar Tartine, it’s just another example of Nick’s dedication to an artisanal system of curing, aging, pickling, and fermenting every possible element of the menu in-house. Take a look in the larder – it’s overwhelming. The restaurant makes too many powders, pastes, and preserves to list, but some examples from recent daily-changing menus are the apricot mustard for the tartare, the orange spice for the chocolate dobos torte that I still dream about, and the smoked onion powder in the goat cheese.

Nick offers dishes based on seasonal ingredients. A cold, sour fruit soup stays put (it could be meggyleves, a chilled cherry soup; or right now, the chilled apricot soup with noyaux and sour cream), and in the cooler months there’s gulyás – smoked brisket, onions, potatoes, and carrots in a hearty broth,  the least boring beef stew there is. Lángos – a fried potato bread, topped with garlic, onion, and sour cream – is like pizza minus (but not missing) red sauce and cheese. It’s all-season-friendly, super popular, and offers an easy transition into Hungarian cuisine, in contrast to the more prickly names and descriptions on the menu. Bar Tartine has also introduced craft beer from the local Linden Street Brewery to pair with this rustic country fare. Some beer that has been fermented with the same lineage of yeast as the starter for Chad’s bread will be rotated through the menu based on seasonality. Look for that deeper connection or just indulge in the seamless pairing. 

Bar Tartine’s general manager, Vinny Eng, explained that the restaurant was looking to simplify sharing Chad’s bread and Nick’s new flavors; for guests to be able to just walk in and eat without reservations. Eng said, “You don’t have to separate yourself from your daily life to experience really great cooking. Everyone here has high expectations for the technical caliber behind every choice that’s made, and every ingredient is sourced impeccably, but we also want people to walk into this space and feel it’s lived in and comfortable.”

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Aspects of the sandwich shop are getting phased in, starting with a concise menu of smørrebrød (Danish-inspired, open-face sandwiches on sprouted rye), a favorite from the brunch menu. Some ideas getting tossed around for the seven or so smørrebrød combos are blue cheese, bacon, egg, and avocado; chicken liver pate, apricot, parsley; and smoked sturgeon with potato and dill sauce, which reminds me of something you’d find on the dinner menu. Smørrebrød are $6 each, or 3 for $15 – the same as the brunch menu price.

A selection of about three traditional sandwiches will be offered in August, but the one that speaks to me most is the pressed pork melt, filled with barbecued pig, cured ham, cheese, garlic mayo, and pickles. Lángos is now available to go; other small plates like the smoked chicken and cabbage stew with liver sausage are paired with a beer selection for $4 more. In addition to the craft beers, red, white, and sparkling wines are available with the lunch menu. There’s Four Barrel coffee and bakery love in the form of kefir pound cake with bee pollen and honey, for example.

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Anthony Strong is Tartine’s next-door neighbor during his work hours as Locanda’s head chef, and is a Tartine enthusiast. “All of us here are really excited about the sandwich shop. With Tartine’s bread, it'll definitely deliver,” he said. “I think it'll be the perfect addition to the daytime vibe on Valencia Street.”

What is the daytime vibe on Valencia? Kind of like a gentle hangover? Up until now, not considering brunch, Bar Tartine seemed asleep during the day, and then became a bustling dinner party every night. Daytime at Tartine Bakery was the opposite, with that long line reminiscent of amusement parks during the day, quieting down only at night. So what’s this going to look like now?

Since there’s now an oven in the sandwich shop in addition to Tartine Bakery’s oven, Chad won’t have to wait for the bakery oven to free up mid-afternoon to start rolling out loaves. He’ll be baking bread all day – no more waiting until 5 p.m. for a loaf. We could hope this means a shorter line at the bakery, but let’s be real – it’s just greater access to Tartine bread. The line is just going to be in two different places.

August won’t see loaves for sale straight from the sandwich shop – the bread baked in the sandwich shop is strictly for sandwiches and the restaurant. But come fall, loaves will be available everywhere, fingers crossed. The team is in no hurry to launch into selling loaves before they’ve worked out any other possible kinks with the sandwich shop operation. They should bottle their patience and sell it in jars, like pickles.

To accommodate the opening of the sandwich shop, weekend brunch is changing. The restaurant will no longer be taking reservations for brunch – everyone calm down – and the style of brunch will be more casual, with no formal table service. Will it stay like that? For how long? I’ve learned not to ask those questions here. And really, they aren’t important. What is important is to know that Tartine proceeds with caution, and to trust that Tartine is making decisions that spur quality eating. Deep breaths. We’re in good hands. 

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Tartine’s sandwich shop is open Wednesday through Sunday – walk in between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Dinner at Bar Tartine begins at 6 p.m. every day.

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Published on August 13, 2012, 2012

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