|We write about our meals.|
My 9-year-old niece Stella and I go out to dinner every Thursday and this past week, we went to Bar Tartine. Unlike my own children who are timid eaters, Stella’s eyes gleam when she hears the word “oysters” or “mochi” or “black sesame ice cream sandwich” and she will eagerly try any new food you put in front of her, including sea urchin. We spent a good chunk of a car ride several weeks ago debating whether Alison Krauss’s voice is more like “honey” or “syrup” and then sat down to big bowls of ramen, which we analyzed in detail. Girl after my own heart.
Bar Tartine is a warm, wood-paneled oasis in San Francisco’s trendy-seedy-noisy Mission District. Great jars of preserved lemons on display, earthy ceramic plates and cups that feel good in your hand. Soft light. Eclectic music. Stella deemed this the “coziest” restaurant we’ve been to yet and from her that is highest praise.
The menu, though, was a puzzler. We read it over and over and over and over and over looking for something we wanted to eat, but apart from the bread and butter, nothing appealed. On paper, it was drab and stern, like every dish was wearing a gray Russian headscarf and a pair of work boots. I’d pay $10 not to eat a beet salad with turmeric, sumac, and fenugreek and would only order sauerkraut with green horseradish if I had scurvy. So many roots and bitter greens on this menu, various “black” ingredients, zero enticing adjectives, no creamy polenta or mashed potatoes or cheesy spaetzle or dumplings or harmless attempts at seduction. The descriptions of the dishes were plain and dispiriting, as in chicken with beans, schmaltz and brussels sprouts. Roasted chicken? Boiled? Marinated? Breast or leg? Lima beans, string, pinto, black? Garlicky brussels sprouts? Fried? Oh, forget it.
They’ve changed the menu a bit already, but you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about. Or maybe you’ll find it all tantalizing, in which case: 561 Valencia Street.
Happily, almost everything was less austere than it sounded. They just don’t do flirty menu at Bar Tartine. We ordered pork belly, lamb sausage, and some falafel-flavored croquettes and were very content, if not beside ourselves. The best part of the meal was the country bread ($4) from the mother ship Tartine Bakery, which was super-sour, slightly damp, crazy-making delicious. We also loved the “ginger water kefir,” a milky, effervescent drink so refreshing I was tempted to order a refill. There’s a recipe in the Bar Tartine cookbook that I plan to try once I acquire water kefir grains.
I hesitate to mention the dessert because I remain baffled by it, but the cheesecake with whey caramel and flax brittle was inedible. Have you experienced whey caramel? It was salty, barely sweet, overbearing, and funky -- almost barnyardy. Is that flavor profile a thing? If so, it’s new to me and both Stella and I recoiled from it. The British woman at the next table, who had also ordered the cheesecake, watched our reaction, wrinkled her nose and said, “It’s awfully ‘cheesy’ isn’t it.” I don’t like sending things back so didn’t, but wish I’d at least asked the waiter what was up with this whey caramel as it’s bugging me two days later. I need the concept of whey caramel explained.
Dessert aside, it was a nice experience. I’m glad we went. Unfortunately, other than the water kefir, there was nothing I wanted to rush home and cook. Instead of piquing my interest in exploring the Bar Tartine book, it put an end to it.