Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hedonism chez Tartine

This past weekend I went on a brief bender at Bar Tartine, dining solo on Saturday night and returning Sunday morning for brunch. I can consequently report that all the good things I had heard about Bar Tartine are true-- the food was honest, simple yet refined and, most importantly of course, very, very tasty. Prices are understandably moderate yet far from prohibitive. Here's the rundown...

Saturday dinner
Walking in at about 7:00, I was seated immediately at the classy marble bar, in front of the garde manger/dessert station. I ordered a glass of Spanish tempranillo rosé from the adorable and friendly bartender/ server, and was soon after brought a sliced hunk of Tartine's signature bread (chewy and almost eggy interior with a fantastic balance of creaminess/acidity surrounded by a dark, crunchy crust) with a small slab of butter. Partly with a mind to cost but mainly because they were more intriguing to me, I ordered two starters as my meal. My server reassured me that the amount of food would be sufficient given its richness, and she was absolutely right. I started with a chilled white asparagus soup with pickled ramps, sautéed local prawns and piment d'espelette. This was hands-down the best asparagus soup I've ever had, period. The soup itself was slightly nutty with real white asparagus character, creamy without being at all heavy, and properly salted. Striped with bright green oil made from the ramp tops, in the center of the bowl were three rosy shrimp, a hidden tangle of ramps and one fried prawn's head. Without hesitation, I investigated the head-- it was shatteringly crisp throughout and utterly shrimpy, in roasty-sweet way. I devoured it. The prawns themselves were tender, almost to the point of melting, and fantastically sweet-- these two presentations of the prawn seemed to be a sly nod to ama ebi. The ramps added a pleasing textural contrast, a bit like enokis, their acidity brightening the other flavors. The piment, dusted over all, united everything with its earthiness and subtle spice. Excellent! Next came a dish whose singular weirdness I simply could not resist: braised pork belly, egg salad, fried potato and baby squid. Yes, on the same plate. Such a combination references nothing that I know of (any insight out there?), but I sensed that it would all come together in the end. And it did: the egg salad mimicked the fatty softness of the belly, the tiny sautéed squids were like the egg yet more toothsome, the diced fried potato lent textural interest and were a logical counterpart to the pork, and then just when you thought this was all sounding morbidly rich... a generous drizzle of salsa verde cut through like a laser with its herbal lemony-ness. Without its acidic punch, the whole would have seemed greasy and leaden-- in fact there was a decent slick of oil on the plate, ironically from the salsa. But it all balanced out enough for my taste, and I even mopped up that oil slick with the last of the wonderful bread. Observing my gluttony, my thoughtful server splashed a bit more wine into my by-now empty glass to wash down my last few bites. At this point I could have stopped eating as it was plenty of food. However, in fulfilling my "professional obligation" to try dessert (ha- but no, it really is partly true), I went ahead and ordered a rose geranium panna cotta with crumbled coconut macaroon, rhubarb confit and rhubarb consommé. Desserts at Bar Tartine seem to take after the bakery: simple, pretty and enormous. The panna cotta itself was perfectly wobbly and voluptuous, although the delicate scent of rose geranium became lost behind the tang of the accompanying big pile of meltingly tender shredded rhubarb. The little pile of toasty macaroon crumbs kept their integrity even after having sat in the consommé, which was poured from a silver creamer into the bowl tableside. The glowing pinkness of the lightly syrupy liquid made the presentation very lovely, along with a pretty pink rosebud and a few petals scattered on top. It was a nice spring dessert, it's just too bad I didn't have someone to share it with since it was huge.

Sunday brunch
I found brunch to not be at quite as high a caliber as dinner. I went for the Leb Lebi, a Tunisian chickpea stew with olive oil tuna, toasted hunks of bread, capers, harissa and poached eggs. It was not bad, but not outstanding. The tuna in particular wasn't as good as I expect from oil-packed varieties. My friends got scrambled eggs with gravlax, green garlic and asparagus, french toast with carmelized fruit, and a Portuguese cilantro soup with a poached egg (possibly the best thing I tried, which incidentally is also on the dinner menu). I envied a woman at a neighboring table with good-looking poached eggs on toast with thin shavings of country ham. Lastly, we shared a Meyer lemon Napoleon: small palmiers layered with lemon cream, flanked by lavender caramel (alas, recrystallized) and a large heap (indeed too large) of seductively tart lemon confit. Nice flavors, but the balance of elements was off. In the end, I've had better or as-good brunch for cheaper in the city, so I think I'll stick to Bar Tartine for dinner.

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