Bar Tartine, San Francisco

Watch carefully as you drive by as there are no signs on the understated façade. From the outside, it looks like any other Mission district storefront. But when you walk in, the interior may surprise you.

San Francisco is undoubtedly one of the top dining destinations in the country. Nowhere else can you find such an amazing myriad of restaurants offering inventive food made with the freshest ingredients. But all the focus on the food seems to blind some restaurateurs to another key part of the dining experience: the ambience. That’s what NY is really good at. There are very few restaurants in SF that you can say are original and memorable in their interior design. Delfina, Range and Town Hall offer among the best food in the city but there’s nothing unique about their atmosphere. And sometimes, when the focus shifts to the ambience, restaurants fail miserably in the food or service category (Orson, Local).

There’s nothing incredibly innovative about Bar Tartine’s interior design, but the care to details sets it apart from what’s around. The long dining room starts with a long communal table set under a large deer antlers wood chandelier. Solid wood tables and classic bistro chairs fill in the rustic wood floored space that is shared by a white marble countertop bar. At the very end, an open kitchen. From charming blown glass light fixtures to actually interesting art on the walls, everything feels carefully planned but not excessively designed. Modern and warm at the same time.

The only hint at a possible mishap is the eventual air circulator fan standing near the wall, a clear sign that the non-air-conditioned room may get a little too warm during the summer.

The hip and sometimes enthusiastic wait staff is attentive but looked overwhelmed as the house got full. The table next to mine had their order switched with someone else’s.

The menu

The menu offers about 15 options between appetizers, salads and entrées. Descriptions are appetizing and it’s not hard to find yourself torn between a few things you want to try. Sometimes though, the dishes sound better on paper.

The meal

Bread is a no brainer. This is Tartine after all. You won’t find better bread in the city and the restaurant seems to know that as the loafs are proudly displayed like trophies on a shelf.

As a starter, I ordered the Gorgonzola stuffed Medjool dates with aged balsamic. You can't tell what to expect just by looking at it. But it only takes one bite to realize it is way too sweet, I’d say even for a dessert. A strange palate curveball.

For appetizers, I tried the Crispy romaine lettuce wrapped Monterey Bay sardines, garlic puree, nosturtiums and parmesan tuile. Once again, the description and presentation outshined the actual dish. Despite the inventiveness, there was nothing surprising about the flavors. It wasn’t bad by any means but also wasn’t remarkable. Other appetizers ordered by the table next to mine looked equally disappointing when compared to their menu descriptions.

Entrées were another story. I had the Dayboat scallops with little gem lettuces, fava beans, onion soubise, chorizo and saffron broth. It was perfect. A creative balance of flavors, beautifully prepared with craft and care. The foamy broth was so good it gave sense to the spoon previously brought to the table.

The Foie gras stuffed quail with sweet peas, farro, trumpet mushrooms, and charred onion consommé was also delicious. Cooked perfectly, it was flavorful and tender. Like the scallops dish, its sauce was worthy of a spoon.

Desserts were somewhat of a let down. With Tartine’s unbeatable bakery background I was expecting to be blown away. I was not.

The Bittersweet chocolate tart earl grey ice cream, orange caramel was tasty but looked more like something pulled from a pâtisserie display than prepared by the restaurant’s chef pâtissière.

The same was true for the Cocoa nib panna cotta cherry gelèe, fresh cherries, chocolate tuile. Taste wise, this panna cotta was not bad but definitely not as good as Delfina’s.

The cheese selection is actually pretty good and includes Serra da Estrela, a delicious and hard-to-find Portuguese cheese made from raw sheep’s milk. Coffee is from Blue Bottle.

In short

Bar Tartine is a nice surprise in the mission district, more for its carefully designed ambiance than for its food. Although, despite appetizers and desserts being not so stellar, I would easily go back for any of the entrées.

Bar Tartine is at 561 Valencia Street
Online reservations

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