San Francisco: Bar Tartine is Awesome

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Lox smørrebrød. [Photos: Maggie Hoffman]

Ever since Drinks editor Maggie moved to San Francisco, I've been hearing about her new favorite haunts—where she gets a great taco lunch, her new wine bars of choice. But I've heard about nowhere more than Bar Tartine—Californian–vaguely Eastern European restaurant by night, sandwich and salad stop by day.

Given the demands of a busy eating itinerary, we weren't able to stop by for dinner, so made a lunch date there instead. After this First Look at their new daytime menu, I expected to try a great sandwich or two. I wasn't quite prepared for one of the better meals I had my whole week in San Francisco.

I mean, I'm a big sandwich lover, but even I have to admit: a sandwich, a salad, and a little open-faced smørrebrød sound like unlikely candidates for an outstanding meal. But at Bar Tartine, these things are all a lot more interesting than they sound.

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I probably got more excited about this chopped salad ($13) than just about any other salad I've ever eaten. There's the obvious thought with which each of the many ingredients are prepared: atop a normal-enough base of peppers, mushrooms, red onions, and cucumbers, the cherry tomatoes are peeled, so that they burst in your mouth without those pesky skins getting in the way. The cubes of meat are a just-spiced enough paprika salami that's made in-house; the pepper jack cheese they make too. Sunflower seeds for crunch. But it's the sultry, tangy yogurt dressing that really makes it—that, and the bread. I could probably live off nothing but this bread and that dressing for a good long while.

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Tartine is primarily known as a bakery, so it's no surprise the bread steals the show here. But this barley flax porridge bread is one of the best things I've eaten in... I don't know how long.

"The grains are cooked before the yeast is added," explained manager Vinny Eng—thus the porridge—"and the yeast just love it." The result is a bread that's supple and insanely moist on the inside, whole grains bound in a stretchy matrix, an absolutely perfect vehicle for swiping through the dressing left on the plate. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the two huge slices served here almost dwarf the salad inside. After one bite, I thought, This is far more bread than I should be eating in one sitting, and I'm going to eat all of it, and I'm not going to regret it for a second. And that's pretty much what happened.

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I got so distracted by this salad I almost failed to notice when the pork sandwich ($13) arrived (believe me, that's the first time that's ever happened). Note the pickle for scale—this thing is massive, easily lunch for two.

"We always try to have something banh mi–like on the menu," Eng told us, "or sort of banh mi–like." Thus the cilantro and julienned cucumber atop the pile of pork, meaty and carrying along its own juices, which all get soaked up by the olive-oily slab bread ("it's the bread we use for any sandwich with jus").

And equally good, if not nearly as indulgent, was the dainty lox smørrebrød ($6, pictured at top). Quark and smoked fish form the base layer, but it's the chopped beets and shower of grated horseradish that enliven the whole thing. Predictably, the bread here isn't just the dry, dense base that this sort of open-faced sandwich can have. Dense, sure, but the sprouted rye is tender and rich in rye flavor—it almost feels more like a collection of grains loosely held together than the sort of lifeless rye bread I associate with many such sandwiches.

A person should have dessert at Bar Tartine; I couldn't handle it after killing a wedge and a half of porridge bread. Even without it, though, this simple-sounding lunch became a memorably awesome meal. Next visit? I'm coming back for dinner.

Bar Tartine

561 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA (map)
415-487-1600; bartartine.com

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