It's no secret that Bar Tartine creates some of San Francisco's best bread-based dishes. It's also no secret that Bar Tartine's gifted chef duo, Nick Balla and Cortney Burns, have a particularly unique passion for everything pickled and fermented. Some chefs live by the whole beast; Balla and Burns live by the whole jar.
All of Bar Tartine's breads are baked in the restaurant's 15,000 pound brick oven. Between the seeded kamut, sprouted rye, and the cracked red wheat, you'll (almost) forget the legendary country loaves from big sister Tartine Bakery (the recent champion of our sourdough taste test) three blocks away.
Nighttime is when the confluence of Bar Tartine's various influences comes into play, and you'll find many of them in the seemingly mundane Beef Tartare on Toast ($19). To understand this dish, a little backstory is helpful: Balla graduated from high school in Budapest, which explains the Eastern European lilt—beef tartare belongs to many cooking cultures, but certainly can be found frequently across Eastern Europe. As for the bread, well, the restaurant is owned by a world-renowned bakery, and the toast base is triangles of thick-sliced, sourdough bread that frankly doesn't need any topping.
You could stop right here and enjoy every bite. Except there's a secret to this sourdough.
The secret is a fermented ingredient that draws on Balla's fascination with the subtleties of Japanese cooking (which he explored further with stints at the highly regarded izakayas Nombe and O Izakaya): koji. A mold that's used to ferment soybeans in sake and soy sauce, koji is the key to unlocking an unparalleled, super umami-rich beef tartare on toast.
After hosting a special koji-themed dinner in May, Balla shifted his wagyu beef tartare, then flavored with horseradish, towards its present koji-enhanced state. Today, the mold is both folded into the sourdough bread dough, and into a house-made cultured butter that's slathered between the toast and ruby-hued beef. The beef comes from grass-fed, organic cows from Sonoma County's Mindful Meats, and Japanese radishes and dill are the finishing touches.
The earthy beef, crunchy radish, and koji-fueled bread and butter duo come together on a sleek Japanese wooden serving board. Sure, you're more used to seeing sushi rolls presented like this, but why not the more rugged tartare? It just goes to show Bar Tartine's myriad influences, all held together with finesse.
About the author: Trevor Felch is a Bay Area based food & drink writer for the SF Weekly. Charm him with Oregon Pinot Noir and nutella crêpes. Follow him @TrevorFelch and visit his blog Trev's Bistro.