Cookbook Review: 'Bar Tartine' Trades Hard Work for Show-Stopping Results

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[Photograph: Chad Robertson]>

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Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns are co-chefs at Bar Tartine, the San Francisco restaurant celebrated for its inventive, hard-to-define and harder-to-forget food. After a meal there, you are likely to leave wishing you could recreate, or at least approximate, your smoked potatoes with black garlic or that sweet potato salad, but with no idea how you'd even begin to do so. The amalgam of flavors that the duo delivers is so layered and nuanced that even studied palates often find the dishes impossible to decode. Complex but no longer mysterious, their food has been decrypted in the new Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes, the cookbook from Balla and Burns that keeps no kitchen secrets.

Not that it will necessarily be EASY to totally duplicate their results, even with all the info at hand. Bar Tartine is known for an unwavering from-scratch ethos, and Part One of the book, subtitled Inside the Project Kitchen, is the blueprint of their intimidatingly impressive pantry. The goal here is big, unique flavors that you can't just grab off your supermarket shelf. So if you happen to have a dehydrator, you can DIY your whole spice cabinet thanks to their recipes for everything from dried fennel flowers and paprika to yogurt and sauerkraut powders. They explain how to make black garlic using a rice warmer or slow cooker and how to dry your tomatoes to your preferred texture (jammy, taffy-like, or classic leathery). This section goes on—furikake seasoning, charred eggplant spice, smoked blood orange peels—and on. From there, you can venture into dry-curing meat and making bottarga. And, of course, they divulge the formulas behind their notable dairy program, like the recipes for goat cheese, sour cream, and kefir butter and buttermilk. Following that are sprouted grains and nuts, infused oils, rendered animal fats, vinegars, pickles and preserves, syrups and beverages, and stocks. Are you overwhelmed yet?

Listen, these pantry items aren't strictly necessary to be able to make the composed dishes that follow. And sometimes life just doesn't leave you with time to attempt such involved prep for a single meal. But those who enjoy taking on big projects with impressive results will find themselves one step closer to Bar Tartine's show-stopping effects.

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Black garlic

The Mission-district restaurant was opened by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson (who beautifully photographed the book) in 2005, a few blocks away from their acclaimed bakery, Tartine. In 2010, Balla and Burns, both originally from the Midwest with years of travel and experience under their belts, took over the kitchen of Bar Tartine, and their cooking has been evolving and breaking new ground ever since. Any attempt to pigeonhole their food inevitably falls short; "California cuisine," though accurate in its way (local, seasonal, fresh), doesn't quite cut it. As they say, it can only be described as what they like to eat: a seductive and very personal blend of techniques and flavors from Hungary, Scandinavia, and Japan with bits and pieces from the Mediterranean, Middle East, and, oh ya know, the rest of the world thrown in. While Burns has referenced the guiding influence of 'grandmother food,' and while there is a rustic backbone running through most of their dishes, there are subtleties and unusual fusions of flavor that elevate their dishes heads above the simple and homey.

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Smoked potatoes

Take their Smoked Potatoes with Ramp Mayonnaise. This dish has been obsessed over and blogged about, and has a permanent place on their ever-changing menu. There's a lot going on with these spuds: The potatoes themselves are roasted and smoked, then smashed and deep-fried. They're tossed with herbs and a mushroom-infused black garlic vinaigrette—earthy, sweet, and tangy. The crowning glory is the bright and rich mayonnaise (in which, we were assured, brined capers may be subbed for the homemade pickled ramps, if seasonality or time is not in your favor—in our case, they were not). Individually, each component is brilliant; together, they pack an electrifying umami punch. There is something remarkably meaty about the smoke with the mushroom vinaigrette—you get the sensation of meat and potatoes without, well, the meat. The mayonnaise seems very California, while the heavy-handed sprinkling of dill recalls Eastern Europe. My grandmother was an adventurous cook, but this would not have occurred to her.

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Pickled mushrooms

We also test-drove a more straightforward, but no less beguiling, recipe from the pantry: their Pickled Mushrooms. Balla and Burns have made fermented and pickled foods a defining part of their menu, and these deliver on their promise of addictiveness. Whole button mushrooms are first roasted, then pickled in a garlicky, paprika-laced paste (the paprika giving them a "strong Hungarian accent," as they say in the headnote). Slightly sweetened with brown sugar and invigorated with lemon zest and herbs, these mushrooms are no two-note pickle. They have a complexity of flavor that lets them stand on their own as a snack or side. They come together quickly with store-bought substitutions, or you can go the scenic route and make the red wine vinegar, dried marjoram, sweet paprika, sweet onion powder, and garlic powder from scratch. I went the substitution route; I can only imagine they'd taste even better with a hefty splash of DIY-induced self-satisfaction.

Balla and Burns chose to not hold anything back when breaking down their processes. It was an act of generosity and egalitarianism to reveal in such detail every piece and part of the kitchen witchcraft that has made their restaurant such a phenomenon. While Bar Tartine may be daunting for beginners, the recipes are well-explained and detailed. Though execution can be laborious, there are almost always subs or shortcuts to make life easier and the food more accessible. But if you like a project, go whole-hog and commit: the results will knock your socks off.