Top Tastes: Eastern Europe Rising + 2 North Beach Newcomers

Bottle Cap in the former Washbag space in North Beach

Top Tastes is not a list of all-time favorites, rather it’s about the best tastes of the last two weeks (since my last newsletter), often from new openings.

I’ve been eating steady, as usual, from a pleasant, if not notable, Vietnamese meal at My Father’s Kitchen, to trying out brand new trucks (and revisiting favorites) at Off the Grid Upper Haight AND Fort Mason (I find new LA import Nom Nom a bit overrated). I did try the Korean/Japanese place, Ahn Sushi & Soju, mentioned in my last Top Tastes – it was as uneven as I expected.

Eastern Europe Rising

BAR TARTINE, Mission (8561 Valencia Street between 16th & 17th, 415-487-1600)

Meggyleves, sour cherry soup

Nick Balla does it again. As a guy with Hungarian roots, he rocked Japanese food when he was chef at Nombe with delicate artistry gleaned from his travels in Japan. Now he does an about-face at Bar Tartine, keeping their rustic gourmet tradition, but infusing the menu with Eastern European flavors.

Not only do I delight in less-overdone cuisines, but particularly at such an imaginative hand. He’s going a new direction with Eastern European food, one that is visionary yet stays true to humble roots.

Grated Buckwheat Egg Dumplings

I tried not to loudly broadcast my excitement after tasting Meggyleves, his version of a Hungarian chilled sour cherry soup ($9 – I retain vivid memories of attempting this type of soup many years ago – it was delicious but involved exploding cherries from the blender all over my kitchen). Balla’s soup is subtly sweet, sour, earthy, a dollop of sour cream deepening the creamy texture. One spoonful and you know you’re in for a (blessedly) different kind of meal.

Bar Tartine’s expanded space

When a puffy slab of Langos ($10) arrived (fried potato bread lathered in sour cream, doused with garlic, onion, dill), I was immediately transported back to 1999 eating a similar bread in the Hungarian countryside at a  festival. It’s so satisfying, one could fill up on this and leave happy.

Cucumber Mizuna Salad ($6) includes a big dollop of herring roe ‘sauce’.  It’s more like a fishy cream, tasting fully of herring. Mini-pickle jars work as palate-cleansers ($4 each) with choice of shredded chile cabbage (reminiscent of kimchi), green cherry tomatoes, carrot/cauliflower/tumeric, or cucumber/dill. Grated Buckwheat Egg Dumplings ($6) evoke a puffier, lighter spaetzle, buttery and in a much bigger portion than expected for a side.

Blood Sausage over duck roll & sauerkraut

Grilled Fennel Sausage ($18) with bread dumplings, pluots and sour cream is a true beauty of sweet/savory dimensions. Likewise the Kapusnica, a giant Blood Sausage ($22) that  fallsapart at the touch of a knife. It’s different than blood sausages I devoured in Ireland. – an elevated, gourmet version, redolent of Fall and cinnamon as all good blood sausages are. The sausage rests over a duck-filled cabbage roll, sauerkraut, tart dried cherries, hen of the woods mushrooms… plenty big enough for two.

Warm, salty Langos bread

Desserts (all $7.50) convey a savory side with ingredients like beets (Beet & Carrot Cake with goat cheese ice cream) or caraway, but aren’t unrecognizable as sweets. I like Sour Cream Custard with lemon curd, poppyseed, and a cherry/oat/walnut crumble.

Take note: Balla is one of our city’s most innovative and visionary chefs. He’s transformed Bar Tartine, an already strong restaurant, into something truly unique and stand-out. I can’t wait to see where he’s headed.

New North Beach Duo + Pizzas

LE BORDEAUX, North Beach (524 Union Street at Bannam Place, 415-529-1674)

Le Bordeaux’s peaceful space on a North Beach alley

Le Bordeaux holds subtle surprises. It’s ultra-traditional French bistro fare. And French staff are light on the English. You can expect dishes like steak frites (but with thick, Belgian-style fries instead of light, crispy French frites?) and duck confit… a curve-ball is thrown with meat fondue.

Boudin Sausage over grilled apples

But there are a few things to set it apart from other classic French bistros. Wood slabs line the front room walls, and an all wood bar and back room evokes a rustic country lodge. With big picture windows on a quiet alley corner, it’s a mix of European city bistro and country getaway.

Espresso finish at Le Bordeaux

There’s no liquor at this point, but an Elderflower Presse ($4) refreshes next to rich French food. I was pleased to see an appetizer of Fried Camembert ($12) with grilled onions and garlic on toast. I adore fried, warm Camembert, but don’t see it on menus enough.

The highlight was a Boudin Blanc entree ($18 – that light, gentle white sausage I love so), atop a mound of caramelized apples and crumbled speculoos, a graham cracker-like cookie/biscuit. It was savory, sweet: like dessert… with sausage.

BOTTLE CAP, North Beach (1707 Powell Street at Union, 415-529-2237)

Grilled Nectarines over goat cheese cream

In what was the former North Beach classic, Washington Square Bar & Grill (aka Washbag), Bottle Cap recently moved in. A comfortable, airy space, its hardwood floors and light-colored walls impart a farmhouse spirit to the comfortable, airy dining room.

Early visits show promise as ingredients are farm-fresh and staff aim to please. Though I find a Negroni without a bitter (whether Campari or Gran Classico) is not really a Negroni (they make theirs with pürspirits‘ spiced Blood Orange liqueur), I appreciate that they go for classic cocktails with a fresh twist, even if not all of it shines.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Their food menu is straightforward American, showcasing California produce. An Heirloom Tomato Salad ($10) is as fresh as it should be with bits of crispy pork belly, house-toasted croutons and a light buttermilk drizzle. Try not to love the simplicity of a Grilled Nectarine ($8) over a delicate goat cheese cream. Or the comfort of a Grilled Cheese Sandwich ($9) on rustic bread with savory tomato soup to dip it in.

It may not blow one away, but Bottle Cap comforted me. Open daily, I find for a mid-day respite, it remains (as it was as Washbag) a neighborhood staple offering simple, well-prepared American food.

TONY’S, North Beach (1570 Stockton Street at Union, 415-835-9888)

Fear & Loathing Pizza

I recently (and happily) returned to my favorite Tony’s Pizza Napoletana to try some new-ish pizzas, grouped under the “California Style” section. I was disappointed in the Pastrami Pizza ($19), inspired by my beloved pastrami sandwich. With coleslaw instead of sauerkraut, the meat was dry, the pie a bit bland, not coming close to the fabulous pastrami pizza Orson did a couple years ago (please bring it back, Orson!)

Pastrami Pizza

What worked was their new Fear & Loathing ($19): slow-cooked pork is shredded over the pie, dotted with serrano and habanero peppers, tomatoes, queso fresco, and cactus, drizzled with lime and salsa. Instead of being a ‘hot mess’, there’s just a touch of each element, weaving into a spicy, savory whole.

When in doubt, however, Tony’s Cal Italia and simple, beautiful Jersey Tomato Pie always win.