Top Tastes: 2 Restaurants (1 Eastern European, 1 Basque) On the Rise

Txoko’s inviting bar

Two Restaurants (One Eastern European, One Basque) On the Rise

Photos & article by Virginia Miller

Age is good thing: for wine, whiskey, cheese, wisdom and sense of self, to name a few. Age deepens, fills out, matures, makes whole. In the scheme of things, these two restaurants are youngsters – one could hardly call them “aged”, though Bar Tartine has thrived an impressive number of years since opening in 2005. Txoko is the new kid on the block, taking over a historical space (Enrico’s) just under a year ago. One thing they both have in common is that over the past year, with age, they’ve steadily improved – what was last year at times exceptional is now more consistently so.

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

Tray of pickled jars

Bar Tartine has long been a notable restaurant. What it has become is exciting. Last year I wrote of new chef Nick Balla, fresh from Nombe, who launched a Hungarian-influenced menu acknowledging his roots. While the food remains comforting, you won’t see the usual gourmet dishes found across town. Eastern European touches render the food unique, staunchly non-traditional yet exuding down home goodness.

Crave-inducing beet salad

Tripe strikes fear in the hearts of many – I don’t mind it, but only at Oliveto’s 2010 Whole Hog dinner had I found it delicious. Balla’s grilled tripe ($12) stands as the best tripe dish I’ve ever tasted. Silky (not slimy) strips of tripe fill a bowl aromatically entwined with fennel, cabbage and paprika. Beets, an ingredient we’re inundated with in recent years, are electrifying in an Ensalada Rusa ($12) with celery root, dill, chili, peppercress, and plenty of lime. This invigorating expression is stands above the best beet dishes. Another all too common vegetable, brussels sprouts ($7), are fried but instead of being tossed with the usual bacon or apples, are mixed with carrot, mint, anise and serrano chilis. Heat and mint infuse them with fresh life.

Farmer’s cheese dumplings

An entree winner is Hungarian farmer’s cheese dumplings, nokedli ($17). Sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) and wild onion meld with doughy, slightly cheesy, dumplings – sheer comfort. A beloved German dish of mine is pickled herring ($10). Here it is brightly fresh, shrouded in sour cream and onion, served with Tartine’s rye bread.

Puffy, fried Hungarian potato bread, langos ($10), remains the must-order menu item every visit, drizzled in sour cream and dill, it is blissfully garlicky. Not since my travels through the Hungarian countryside have I seen this addictive bread. Mini-jars of pickled vegetables ($4 per jar) are popular menu items – I like pickled tumeric cauliflower and carrot best. Here’s hoping when cherry season hits, we’ll witness the return of Balla’s fantastic version of Hungarian chilled sour cherry soup, meggyleves.

Bright pickled herring

The wine list persists in quality, a recent example being a contrast of two rieslings: a dry, elegant, German 2009 Keller Von der Fels Trocken Riesling ($52 bottle) alongside a lively, unusual but refined, Santa Barbara 2008 Tatomer Vandenberg Riesling ($59 bottle). The wine list is expertly selected, as these two beauties suggest.

After nearly a year since Balla joined Bar Tartine, with the expanded, invitingly glowing space, I’d list Bar Tartine as a personal favorite and one of the best in town.

View from a green leather chair at Txoko

TXOKO, North Beach (504 Broadway at Kearny, 415-500-2744)

Whimsical animal wall paintings

With so little Basque cuisine in our city, I was delighted when Txoko (pronounced “choko”) opened in the spacious, former Enrico’s, promising Basque influence. Lots of small plates and just a few larger ones appealed with an opportunity to try more. Early visits last year yielded delectable small bites, while I found larger plates less exciting. When the menu recently changed to a more traditional appetizer/entree format, I feared it would lose its uniqueness. Pleased I’ve been in recent returns to find Txoko rounded out, entrees keeping pace with starters. I do sense the Basque influence is looser than it was before, however, and would rather not see that aspect fade.

I am welcomed by the roomy space with covered patio in front, green leather chairs, animal painting on the walls, and a wood-lined bar.

Txoko cocktails

Txoko’s Wednesday night, 4 course foie gras dinners ($55 + $35 wine pairing) are arguably the best way to ride out the remaining months until June when the foie gras ban takes effect in California (read Txoko owner, Ryan Maxey’s eloquent piece on this issue). The menu varies each week though typically finishes with buttery foie gras ice cream. One week I savored silky foie gras torchon on a flaky puff pastry, in a lavender golden raisin sauce redolent with thyme. My main was a gorgeous foie gras a la plancha (grilled), savory and meaty on a mound of beluga lentils, mirepoix, and chorizo, surrounded by strips of duck jamon, topped with crispy chicharrones. A “lighter” foie dish was seared rare ahi tuna lush in Pedro Ximenez sherry sauce, with slices of foie and caramelized pearl onions standing in a potato coulis.

Foie gras a la plancha on lentils

On the regular menu, two dishes left an impression. Warm lamb’s tongue salad ($11) is a surprisingly light salad of lamb mixed with poached potatoes, Manchego cheese, shishito peppers and frisee, surrounded by smoked tomatoes. Different and delightful. A heartwarming dish of grilled venison Denver leg ($29) is served medium rare, draped over mashed yams, in blood orange endive marmelata, dotted with crispy sage leaves and pine nuts. Each dish is artfully presented and generously portioned.

Grilled venison leg

Drink options are vibrantly varied, with choices like a bone dry 2009 Isastegi Basque cider ($6) and wines such as an earthy, plum and berry-inflected 2001 Senorio de P. Pecina Reserva Rioja. Txoko has a full bar with commendable cocktails ($10), like tart-sweet, sparkling Dominican 75, a twist on the classic French 75 with Brugal Extra Viejo rum, lime, simple syrup, and Mont Marcal cava, or a playful, refreshing Cool Hand Luke Fizz utilizing Fighting Cock bourbon, Peychaud’s bitters, egg whites for froth, vivacious with Mexican Coke.

Light warm lamb’s tongue salad

Finishing the evening with moist, Spanish-style bread pudding ($8) is a pleasure, sweetened by prunes, olive caramel and candied marcona almonds, happily paired with a nutty, acidic, sweet Sangre y Trabajadero Oloroso Sherry($7 glass).

I’m expectant to see how Txoko will continue to evolve, a refreshing change of pace in North Beach, and, indeed, the city.

Cozy but roomy corner booth