Bar Tartine Mingles Science & Cuisine

San Francisco Food
Illustration by Joseph Larkowsky

A low-ceilinged flight of stairs leads down into the groundbreaking restaurant Bar Tartine’s sprawling basement. In a wine cellar, multiple kinds of house-made vinegars are blooming, including a blood orange variety that tastes as if the citrus made a crash landing in southern Spain. Hachiya persimmons hang from rope, emulating the Japanese method for preserving the fruit. Upstairs, four dehydrators sit high on a shelf next to an oversized rice cooker filled with garlic bulbs. In a little over a week, the garlic bulbs will transform, turning black and sweet. All around are enormous plastic tubs loaded with cabbages and mustard greens morphing into sauerkraut and pickles. Dozens of dairy products bubble and age in a fridge. A boundless collection of quart containers are filled with homemade dried ingredients and powders: onion, parsnip, burnt eggplant, stevia, coriander, flowers, burned bread. The clock seems to slack its gait as these ingredients decay, ferment, pickle, and desiccate.

Johnny Cash’s “Daddy Sang Bass” pours from Bar Tartine’s speakers. A prep cook chops button mushrooms. Nicolaus Balla, one of the restaurant’s two co-chefs, mutters, “We’re fucked,” as Mindy and Juston Enos of Full Table Farm deliver a produce bounty, including pea shoots, pea tendrils, Portuguese kale, and an early crop of green garlic. The Enoses do this twice a week. They bring nearly anything and everything that grows at their farm in the Napa Valley. “It pushes our creativity because we never know what we’re getting from Justin and Mindy,” Balla says.

In walks Cortney Burns, Balla’s partner in restaurant and life, fresh from a double- header of yoga and a Barry’s Bootcamp session. She changes clothes, dons an apron and starts trimming the edges of a steamed squash cake that will be served as dessert with chestnuts and buttermilk.

The food Burns and Balla cook is hard to categorize. When the pair started cooking at Bar Tartine in 2011, they were running an ostensibly Hungarian restaurant. Even now, there is usually vivid red paprika in the kitchen. There is pork, too, and lots of sour cherries when they appear in midsummer. But these days, Bar Tartine feels more like the prismatic vision of two curious, talented chefs who wandered to the Pacific coast from the Midwest. The couple’s cooking references antiquity with its focus on preservation. It nods at Japan, with an assimilation of that cuisine’s savory intensity and clean building of flavors. Bar Tartine in Burns and Balla’s hands is old, new, Japanese, European. It is personal and perfectly now.

Chefs from Chicago to Copenhagen are enraptured. Food insiders and curious home cooks have been fawning over Burns and Balla’s Bar Tartine cookbook: a useful, beautiful treatise that captures the innovative soul of their handiwork. All that project cooking the two do at Bar Tartine — the powders, the pastes, the pickles — play with time, arresting a range of deeply flavorful ingredients at various points of intensity. That teeming pantry becomes an arsenal, a battalion for layering flavor. One crazed example: the simple sounding “warm mushrooms with bone marrow.” For that dish, beef broth is spiked with seaweed and Japanese-style dried fish, then reduced to a syrup. Then wild mushrooms are added, and it is all cooked down again into an intense paste. To order, whole roasted wild mushrooms are set on the concentrated paste and topped with pieces of melting bone marrow. The way Burns and Balla cook is like a 50-person orchestra seamlessly condensing its notes into one wall of integrated sound: You feel every note acutely, but you cannot extract the individual ones.

Japanese cuisine, pickling, and preservation — much of what interests Burns and Balla is now popular in the hipper subsets of the food world. “We never meant to be on trend,” Burns says. “We want to make things we like and that people do, too. You just hope people think your food is delicious.”

Balla comes near to investigate the squash cake. Johnny and June’s “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” comes on. Burns and Balla’s camaraderie is apparent, though you wonder whether constant proximity is ever a strain. “She gets sick of me,” Balla says as he squats to pick something up. “I never get sick of her.” Burns grimaces and squints her eyes. “Yeah, right,” she replies.

As the clock ticks toward the arrival of the first guests, the restaurant begins to quicken. Much of the work is done already. Bar Tartine, fully armed, bolts to life. Its stoves flaming, its plates wiped clean, and the clinking and clanking of giddy people eating, most of them unaware how all around them — from the upstairs larders to the basement cellars — time is slowing, stopping, and starting.

BAR TARTINE’S FERMENTED HONEY

Fermenting honey gives it slight acidity and a more complex flavor. Capped honey will not ferment in its natural state of 17% to 18% moisture content; it will ferment, however, if it is above 60 degrees with greater than 20% moisture content. Use this honey as you would any other honey.

Servings: 1 cup
1 cup honey
2 tablespoons water

In a small glass jar, stir together the honey and water and cover the jar with cheesecloth. Place in a clean, well-protected, low-light area with an ambient temperature of 60 to 68 degrees for two weeks. Stir the contents once daily, just until the honey starts to sour very slightly. The flavor will be subtle when the honey is finished fermenting. Cap tightly and refrigerate for up to one year.