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May 12, 2011 11:59 AM

Bar Tartine, Nick Balla era [San Francisco]

New chef as of March, bringing a Hungarian / Eastern European twist to the completely revised menu.

Bar Tartine
561 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

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  1. I stopped in to check the place out to make sure I want to keep an upcoming reservation for a serious pigout. Tried the pork shoulder with blood sausage and sauerkraut. Delicious. The shoulder had an unexpected firm and chewy texture, reminded me of the pork neck served at some Thai places. Looking forward to returning.

    1. Finally made it in for a full meal. The difference between the current menu and past menus can't be overstated. It's like a different restaurant. Well, except for the bread.

      Basket of the best levain bread in the world with butter.

      Grilled rye bread with quark, shaved radishes, and house-made bottarga: this was an interesting combination of earthy and fishy, really needed an assertively tart white wine.

      Cold kohlrabi soup with ramps, sour cream, and dill: delicious and very unusual. Apparently cold soups are a big deal in Hungarian cuisine.

      Salad of smoked trout, crisp fried trout skin, Little Gems lettuce, shaved kohlrabi(?), fresh grated horseradish, crème fraiche: very nice, particularly with a little bit of each element in one bite.

      Braised brisket with red wine broth and grilled whole wheat bread with marrow: this was great, some of the best broth I've ever had. Beef was sliced thin like in phở.

      Chicken paprikas, king trumpet mushrooms, barley spätzle: less paprika and sour cream than the version my half-Hungarian dining companion makes, but scrumptious, we cleaned the plate and gnawed the bones bare. The chewy texture of the spätzle was perfect.

      Side of roasted baby carrots, zucchini, and shaved kohlrabi: really good, surprisingly free hand with chile flakes.

      Purslane salad with anchovy dressing: intense, but a great palate cleanser.

      I assumed that Elisabeth Prueitt would be doing the desserts, but the server said the restaurant has its own pastry chef who does her own thing. She's one to watch, I should have written down her name.

      Goat cheesecake (tart?) with buckwheat crust: wow. Kind of like graham cracker crust but earthier and chewier.

      Sour cream pudding(?): I think this had two different dairy elements plus whipped cream and some sort of crunch that somehow didn't get soggy. Again wow.

      Dobos torte: very good, if the least interesting of the three. Blum's used to make this, though I think they called it something else. The sour cream(?) ice cream that came with it was great.

      We saw the burger at the next table, beautiful Tartine-made bun, it looked so good we might make it back there in the next few days to find out. I'm also looking forward to trying the chopped liver and the grilled tripe.

      Bottom line, this is some of the most creative and interesting rustic food I've had.

      Bar Tartine
      561 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

      13 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Wow, this sounds great! I haven't had good Hungarian food (actually, probably any Hungarian food) since moving here. This sounds Cal/Hungarian which could be even better.

        They're updating the menus online. I'm wondering if they have variations on some of my other Hungarian favorites from other restaurants, given that they have a chicken paprikas. Would you remember if they have:

        - A cold sour cherry soup?

        - A strudel dessert? I much prefer crisply Hungarian-style strudel to the moister versions found in much of Germany, which seems to be what most Bay Area strudel is modeled on.

        - Any Hungarian wines?

        I want to check this out soon in any case. Thanks again for the great report!


        1. re: mdg

          No cherry soup. I can't remember if they had any other desserts. No Hungarian wines, but the wine guy said he was working on that.

          1. re: mdg

            Nick did a cold sour cherry soup when sour cherries were in season (it is fleeting) and it was spectacular. I cannot get enough of his pickles or bread-based dishes. Try the fried flatbread next time.

            1. re: shawliza

              For fans of (sour) cherry soup, it's very easy to make and comes out quite a dramatic color. Both the NY Times and LA Times have run recipes recently.

              1. re: Windy

                And there were still sour cherries at Berkeley Bowl today.

                Berkeley Bowl
                2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I made it without sour cherries and just used less sugar. The NY Times recipe uses reduced red wine, so it's plenty sweet, and yogurt for the tartness.

                  1. re: Windy

                    The canonical recipe (from George Lang's "The Cuisine of Hungary", the English language bible of Hungarian cooking) for Meggykeszöce uses no wine, no yogurt.

                    Fresh sour cherries are cooked in 1.5 qts water with 3/4 cup sugar. 2 Tbs flour are mixed with 1 cup sour cream and a tsp confectioner's sugar. A couple of ladles of the soup are added to this mixture and stirred thoroughly, then added back into the soup, and simmered for 5 minutes. The soup is cooled in the pot, covered so it won't form a skin. Adjust salt with a pinch. Serve cold. 6-8 servings.

                    I think Balla uses this basic technique and brings this spectacular dish into the 21st century with some very creative additional flavors/spicing.

                    1. re: Thomas Nash

                      Yes, the yogurt was a lowfat substitution. One of the Timeses used cloves.

                      1. re: Thomas Nash

                        Ha! Yes--the Hungarians I went to dinner with at Bar Tartine didn't like it because of the flavors and spicing you mention. They both said that it tasted savory and salty, which was weird and off-putting to their palates. I liked it, but thought our portions were crazy huge--me and a not-Hungarian split a bowl and didn't finish half.

                        Bar Tartine
                        561 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

            2. re: Robert Lauriston

              I went back to try the burger. No longer on the menu, at least it wasn't yesterday.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Oh yes, this place is a winner! Perhaps, the most interesting new place in a long time.

                Summary: this could be a moderately upscale modern take on Hungarian cuisine in a nice neighborhood of Budapest. Not a super fancy expense account place like Gundels, but sort of like a Delfina in Old Buda. Excellent.


                Went with my cousin and spouses. My cousin and I come from Hungarian families and know the home cooking of that tradition. She is an excellent cook and does a fine job on all the classics. As a child I remember the Hungarian places on 2nd and 3rd Avenue in Yorkville (NYC). We both anticipated dumbed down fusioned food. But no -- this is real Hungarian at its absolute best, modernized and updated as has happened to French cuisine in France. Frankly better than anything I remember.

                Ordered 4 appetizers:

                Langos -- a potato based fry bread covered with ramp powder, sour cream and dill. I had never heard of this dish and thought it absolutely excellent. My cousin knew it and also thought it excellent but quite different from what she had made. An excellent appetizer, but remember there is also that excellent Tartine bread and you can really overdose on bread at this place.

                Chilled Kohlrabi soup -- as noted earlier, chilled soup is a wonderful Hungarian thing (waiting for the sour cherries to come to marker!) and we all thought this was an outstanding dish.

                Chopped chicken liver with egg salad, herbs, etc -- nicely presented. Excellent.

                Blood sausage, sauerkraut, dried cherry, smoked chili, hen of the woods -- WOW! Probably the best dish i have had in a year. Everyone rated this outstanding. Smokey flavored sausage with a soupy sauerkraut +++. Superb.

                3 Mains:

                Halasyle -- a classic Hungarian fish soup, modernized with pan fried rock cod in a smoky, very spicy broth. My mother/grandmother would not have approved of the spiciness (Sichuan class) which they considered too country… Not for the faint of heart, my cousins and I ordered this dish and we both agreed this was also Outstanding.

                Chicken Paprikash -- a very modernized version where the chicken had been roasted (had a crispy skin) and then covered with a paprikash sauce with wild mushrooms. A similar modern take on a classic dish as the Coq au Vin at L'Ardoise. Both of these dishes are traditionally stewed chicken (which I personally dislike). The modernized versions are wonderful. Excellent dish.

                Gulyas -- Done that night with beef cheek (certainly not traditional), this robust smoky stew was also an excellent up dated take. Served with marrow spread on Tartine bread. Excellent


                Dobos Torte -- My cousin was unhappy with this because it used the traditional name and deviated too far from the classic multi layer chocolate cake with a hard caramel topping (which she does very well). The word "dob" means drum in Hungarian and this may refer to the hard top -- but the name also could have come from some famous baker named George or Joe or Istvan Dobos or something like that*. Yes, this was not traditional, no hard top, the caramel and apricots around the side, but it was extremely good, covered with chocolate chips and hazelnuts that gave a nice crunch. Certainly among the best desserts at a restaurant of this class in San Francisco. But it does remind one of how far behind we are in pastries compared to what goes on in Budapest and (ahem!) Vienna.

                All in all, what a pleasure and wonderful surprise to see the levels this cuisine can attain!

                With all the bread and over-ordering, took parts of 3 dishes home --- yet the total bill with tip (1-2 glasses wine/beer per person) $117 per couple. Quite reasonable.

                *Note added in edit: Looked this up in George Lang, The Cuisine of Hungary. Turns out it was invented by József C. Dobos in 1887 at his food specialty shop in Budapest.

                Delfina Restaurant
                3621 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                Bar Tartine
                561 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

                151 Noe Street, San Francisco, CA 94114

                1. re: Thomas Nash

                  Traditional coq au vin is braised rooster, and the dish would make more sense with a tough but flavorful old bird.

                  1. re: Thomas Nash

                    Went back again tonight.

                    The sour cherries are in and sour cherry soup is on the menu. This may be the best dish I have had in years! DO NOT MISS IT. It is a classic Hungarian cold soup, always a favorite, but this chef does it with complexity and sophistication and raises it to a new level.

                    Also had pickles, excellent if a bit pricey for the quantity. The blood sausage and sauerkraut, as good as the first time -- absolutely incredible. A zucchini dish with a very spicy sausage and a cardoon puree, also phenomenal. And a fine rendition of little dumplings (~1/4 inch) which I think the Germans and middle Europeans call knockerel (sp?)

                    I grew up with Hungarian food and, frankly, always found it a bit boring. Nick Balla is making it spectacular. This should be a Michelin 3 star, Zagat 27, ... Best new restaurant in 5 years.

                    Don't think I am overstating...

                2. I should set this up with the fact that I'm Hungarian and thus my taste is skewed to the traditional foods I ate growing up that were delicious. I should also add that I went several weeks ago and perhaps Balla hadn't fully gotten into the swing of things. I hope that is the case.

                  I genuinely wanted this place to be amazing, but I went and it was not.

                  The good:
                  The bread was tasty. The brisket was also fairly good. But mostly because both of these tasted like fat/melted butter.

                  The bad:
                  The paprikas was brown. I know that might not mean a lot to some people, but to Hungarians that's not a good sign. It should be a beautiful red, and even a so-so Hungarian mother could pull that off. They must've been using old paprika or burning the hell out of it. Maybe going through old supplies? Whatever it was, it was not yummy.

                  The spatzle was gooey and didn't hold its shape well. It was also not that good.

                  There were no Hungarian desserts on the menu yet or Hungarian wines (if someone from the restaurant is reading, please don't sell Egri Bikaver, I'm tired of explaining to people that not all Hungarian wines taste like old shoes). But, with sour cherries coming into season shortly I hope they make cold sour cherry soup. If they do I will make one final attempt to rekindle my childhood memories and pray that I showed up on an off night. I owe my people that much.

                  I guess try it for yourself, but from my experience I'd say you're better off saving the money, finding a Hungarian friend who likes to cook and buying a bottle of palinka.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: tomtom

                    Sounds like they've been making progress. The paprikas we had was reddish-pink and the spätzle were al dente.

                    Apparently they're going to make their own paprika.

                    The wine list is pretty carefully selected. I expect if they add Hungarian wines they'll be of similar quality. I asked the wine guy if he was in touch with Blue Danube, which distributes some great Hungarian wines here, and he said yes.

                  2. I was in a couple of weeks ago for the one dinner I had in the city during a recent visit. I sat at the bar, received expert, attentive and well informed help about both the menu and the wines from a fantastic female bartender. She guided me through the cucumber pickles which were garlicy, sharp with just enough bite and zing to capture my attention and reset me for the food which would come. This brings me to what I loved most about what I had - very precise, distinctly flavored and bold food. I came for something different (knowing little about Eastern European and less about Hungarian dishes) and it seemed like a good bet that's what would come.

                    Next I had the sour cherry soup, which I found to be a dual-personality borscht, with enough cherry in there to make me curious enough to keep eating, with a rooty (beet, I guess) base to keep it moving along, and the bits of creme fraiche and oil/pickled bits on top to give some variety. What got me about this dish was the texture - amazingly smooth and thick - a really lovely and unique dish.

                    Last, I had the blood sausage, which was fabulous and deep, with great spice and flavors going on with a richness and bottom end from the sausage which held everything together. It was intense, and I wondered if it was right as a main for just one person but I loved it and had no problem at all putting it away. The dish stayed great and interesting throughout.

                    Again - really expert and friendly service, and a wonderful menu with food that simply knows what it is and seems to say exactly what the kitchen is trying to say. I can't imagine this direction going for long in LA, where most folks likely wouldn't get this at all. This place is a treasure - where the menu is now and where it is likely headed is exciting. Enjoy it - I'm looking forward to a trip back to explore more. Thanks, SF CHs for saying your good things to get me there!

                    1. Finally made it here tonight! The cold sour cherry soup, chicken paprikas, and beef gulyas were as good as described. The gulyas was a brisket and had a lot of caraway. The paprikas seemed like a smoked paprika and came with some terrific greens. I missed not having any spätzle with it as it makes such a good combination with the paprikas sauce; it was just the greens and the mushrooms. The duck pate and padron with goat cheese appetizers were also tasty.

                      Desserts were OK but not that impressive; there's way too much savory and not enough sweet for my taste among these choices. The lack of strudel was a big disappointment given the Hungarian tilt of the menu. There are still no Hungarian wines on the wine list, but we had a nice Santa Ynez Syrah that went well with the food.

                      The deal-breaker here though is the ear-splitting volume of the room. At this volume level, no matter how well you cook and how much I like the food, I won't be coming back.


                      5 Replies
                      1. re: mdg

                        the chilled sour cherry soup was the best dish we tried.

                        1. re: mdg

                          mdg, is Dobos torte still on the menu?: Chocolate and hazelnut get covered in caramel.

                          SF Weekly J. Kauffman had a good review of the place w/ pic the dessert:

                          1. re: hhc

                            Yes, the dobos torte was on the menu, pretty much the one non-savory dessert. It was good but I'm not a hazelnut fan; my wife, who is, enjoyed it very much.

                            We sat in the front of the room to the right of the door, against the brick wall. Everything is hard, angular surfaces so it's no surprise it gets deafening when it's packed, as it was Saturday night. I've never been before so I have no idea if there was a remodel.


                          2. re: mdg

                            Was there a remodel? It's never been loud when I've been, so maybe where you're seated makes a difference.

                            1. re: sugartoof

                              Yes, there was a major remodel. They knocked out a wall to expand into the business next door (maybe the luggage place that closed?) and added a new section of tables.