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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Beretta Overshadows Bar Tartine in SF

I've always believed that L.A. is a better eating city than San Francisco (I know I'll be flamed for this) but there are definitely some things you just can't get here, like an incredibly juicy Hot Link from Top Dog, the wonderfully cheesy and tomato-ey Chicago-style deep dish pizzas from Zachary's Pizza in Berkeley or the sumptuous quiches, bread puddings and crunchy breads at Tartine Bakery. So naturally, I headed straight for the oldies and also made some new discoveries along the way at Beretta.

Before I even go into new discoveries, let's take a moment to appreciate the classics, so perfect that you can't help but return over and over again -- even if it means standing in line in cramped quarters. Yes, that's the downside and the charm of Tartine bakery. It's a quaint little place where lines begin forming early even on weekdays. The quiches are incredibly hearty, creamy, perfectly salty with a crunchy top. There's something in that dairy (creme fraiche) the bakery uses. I think this is a case of excellent ingredients combined to produce the most exquisite breakfast, brunch, snack, whatever. I'm not even a big quiche person but no matter. I can't get enough! Then there are the plain and chocolate croissants and amazingly delicious bread pudding. I've tried the banana and apple bread puddings and I like the banana one better but they're both solid. I got greedy and brought one chocolate croissant to L.A. and can I say, that following morning's breakfast in my car was one of the best I've had in a while? Warm croissant with coffee for the road...Traffic? What traffic?

Finding a new gem is almost as satisfying as the tried and true and thanks to my foodie hosts, I did just that at Beretta. As much as I like the deep-dish pizzas, I am more particular to thin-crusted ones that aren't as heavy. I initiallly didn't think I'd like the combination of potato, rosemary, radicchio and crescenza that much but behold the first photo on top. Isn't that a beauty? We substituted gorgonzola on the menu with the creamy crescenza cheese I don't I was familiar. Apparently it had been recommended by a food critic and she was right on. The razor-thin slices of fingerling potatoes with the rosemary and grilled radicchio (which I usually find too bitter raw) all mixed with the buttery texture of the crescenza cheese were fabulous.

The cannellini beans and pancetta with pepper bruschette was also the right combination of salty and creamy with a bit of a bite. A note to self was to cook more with cannellini beans, especially in mashed form, since they're good for you and tasted so good here. Another revelation was the porcini mushroom risotto with barbera (red Italian wine grape variety). Everything about it was right -- the deep mushroom flavor, the creamy texture and the al-dente rice pellets, dyed a light burgundy from the barbera with a touch of grape flavor. It was so comforting, much like jjuk, Chinese or Korean porridge, only its flavors were stronger.

One thing that was off, however, was the margherita with burrata pizza. This is my favorite kind of pizza and my pizza-meter, if you will, since everyone has it on the menu and mastering this most basic pizza would pretty much be a vote of confidence for everything else. Complicated California-style pizzas a-la-Wolfgang Puck? No, thank you. Although the crust was great and the burrata was creamy like buttah, this margherita had too much tomato sauce that it overpowered everything. The crust and burrata reminded me of the margherita I had at Pizzeria Mozza, which was very good albeit overpriced.

A slight disappointment was Tartine Bakery's offshoot, Bar Tartine, which served mediocre food with inefficient and somewhat snooty service. We had many things with long and fancy names like cauliflower soup with meyer lemon, piment d’espelette and cilantro pistou; truffled grill cheese with king trumpet mushrooms, thyme, red onion and small salad; Liberty farm duck confit panini with blood orange marmalade, mizuna and shoestring fries; open face pork belly sandwich with avocado, egg salad, pickled jalapeno and shoestring fries and polenta hash with braised brisket, celery sofrito, parsley and fried eggs.

I lament to say that the best thing about the restaurant was the bread -- fresh and sturdy peasant bread with a great crust and moist interior. Much better than La Brea bakery and on par with Acme or Balthazar's bread in NYC. The duck confit panini was completely overpowered by the blood orange marmalade, which was a very bad match -- stuck out like a sore thumb. The open faced pork belly sandwich was ok but a royal pain to eat (open faced sandwiches simply should not exist). The polenta hash with braised brisket was probably the best dish by a small margin. I think the fried eggs did it for me. Like Anthony Bourdain said in a recent episode, "is there anything that doesn't taste better with an addition of a gratuitous egg?"

The soup looked beautiful and tasted decent but a bit thin and not as deeply flavored as it could have been. The shoestring fries were virtually cold, my biggest pet peeve being served lukewarm food that's been sitting underneath the lamp. They tasted kind of stale too. Unacceptable. The grilled cheese sandwich was good but not transporting. Next time I'm in town, I'll probably skip Bar Tartine (maybe give it a second chance for dinner) and go for the crusty pizzas at Beretta and dessert (or breakfast or brunch) at Tartine Bakery.

1199 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 695-1199

Bar Tartine
561 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

(415) 487-1600

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

(415) 487-2600

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