Note: this interview was originally published in October, 2011 by James Stolich
San Francisco has always been a city recognized for its eclectic and international cuisine. Our local progressive restaurants like Commonwealth, Aziza and Michael Mina innovate by drawing on the influences of either the chef's country of origin or area with which they have a special connection or affinity. What happens when the owners of a French bistro in the Mission turn the restaurant on its head and go all out with a full Hungarian menu? Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt re-opened Bar Tartine (561 Valencia Street) earlier this year with a menu focused on dishes reflecting the Danube River region of Eastern and Central Europe. Their strategy was to hire chef Nick Balla (formerly of Nombe and O Izakaya) who is of Hungarian descent and spent 3 years living in Budapest.
We caught up with Nick following his recent 3-week culinary research tour throughout Hungary:
Nick Balla with co-chef Cortney Burns. Photo courtesy of Bar Tartine.
What inspired your interest in cooking?
Nick: Both my parents were into cooking and I gained an appreciation early on. My dad cooked some traditional dishes and things handed down from his mother. My mom had the garden so she’d make all sorts of amazing stuff including Indian and Asian. My dad later moved back to Hungary and I went to live with him when I was 14 for two years. Then I came back to Michigan to finish high school. I really wanted to be a rock star but that didn’t work out so I started washing dishes in a couple of restaurants. When I was 19 I was the chef at this restaurant in Michigan. Later I decided to go to the CIA in New York and get my bachelors.
You just returned from 3 weeks in Hungary. What sorts of new things did you discover and how might this translate to the menu at Bar Tartine?
Nick: We started in Budapest and visited every farmer’s market possible. We also did some day trips to small towns like Etyek. We had an amazing meal at this family’s house. They had killed a rooster for us the day before and also had the most delicious homemade cheeses and sausages. They even have their own still and served us homemade házi pálinka (house brandy). It was just great. Then we headed down to Lake Balaton south of Budapest where we hit up the major wine producing areas of Villány and Szekszárd. Hungary has always been more of a wine country than beer drinking but during the years of socialism the wines became mass produced and less artisan. Native grapes Kékfrankos and Kadarka nearly became extinct. And now it’s coming back. There are many small producers making amazing wines and food products. We will start to see them exported over the next 20 years.
We also found a lot of obscure regional dishes like halászlé, a fresh-water fish stew with paprika. This is one dish I definitely want to recreate at the restaurant and put my own stamp on.
What do you like most about Hungarian/Eastern European cuisine?
Nick: It has very unique flavor profile. I hate the word fusion but Hungarian cuisine marries so many different cultures and foods together. Some might want to group it in with Slavic or Germanic food but it’s really its own thing. Hungary is right in the middle of a ton of different spice routes that were occupied by the Turks. The Hungarians themselves were nomads who also explored much of China. It’s a fusion of Germanic and Slavic food with Asian influence. They love southeast Asian chilies and dumplings and embrace both subtle and loud forward flavors. And the food is not heavy.
Have diners been receptive to the new menu at Bar Tartine?
Nick: We are getting amazing feedback. People have been receiving it well. It’s risky taking off a burger that is popular and completely overhauling a menu with dishes people are not asking for. Overall, though, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve gained a new audience of people who appreciate it. It’s going to keep evolving.
You can tell that Balla has the support of Bar Tartine’s owners to embrace Hungarian cuisine and bring its distinctive flavors to diners. The new menu at Bar Tartine is fun and refreshing with well-composed, thoughtfully prepared dishes. All of the pickled appetizers artfully served in individual glass jars are delicious. They include shredded cabbage with chili paste, King trumpet mushroom and artichoke, dill and green garlic cucumbers, pickled parsnip and radish and carrots with turmeric. I recommend ordering the sampler so that you can savor each one at the beginning and throughout the meal. The starter of eggplant with arugula, cardoon mayonnaise and lemon was very earthy and savory. The grilled tripe with fennel, cabbage and coriander had an extraordinary flavor and texture and imparted a delicious sweetness with undertones of game. According to Balla, the tripe is first simmered for 5 hours in a combination of orange juice and beef stock. Later it is fried for about 10 seconds before being finished on the grill. For tripe lovers this is a must have.
Other dishes include chilled kohlrabi soup (baby turnip, sour cream, radish), goat meatballs (red tipped spinach, chili, garlic) and smoked rainbow trout salad (horseradish, sour cream, kohlrabi, crispy skin). If you are hungry or up for sharing with your dining companion indulge in some bigger plates like the Kapusnica (smoked blood sausage, pickled cabbage, cherry, chili, hen of the woods), the Gulyas (beef brisket, red wine and caraway broth, whole wheat bread, marrow) and Chicken paprikas (baby shiitake, shallot, kale). Order a side of the grated buckwheat egg dumplings (onion sauce, chervil) to accompany the succulent chicken.
All of these dishes have bold, pronounced flavors due to the regional spices and preparations but at the same time never feel too heavy. Bar Tartine accepts reservations and is open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner and brunch service on Sundays from 10:30am to 2pm. Go beyond goulash and give this unique restaurant a try.
James is a food writer and Bay Area chef who owns and runs a private dinner party and cooking class business specializing in regional Italian and Spanish cuisine. See CookWithJames.com