Bar Tartine's meggyleves, a Hungarian chilled sour-cherry soup ($9), was the pale pink of a young girl's birthday card, complete with a cloud of sour cream. Despite its fruity appearance, the soup turned out to be bewitchingly savory. Much like the rosé I drank with it, the aroma of cherries flashed by, followed by almost currylike notes of sautéed onions, black pepper, and fennel pollen. I tasted spoonful after spoonful, trying to pin down exactly how it was seasoned, as if presented with one of those linking puzzles I couldn't quite pull apart.
Hungarian cherry soup is a new direction for a 5-year-old restaurant that has not been afraid to tack from simple Cal-Med to experimental and back again. Chris Kronner, the last chef, represented echt California cuisine, but when Nicolaus Balla took over this spring, he unveiled Hungarian roots never hinted at in his Japanese-Californian food at Nombe and O Izakaya, and the restaurant has zagged back into more exciting waters. Balla's menu is rife with sauerkraut, paprika, and, above all, sour cream. But this is no Mitteleuropean pork fest.
A meal might begin with a slab of buckwheat-inflected bread tiled over with butter, shaved radishes, and thick slices of housemade bottarga, or cured gray mullet roe ($9), that seems to glow gold with its own internal luminescence. Balla ships the roe sacs from a Florida uncle, then cures it himself. Its creamy, dense flesh has just the faintly metallic edge of cured fish, rendered a bit smoky from the grilled bread underneath. Dinner segues through small plates and tiny jars of pickled baby carrots, aromatic with the galangal-like notes of fresh turmeric, through to a stalwart chicken paprikas ($22): two chicken thighs, which taste as meaty as if they'd been seared in bacon fat, bathed in a thick sauce tinged with smoked paprika. Baby shiitakes and a sweet roasted shallot are hidden under the sauce, and a tuft of sautéed, curly-leafed Bloomsdale spinach is poised on the side of the bowl.
The restaurant's radical transformation is far from complete. This spring, owners Chad Robertson and Elizabeth Prueitt expanded into the luggage shop next door, where they plan to install a new oven imported from Italy and serve breads and sandwiches during the day. (Most of the expansion is blocked off from sight until the autumn.) Meanwhile, Robertson has been traveling around Denmark and Norway, researching ancient grains he wants to use and mastering Northern and Eastern European breads — hence his interest in recruiting Balla, who spent part of his teenage years outside Budapest, to make Hungarian food.
In the narrow back half of the restaurant, the old Bar Tartine endures. Its austere black wood floors and white walls are shined up with mirrors and stainless-steel kitchen appliances, a thousand silvery angles batting light about the room. The marble bar is still the best place in the Mission to order a luxe burger and a glass of red, except the dry-aged beef burgers have been replaced by Balla's goat meatballs, their texture airy and their spicing almost Middle Eastern — an even exchange for the burger, I thought, when I tasted them. The wide front half of the room has been repaneled in unvarnished planks and white calking, and giving the room the impression of Scandinavian parsimony.
I like what Balla is doing at Bar Tartine better than I did at Nombe, where the tension between classic izakaya fare and Balla's creativity could feel painfully taut. Here, though many of his dishes are based on Hungarian classics, he's roaming off the leash. The easiest dish to like is probably langos ($9), a popular Hungarian street food: a puffy, fried length of potato-wheat dough — an elephant ear with some class — seasoned with onions and garlic and destined for dredging in sour cream. He makes grated egg dumplings ($9) with buckwheat, and the spaetzle-like dumplings, tossed with cheese and butter, taste of the smell that rises off the fields on a hot, dusty day. Buckwheat also gives the crumbly crust on pastry chef Jennette Taylor's turo tarte ($7.50), a dark cast that sets off the sweet, ricottalike cheese inside.
The Japanese influence hasn't left Balla's food — he says he deepens the flavor of some of his stocks with dashi and katsuoboshi (dried, smoked bonito), and dishes like his cucumber, purple mizuna, and kohlrabi salad with a peppery anchovy dressing ($6) could have come from Nombe days. Other dishes, like his roasted fresh porcinis and carrots ringed in a tart keffir foam (a fermented milk) and garnished with borage flowers ($14), are pure California cuisine, albeit the California cuisine of Manresa's David Kinch, not Zuni's Judy Rogers.
Balla's entrées, each based on a Hungarian classic, can overwhelm, the way an overripe Cab does. The only thing technically wrong with his halaszle ($23), pan-fried rock cod floating in a terracotta-colored broth aromatic with smoked paprika, was that the fish was a shade overcooked. But there was so much of it, and it was so oily and robust, that I only wanted a few bites. Same with the kapusnica ($22), which had fantastic, wintry flavors — the cabbage roll stuffed with blood sausage and duck; the lightly pickled and braised cabbage with dried cherries and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms; the blood sausage, more smoky and less cloying than western European versions. But they needed to be halved in size, or offset by something lighter in flavor. We sent the plate away half eaten, partially because there was dobos torte ($7.50) awaiting us, with millimeter-thin layers of chocolate cake and hazelnut cream served with fresh apricots dressed in a salted caramel sauce.
Balla's food is as dramatic and complex as what Commonwealth and Sons + Daughters are serving, without the modernist trickery they delight in. His Hungarian roots may be what you first notice upon reading the menu, but Balla's imagination is what lingers long after the meal is done.