Even counting the kitchen, Carta isn't very big. In fact it's an eavesdropper's paradise. From a table against one wall, I could make out quite a bit of a conversation being conducted by a party of four against the far wall. (Romantic troubles or impending bankruptcy? Hard to be sure.) Presumably this intimacy works both ways, but I didn't notice anyone (except the efficient waitstaff) noticing us. I did notice the parade of cherubs etched on the wall -- an amusing classical note in an otherwise modern, neoindustrial design.
We caught the tail end of the menu for November, which featured the foods of Brittany and Normandy. Those chilly, rocky seaside provinces of northwestern France produce most of the country's apples and the famous apple brandy, Calvados. For a moment I felt faintly cheated to be eating November food in December (leftovers syndrome?), but the shift in the weather at the turn of the month made the food seem indescribably right.
For lunch, a friend and I sat at a small wood-topped bistro table and, while plates of food intermittently arrived, talked with gusto about books we'd recently read, and mostly hated. If one basis of friendship is hating the same things, then another must be agreeing about it over plates of food robust enough to provide the necessary energy without being distractingly showy. That's Carta.
The restaurant offers a three-course, fixed-price lunch for $10.95. In November, the deal began with a potato-leek soup that was thick and milky, like good clam chowder, with just enough chunks of potato to give texture. The muted-onion flavor of leek was unmistakable, but it kept to its place rather than throwing the dish off balance.
(Leeks are hugely underused here as compared to France, where they not only provide the savory base for many dishes but are also served as an aromatic side vegetable -- steamed until tender and dressed with vinaigrette. They cost more than onions, and you do have to clean the grit out of them, but their flavor is more complex.)
The salad consisted of apple slices, chunks of walnut, and bits of Gruyre cheese on a bed of greens. It was like a rolling arpeggio of harmonious tastes and textures -- the sweet-tart apple; the fragrantly rich cheese; the walnuts with their heavy, oily crunch -- all cut by a vinaigrette.
The main event was a "croque monsieur" -- a ham-and-cheese sandwich. The ham-and-cheese is so widely available now at 7-Eleven that it's easy to forget how fine it can be with a little loving attention, which Carta provided. The bread was flaky-fresh, and the ham had been grilled just enough to give its edges a delicate crispness.
Meanwhile, I was ordering à la carte, starting with one of the small plates -- cauliflower ($4) with sauce gribiche, a housemade mayonnaise in which minced capers and cornichons had been folded. These additions gave the mayo a briny acidity that nicely balanced the oil and egg. Undercooked cauliflower has an unpleasant camphor aftertaste, like mothballs, but Carta had cooked its through without turning it to mush.
My large plate was the sliced chicken breast ($7), which was topped with slices of fennel in a sauce of tarragon-scented creme fraiche. The sauce, happily, was less rich than it sounded, and the licorice accents of both the tarragon and fennel matched well with the poultry. The plate was a little shy on color, and I wouldn't have minded some sort of starch to soak up the sauce.
At dinner, a cold wind blew through the open transom window above the door directly to our table. One of my table-mates ended up having to wear his heavy leather jacket while he ate. But cold also stimulates the appetite -- which for us was fortunate, because both first and main courses came in ample portions.
The warm foie gras salad ($10) was a big plate of greens punctuated by slices of sauteed duck's liver and freshly toasted garlic croutons. The liver had a delicate flavor and a bonbonlike richness that could have overwhelmed the dish if not for the astringent vinaigrette.
The onion tart ($6) was really a slice of quiche: An egg-Gruyere mixture filled a pastry shell, with the caramelized onion on top. I would have liked more onion and less spongy filling, which seemed a little too heavy for a first course. I kept mostly to my profoundly deep-fried potato fritters ($5), which looked like chunks of not-quite-cool lava and had come straight to the table from the deep fryer.
Of the main courses, the one I liked least was also the most expensive -- the marmite Dieppoise ($20). It was like a seafood paella with no rice; upon finishing the dish, with all the clams and mussels and scallops and chunks of whitefish gone, there was still a pool of cream sauce in the bottom of the bowl, with no way to mop it up.
Braised rabbit ($17) was slightly overdone. It came on a bed of green lentils, glossy and cooked al dente, and a scattering of halved, tender Brussels sprouts. There was also a handful of crab apples on the plate as a garnish -- tasty but squishy and, to me, unappealing.
The pork loin ($14) was roasted to death, as required by law. The prune stuffing had the thick consistency of homemade marmalade; it was just barely sweet and added some much-needed moisture. Julienned turnips and parsnips brought shape and color, but we barely noticed the Normandy mustard sauce.
It was too cold for the apple sorbet with Calvados ($5) -- which I'd had for lunch anyway; it had a snowy texture, but the flavor of apple turned thin and brittle in the ice.
People kept pouring into the place, like windblown travelers glad to have found a welcoming inn for the night. But that was only one Carta. Already there is another.
For the rest of December, Carta is serving a Russian menu.
Carta, 1772 Market, S.F., 863-3516. Tues-Fri noon-3 p.m. & 6-11 p.m.; Sat-Sun 4-11 p.m.