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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nick Balla: 'I'd been planning for years on doing a Hungarian restaurant'

Posted By on Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 12:20 PM

click to enlarge Nick Balla, now of Bar Tartine. - CHAD ROBERTSON
  • Chad Robertson
  • Nick Balla, now of Bar Tartine.

Nicolaus (Nick) Balla made his reputation in San Francisco cooking in Japanese restaurants. The CIA grad ran a restaurant in Michigan before moving out to San Francisco, where he worked in Ozumo before becoming the opening chef of O Izakaya Lounge and then Nombe. His transition to California Hungarian food at Bar Tartine took many by surprise, but it's perhaps his most personal restaurant venture yet. In preparation for this week's review, I spoke to Balla. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation.

SFoodie: I understand that you've lived in Hungary?

Balla: I'm Hungarian, and during high school, I lived in Budapest -- an area called Budafok -- with my dad. He ran a small apartment building, and we lived above a three-generation family. They had a mushroom cave under their house, and would slaughter a pig every weekend. The grandmother would bring fresh blood sausage to our door two hours later.

How did you make the transition, then, from Japanese to Hungarian food

Nombe was wonderful, but I had decided I was going to leave. I'd been planning for years on doing a Hungarian restaurant. I thought I was going to do my own thing, and had some investors lined up.

[Bar Tartine owner] Chad Robertson used to come in to Nombe quite a bit, with Liz [Prueitt]. He probably ate there three times a week. He called me over one day and said, "What do you think about doing Eastern European food?" I said, let me send you a menu. It was just perfect. You have to have good bread for Eastern food. To have his insane bread to go with my food was amazing.

Did you travel to Hungary to do research before opening the restaurant?

I went back to Denmark and Hungary with Chad in February. In Denmark, he was working with bakers, and then we went to Budapest to try Hungarian breads, sausages, and restaurants. We ate a lot of langos, which is a Hungarian flatbread. It's a popular street food, and so we did a lot of langos research.

So are most of the dishes on your menu, like the langos, based on classic Hungarian dishes?

They're very traditional in a lot of ways. The staple things on the menu are paprikas, gulyas, the fish stew called halaszle, and kapusnica. All that stuff is based on traditional dishes, but we're interpreting it our way. We layer Japanese ingredients like kombu and katsuobushi in for their flavor and use California ingredients. In a traditional gulyas, you might have diced potatoes and carrots. Here we're using breakfast radishes and baby purple turnips -- whatever we find at the time. A lot of other dishes aren't very Hungarian -- they're just stuff we want to make. We play around a lot, doing a lot of pickling, preserving, and fermenting, seeing how the flavor combinations evolve.

Buckwheat shows up on the menu a lot. Is that going to be a big part of the bread Chad is making once the bakery gets going?

Very much so. We're bored with white flour and want to push whole grains, seeds, and nuts into our breads -- and the whole menu in general. We want to have more flavor and texture. We're just cooking them in a way that tastes good. Not the bland, chewy health food they're associated with. Chad's doing a lot of cool stuff with spelt and ancient wheats, both growing and milling them.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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