A game of chicken with our DNA; a hotheaded young pastry chef; but the coffee
A few years ago, you could see the neon sign of the Lady Baltimore cake store from the window of my apartment. I liked the view: I like neon, and I like the idea of cake—even though I don’t eat a lot of it, and even though the pastries at Lady Baltimore were very ordinary and the coffee tasted like it had been brewed by someone who was nostalgic for the time before Americans had learned to drink good coffee. (Visible from the other end of the apartment is Anna’s Danish Cookies, where the coffee tastes like it was actually brewed during that time.)
But there were never any customers in the Lady Baltimore, and a couple years ago they closed the place and tore out the neon. Several months later, like the wings of a beautiful butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, Tartine opened.
If you’re the kind of person who reads food columns, you probably already know about Tartine. By virtue of its obvious excellence, and by filling a niche in San Francisco’s culinary ecosystem, it has become an unmissable stop on any gustatory tour of the city. It’s a no-compromise bakery. It serves flour-based foods—sandwiches and pastries and tarts and stuff—but they’re all more unmitigated than usual, as though every item aspires to the Platonic ideal of the genre.
For breakfast you can get ham-and-cheese croissants made with Niman organic ham and sharp melted gruyère, or pains au chocolat made with gooey dark Scharffen Berger chocolate. There are also morning buns, which are orange-and-cinnamon flavor and which are not a fancy version of some classic food item but which are really good. When you eat one of these things, you don’t imagine that you’re in a charming little patisserie on the Rive Gauche; Parisian patisseries make very good croissants, obviously, but they’re not like this. This is a Bay Area foodie’s riff on a Parisian patisserie.
These pastries are the kind of food that makes people immediately squint their eyes and make little pleasure-noises when they bite into one for the first time. These noises interest me. They are not simply a response to foods that taste good. We don’t make them when we taste a particularly great bowl of soup or a sweet, ripe strawberry. I think they’re some kind of automatic nervous-system reaction to the presence of ungodly amounts of butter, which is what you get from a single bite of one of Tartine’s croissants.
But the richness of the morning pastries is a mere warm-up for that of the savory lunch items, which inspire the kind of Biblical adjectives, such as sinful and decadent, that are usually associated with chocolate. The croque monsieur, an open-faced ham-and-cheese sandwich that’s a staple of French cafés, is here made with (again) Niman ham and gruyère and soaked in béchamel sauce. The olive cake, flavorered with white wine and vermouth, has a tart, adult flavor: it’s impossibly dense, like a savory version of eating raw chocolate-chip cookie dough, and so egg-loaded that you can feel your cholestrol bounce.
The desserts, unsurprisingly, are the best you’ll find anywhere. The chocolate cakes should be prescribed as antidepressants. I recently had a slice of apple pie: three different kinds of apples, baked to a texture perfectly poised between crispy and mushy, on a crust that was of course light and flaky (anyone can do light and flaky) but which achieved lightness and flakiness without sacrificing its integrity, which is harder.
But if you order a savory item and a dessert, be aware that you will want to eat them on separate days. Tartine’s food dances on the razor’s edge of the physiological threshold at which the pleasure of eating is overwhelmed by the human body’s inability to process any more fat. The ham-and-cheese croissants, which offer the combined lacto-power of the buttery croissant and the gruyère, have almost brought me to my knees, and I’ve got a professional stomach. In Tartine, all the resources of Bay Area food culture are poured into a game of chicken with our DNA: How far can we go to satisfy the urge to enrich our carbohydrates with more and more fat before we overpower our digestive system? At what point do the moans of pleasure become groans of pain?
I suspect that Tartine’s oven is in the hands of some hotheaded young pastry chef—brilliant and impulsive, doesn’t play by the rules—who has iconoclastically decided to push the quantities of butter and egg and all the other ingredients that make food pleasurable to their absolute limit and beyond. Perhaps this chef has a more traditional partner, a former baking master who retired in shame after a soufflé debacle or something but who was lured back into the pastry game by the younger chef’s once-in-a-generation talent, and this partner is always saying things like “More butter?! Are you mad?! You’ll kill us all!”
Of all the culinary arts, a chef once told me, pastry is the closest to science: it revolves around precise temperatures, exact quantities, perfect timing. Tartine has resolved these matters of chemistry—I’m not sure the croissant could be refined any further—and begun to explore questions of biology: the limits of the human capacity for deliciousness. We all await the results.
I have a single small gripe, one that wouldn’t bother me if Tartine wasn’t across the street from my house. The pastries are on the expensive side—$2.50 for a pain au chocolat, $7 for a croque monsieur. I think that’s reasonable: they’ve been made from the best available ingredients, by chefs with talent and experience, in a high-end kitchen designed to turn out superior baked goods. Those things cost money.
But the coffee. It’s perfectly good coffee. Unlike the Lady Baltimore coffee of yore, it’s modern, post-Starbucks coffee. But it’s not the coffee equivalent of the pastries—that is, it’s not the best coffee you’ve ever had. It’s not as good as the coffee at Faye’s Video right across the street. (Faye’s has really good coffee.) So why does Tartine charge $1.75 for a regular cup of coffee? (Faye’s charges a buck, and they give you your tenth cup free, so really it’s 90 cents.) Tartine could build some goodwill in the neighborhood (or at least in the part of the neighborhood that lives in my apartment) by saying, Our pastries may be expensive, but our coffee will cost the same as other people’s coffee, no more and no less—rather than, If you can afford to eat here, you can afford to pay an extra 85 cents for your coffee.