The evolution of Bar Tartine and Txoko's European flair -- chilled cherry soup to Basque cider
APPETITE Age is good thing: for wine, whiskey, cheese, wisdom, sense of self... Age deepens, fills out, matures. In the scheme of things, these two restaurants are youngsters — Bar Tartine has been successful since opening in 2005, Txoko was the new kid on the block in 2011. But they've steadily improved: what was exceptional at times last year is now more consistently so.
Bar Tartine has long been notable. Now it has become exciting. Last year I wrote of new chef Nick Balla, fresh from Nombe, who launched a Hungarian-influenced menu acknowledging his roots. Eastern European touches render the food unique yet exude down-home goodness.
Tripe strikes fear in the hearts of many. I don't mind it, but only at Oliveto's 2010 Whole Hog dinner had I found it delicious. Balla's grilled tripe ($12) stands as the best tripe dish I've ever tasted. Silky (not slimy) strips of tripe fill a bowl aromatically entwined with fennel, cabbage and paprika. Beets, an ingredient we've been inundated with in recent years, are electrifying in an ensalada rusa ($12) with celery root, dill, chili, peppercress, and plenty of lime. This invigorating expression stands above the best beet dishes. An entree winner is Hungarian farmer's cheese dumplings, nokedli ($17). Sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) and wild onion meld with doughy, slightly cheesy, dumplings: sheer comfort.
Puffy, fried Hungarian potato bread, langos ($10), remains the must-order menu item upon every visit, drizzled with sour cream and dill — it is blissfully garlicky. Not since my travels through the Hungarian countryside have I seen this addictive bread. Here's hoping when cherry season hits, we'll witness the return of Balla's fantastic version of Hungarian chilled sour cherry soup, meggyleves.
The wine list persists in quality, a recent example being two Riesling beauties set in contrast: a dry, elegant, German 2009 Keller Von der Fels Trocken Riesling alongside a lively, unusual-but-refined Santa Barbara 2008 Tatomer Vandenberg Riesling.
Balla's proven addition to Bar Tartine's expanded, inviting, glowing space, confirms the restaurant as a personal favorite — and one of the best in town.
8561 Valencia, SF. (415) 487-1600, www.bartartine.com 
With so little Basque cuisine in our city, I was delighted when Txoko (pronounced "choko") opened in the spacious space that was once home to Enrico's, promising Basque influence. (See Paul Reidinger's August 2011 review.) Lots of small plates and just a few larger ones appealed with an opportunity to try more. Early visits last year yielded delectable small bites, while I found larger plates less exciting. When the menu recently changed to a more traditional appetizer and entree format, I feared it would lose its uniqueness. Pleasingly, however, Txoko's menu has been rounded out, entrees keeping pace with starters. I do sense the Basque influence is looser than it was before, however, and would rather not see that aspect fade.
Txoko's Wednesday night, four-course foie gras dinners ($55) are arguably the best way to ride out the remaining months until June when the California foie gras ban takes effect (Txoko owner Ryan Maxey is a foie defender.) The menu varies weekly though typically finishes with buttery foie gras ice cream. One week I savored silky foie gras torchon on a flaky puff pastry, in a lavender golden raisin sauce redolent with thyme. My main was a gorgeous foie gras a la plancha (grilled), savory and meaty on a mound of beluga lentils, mirepoix, and chorizo, surrounded by strips of duck jamon, topped with crispy chicharrones.
On the regular menu, two dishes left an impression. Warm lamb's tongue salad ($11) is a surprisingly light salad of lamb mixed with poached potatoes, manchego cheese, shishito peppers and frisee, surrounded by smoked tomatoes. Different and delightful. A heartwarming dish of grilled venison Denver leg ($29) is served medium rare, draped over mashed yams in blood orange endive marmelata, dotted with crispy sage leaves and pine nuts. Each dish is artfully presented and generously portioned.
Drink options are vibrantly varied, with choices like a bone dry 2009 Isastegi Basque cider ($6) and wines like an earthy, plum and berry-inflected 2001 Senorio de P. Pecina Reserva Rioja. Txoko has a full bar with commendable cocktails ($10), such as a playful, refreshing Cool Hand Luke Fizz utilizing Fighting Cock bourbon, Peychaud's bitters, and egg whites for froth, made vivacious with Mexican Coke.
Finishing the evening with moist, Spanish-style bread pudding ($8), sweetened with prunes, olive caramel, and candied marcona almonds is a pleasure. I look forward to Txoko's continued evolution, keeping up its refreshing change of pace in North Beach, and, indeed, the city.
504 Broadway, SF. (415) 500-2744, www.txokosf.com 
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