Biting into any dessert by Tartine Bakery is biting into a bit of heaven. Located in the Mission District of San Francisco, this renowned and award-winning bakery can be spotted by the line of people standing outside, either waiting for their turn to order, or for an open table. Otherwise, as you can see in the image below, the outside is nondescript, rather scruffy and without any kind of sign that might hopefully say: Tartine Bakery. That is what I was looking for after finding the address, parking my car, and scanning around the junction for something that would look like a famous bakery.
My friend Valerie, whom by now I am sure you know, as she has shared in my explorations – especially food-related ones – for years, had joined me on my trip to the city to photograph the exquisite Ornamento shop inside the Fairmont. It was past two in the afternoon by the time I was done, and we were both famished.
As we were trying to figure out where we wanted to eat I remembered Tartine, which had been on my go-to list for some time, and I checked on the MapQuest App to see where it might be located with respect to where we were. It was not in our neighborhood of the moment (Nob Hill), but San Francisco is not that big and, newbie that I am, I do not mind exploring and getting to know the streets and side streets. A few zig zags suggested by the App, with smart traffic-avoiding tweaks by savvy local Valerie, and we were soon parked along Guerrero St.
As we walked in, I had to send out the intention that a table would open up for us when we were ready, as the place was crowded. The image above only partially renders the idea, because I shot it later, in a moment of relative quiet, after we were done with our delicious lunch and were ready to leave.
We approached the display counter and any thought of a savory lunch flew out the window, at least for me. I am sure the display must have been even richer earlier in the day, but it still held a lot of tempting options. Everything looked absolutely divine, but when I saw the banana cream tartlets I developed a case of tunnel vision. I had been craving one for months, and here was my chance, looking better than I had envisioned.
I checked the lunch menu you see on top of the counter and opted for a small Gougère (which autocorrect insists is really a cougar – $4) so I could enjoy my Banana Cream Tartlet ($7.25). Valerie chose an Open-Faced Sandwich with Asparagus, Mushrooms & Gruyere ($13), and followed it with a Cherry-Frangipane Tartlet ($6.60). Anything with cherries, almonds and chocolate and she is in heaven. We passed on ordering lattes because we had already enjoyed some earlier in the morning, even if all the ones we saw passing by looked really good.
You can see a full menu here.
We found a freshly liberated table outside, among the ones lined up against the wall along 18th Street. The rainy morning had turned into a hot sunny afternoon, but luckily the seating area was in the shade. There must have been some rubbish dump area nearby, because a rather miserable smell kept wafting our way. Getting someone to wipe down and clear our table was a little challenging, but eventually it happened. By then we no longer cared because we had bitten into our food.
The Gougère was light and airy, crispy on the outside and hollow and moist on the inside, just as it should have been. For those who are unfamiliar with it, a gougère is basically a savory cheese choux – or empty eclair, which can be flavored as desired, and hails from France.
Valerie’s Open Sandwich was among the specials of the day and, when it arrived, made me wish I had ordered one, too, while at the same time making the mental note of creating more baked open sandwiches for my future lunches. It came with a carrot, and we both thought that was an odd choice of side. What? A carrot? But then we tried it and discovered it was pickled and delicious, so it turned out to be an extra treat.
Finally, it was time for me to dig into the Banana Cream Tart (or pie). For ten minutes everything else was forgotten: all the scruffiness, untidiness and malodor faded into the background. Only the soft, creamy, flavorful tenderness of the tart remained in all its perfect layers of flaky pastry brushed with chocolate, bananas and vanilla custard, fluffy whipped cream mound and chocolate shavings. Nom, nom, nom, yum, slurp, mmm, mmm… and all the rest of that onomatopoeia.
No wonder these people have won awards!
I was so enthralled by my own dessert that I did not taste any of Valerie’s Cherry-Frangipane Tart, but I was assured it was excellent.
Now that our tummies and taste buds were ultra satisfied, I just had to go back inside and have another look. Photos were the excuse, while the real reason was to pick up something to take home. What to choose? That was the dilemma.
At our first round we were a little overwhelmed by the choices, the line pushing us from behind and the server waiting to take our order in front. On my second round I was the last in line, so I did not feel rushed. I snapped my pics and then stared at the display. Valerie joined me just as the friendly lady behind the counter was explaining that the cakes were available both whole and by the slice. Ding, ding, ding! By the slice? Oh yeah!
Valerie spotted the Lemon Meringue Cake. Neither of us had ever had lemon meringue in cake form, only pie, so we had to have a slice of that to go. Then I saw the Passion Fruit Coconut, and since passion fruit is irresistible, that became our second pick. We were so full that the notion of more dessert was not in our near future, so the excuse for these extra picks was Valerie’s husband Jack waiting at home, who loves dessert even if he says he doesn’t eat it. You know someone like that, don’t you? The other excuse were photos, of course.
The bakery lady packed up the cake slices in two separate boxes and we were off.
The minute we got to Valerie’s house I did the quickest styling in the West and took photos, starting with the bakery boxes at the top of the post. There is something very pleasing and comforting about bakery boxes, and it all has to do with the promise of what might be hiding inside. In this case, it turned out to be two of the best cakes I have ever had. EVER!
Because, of course, once I was done with the photos, we decided we had to at least have a bite each to taste them. Except, even as stuffed as we were, the cakes were so good that one bite turned was not nearly enough. Jack ended up having hardly any cake, and our dinner was forfeited.
Can you write orgasm of the mouth on a blog? I guess you can because I just did. Super fresh, moist and just perfectly bouncy genoise, lemon moistened and layered with lemon and caramel cream and topped with fluffy toasted meringue in one cake. The other slice was filled with hefty layers of lilikoi bavarian so flavorful it left no doubt there was real passion in this passion fruit, and wrapped in fresh cream topped with coconut flakes. And not the usual dried coconut flakes you usually see on cakes and which I tend to dislike, but such tender and tasty ones that, not only did I love them, but am inclined to think were made in-bakery from fresh coconuts. Bakery artists extraordinaire Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery: sorry I don’t have an award for you (yet, who knows…) but I may have to come and hug you!
Let me tell you, these are my kind of cakes. They look good, but also taste good in both flavors and textures, and there is no buttercream in sight, which, even in its most perfect execution, is still boring to me.
The fact that I do not live near Tartine is both a blight and a blessing. I look at these images as I write and wish I could dash over now and pick something up. Then again, if I lived nearby I would be doing that way too often, and would then have to walk everywhere to burn the calories. And I mean EVERYWHERE!
Now, if after all of that you are still hungry for dinner, you can walk over to Bar Tartine, just a block away on Valencia Street, where Chefs Cortney Burns and Nick Balla will tempt you with their creations. This is something I have yet to do, but is on my short list. Dania, when are you coming to town next time?
A couple more things before closing. Tartine Bakery also bakes bread, which is available daily after four-thirty (pm, I am assuming) in full or half loaves. Next time I will make a point of picking up a loaf. You can find more details about that here.
The other thing I wish to mention is that both the Bakery/Cafe and the Bar embrace the wisdom of local & organic first. And you know me, they get extra kudos for that!