This is a rather non-descript French bakery/café. But don’t let that fool you. It has won numerous “best bakery” awards in the area and is immensely popular. (And yes, even Martha Stewart paid a visit here just a week ago.) It is also notorious for its Soviet-style bread lines, which run long out the door on weekend mornings. Most patrons cut it some slack — attributing the lines to the price of demand for quality. But I have to fault part of that to their inability to ring up and serve a croissant and coffee at a rate of faster than one every two minutes. (While they are a fantastic bakery, they are also painfully slow and inefficient.)
The café has dark interior colors, shared tables in tight quarters, and plenty of sidewalk seating. Insanely good baked goods, various wines, and lunch fare. (In the fall of 2005 they opened up Bar Tartine for dinners at 561 Valencia nearby.) Making a serious attempt at espresso, they have a separate, dedicated espresso bar and barista. They once had an antique espresso machine with an unusual design, levers, and valves (it appeared to be an old Faema E61 Legend based on the groups), but they’ve since replaced it with a more standard, sturdy three-group La Marzocco Linea.
Unfortunately, their dedication and investment into quality espresso can’t escape the “French coffee curse”. (The barista wasn’t entirely sure of the maker, let alone model, of the machine she was using either — which is also not a good sign.) They serve espresso with a pale, thin crema — which is often the mark of a sour espresso due to an improperly low brewing temperature.
Fortunately, it does not suffer from any sourness in flavor. (As my friends at Mr. Espresso accurately suggested upon reading this post, Tartine often cuts off their shots much sooner than the proper 20-22 seconds of brewing — perhaps in order to handle their customer volume more quickly.) It’s a generally bright-tasting espresso with slight nutty and medicinal flavor notes. But the thin body comes off entirely in the French style, resulting in an underwhelming cup that suggests little more than glorified drip coffee. In the several times I’ve sampled their espresso over the past three years, they have been rather consistent in this regard.
Yet somehow this coffee was inexplicably ranked fifth in CitySearch.com’s 2005 Best San Francisco coffee, as voted by site visitors. This only underscores my marvel at and appreciation for how well the French can dazzle you with food and an ambience to where you are completely oblivious to what’s being served in your coffee cup. Even if it is a nice, classic brown, thick-walled Nuova Point cup at that.
It is no wonder that their business postcards prominently display the image of the classic French café-au-lait-in-a-cat-bowl. Drown an espresso under enough milk, and you can hide a lot of defects. It is not bad espresso by any means (it’s currently tied for #230 on CoffeeRatings.com). But if milk is your thing, I recommend that you put on your snorkel fins and dive in.
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