Back in the ’90s, the West Village was known for its charming little French bistros, many hidden away on side streets. Now, few remain. Founded in 1992 at the corner of West 11th and West Fourth by chef and owner Thierry Rochard, Tartine was one, and it was unique. Not for its corner location, with the familiar striped awning, or the bent cane chairs that flanked the tiny outdoor tables, but for the unshowy homeliness of the place and the idiosyncrasies on its mainly predictable French menu. The place subtly focused on Brittany, making it a bit different that the usual Village bistro, which tried to affect a Parisian cool. Tartine’s interior was plastered with pictures of boats and sunbathers, driftwood, carved fish, and a collection of model lighthouses that might have done a maritime museum proud.
Its West Village neighbors always adored it, and eventually visitors from around the city, who treated Tartine like their personal secret, did too. It was rarely reviewed by critics, though increasingly loved by its patrons.
Besides the usual menu of steak frites, snails, pates, cheese plates, and frisee salads, it also mounted a weekend brunch that became particularly popular, heralded every weekend morning by the pungent smell of clarified butter wafting down the street. The restaurant’s BYOB policy (it didn’t sell alcoholic beverages) was similarly admired, permitting wine enthusiasts to match their own French vintages with French food, a rare occurrence in NYC, then as now.
But another key feature saw bakers working early every morning to produce the neighborhood’s best croissants, which, owning much to Brittany, were bigger, crustier, and more deeply browned than the usual article. The almond croissant, in particular, was spectacular — a plain croissant split horizontally, thickly smeared with butter and marzipan, then reassembled and rebaked with a topping of powdered sugar and slivered almonds. Locals knew that even if you couldn’t get a seat for brunch, you could swing by and pick up a paper bag of pastries.
With spectacular timing, Tartine closed for renovations just before the virus hit, and did not reopen until July. Then, once again, it became one of the hottest brunch tickets in town, with eager diners lining up and waiting to get a taste of its French toast, croques-monsieur and -madame, and eggs Norvegienne, which substituted good old New York lox for Canadian bacon in eggs Benedict.
One thing was missing when the place flung its doors open again — sadly, the croissants were gone, seemingly forever. They were simply too much trouble early in the morning, and the renovated kitchen was now more suited to cooking brunch and dinner than baking. I decided to go to Tartine again with a companion this last weekend for my first visit since 2016 (though I’d often had the croissants in the interim), to see if the food was as good as it had been.
The renovation has resulted in a slightly reconfigured dining room, with pictures and objets d’art arranged more methodically on the walls, though now the room is empty and a comfortable curbside dining area with the usual plants has been installed. As always, outdoor tables hug the dark green exterior of the restaurant, constituting the most desirable brunch and dinner tables in fine weather. And this is a neighborhood where you want to eat outside for as long as the weather holds.
The chef is Alberto Santos, and the menu slightly shrunken from the restaurant’s earlier incarnation as a result of COVID-19 and the exigencies of outdoor dining. It is supplemented by a list of chalkboard specials that take up the slack, straying slightly into Italian territory, as French bistros have been doing for the last two decades. One example was a wonderful burrata ($17), a stark white loaf of cream-oozing cheese on top of toast and pickled red peppers, napped with balsamic vinegar. The sweetness of the thick vinegar and tartness of the peppers complemented the richness of the fresh cheese.
Even better, and much more classic, was the French onion soup ($11) mantled with gruyere. This dish remains universal among the city’s remaining bistros, and for good reason. Everyone expects it. But how is the rich broth achieved, and how do the onions turn that agreeable shade of brown? I was happy to see that another Tartine classic made it to the new menu, although we didn’t try it this time: a steak tartare shaped into a puck, quirkily topped with guacamole, and served with homemade, ripple-cut potato chips for scooping.
For a main course we chose mussels mariniere ($25), named after the famous blue-striped Breton sailor’s shirt. In a white-wine-and-shallot broth that left a briny taste in one’s mouth, the bivalves tasted powerfully of the sea. Among other entrees, we skipped the perhaps too-predictable roast salmon, seafood pasta in tomato-basil sauce, and steak au poivre in favor of Tartine’s most unusual specialty.
According to a somewhat vague but oft-told story, it was the Mexican cooks and waiters, who have worked at the restaurant since its inception, who invented the dish. Spicy chicken ($24) features an agreeably browned heap of chicken chunks sprawled in a dense, fawn-colored sauce dotted with minced garlic and green chiles, both powerful flavors. As with a mole, you could dip anything in that sauce and it would be great.
The plate also includes good fries and a salad dressed with a thick vinaigrette, but also a wad of guacamole. It proves to be the perfect sidelight to the entire entree, a value-added feature that makes the plate more memorable. In the course of this belt-busting feed, for which an app is unnecessary, you’ll find yourself trying every combination of items on the plate.
Dessert will seem like an afterthought, with only three rather obvious choices: creme brulee, a warm chocolate cake, and tarte tatin, a throwback to the restaurant’s old baking days. We picked the creme brulee ($8) for its absurd dairy density and thick crust of caramelized sugar, and for the opportunity it provided to sit outside in the cooling evening in this townhouse-lined neighborhood a few minutes more. Yes, Tartine is till a great place to eat, we mused, and we looked forward to going back to retest the brunch.