If EPCOT Center taught us anything, it is that gimmicky knockoffs are no substitute for the real thing. It takes more than funny hats, overpriced foreign beverages and imported knickknacks to capture the soul and spirit of a place. Creating an unfeigned environment requires a masterful arrangement of setting, mood, food and drink. And when it is done right, it all fades effortlessly into the background.
To nail the quintessence of a French bistro, Tartine owner John McDonnell did not enlist an interior designer to fill his space with Parisian tchotchkes and framed absinthe prints. He simply selected an appropriate venue, dusted it off a bit, drafted a straightforward menu and went about his winning ways.
Of course, it only looks that simple to us diners. In truth, McDonnell expended loads of time, cash and sanity to get here. Furniture that wasn't built by hand onsite was salvaged from dead and dying establishments. Exposed brick walls were returned to states they hadn't experienced in decades. Layer upon layer of bold red paint was applied to the aged pressed-tin ceiling. Partner and professional photographer Eric Mull traveled to Paris specifically to capture in print the Louvre, Palace of Versailles and Eiffel Tower. Even the menu is a perpetual work in progress. The true spirit of a place comes not from things, but from people. Diners have been chasing McDonnell like gleeful puppies since he opened the Fulton Bar and Grill a decade ago. One of this town's premier operators, McDonnell makes it look so easy that the thought of opening up a place of one's own no longer seems mental. His infectious hospitality does more to imbue Tartine with warmth than would a roaring hearth.
The slender room seats just 40, and that includes a dozen or so at the 90-year-old bar. That number almost doubles on warm nights, when the faade of French doors is thrust open, uniting inside and out. Any larger and the kitchen (if you could rightly call it that) would be hard pressed to keep up. With the line lacking both space and equipment, it was decided early on that the menu would be uncomplicated and basic. Credit chef Nolan Konkoski, formerly of Momocho, with pushing things well beyond that.
There is nothing basic about Tartine's pizza. Thin, chewy and astutely topped, pies like wild mushroom ($10) and crispy bacon ($10) are perfect for sharing alongside a bottle of wine. In the latter, the sweetness of thin-sliced Ohio peaches and aged balsamic counter the saltiness of crisp bacon and ricotta salata. Leeks, goat cheese and truffle oil dress up the mushroom edition.
Even entrees seem to belie their mini-kitchen origins. Roasted chicken ($13), a classic bistro dish if ever there was one, can easily run afoul in even the best restaurants. But here, a succulent airline breast lands herby, lemony and deliciously salty. Adorable bundles of svelte haricot vert are held together with prosciutto belts. Large, sweet scallops ($15) are seared as deeply and darkly as they would be on a bona fide gas range. Even the filet mignon ($16), an item I begged my tablemate to snub given the circumstances, showed up pink and peppery.
You needn't tax the kitchen like we did to enjoy Tartine. Simple gifts like an outstanding cheese board ($9) or a platter of spiced hummus, punchy tapenade and grilled pita ($8) go down equally well in this setting. For an unforgettable experience, try the date appetizer ($8). Candy-sweet Medjool dates are stuffed with tart goat cheese, drizzled with port and gilded with bacon. The dish would work better if the dates were wrapped in bacon rather than just sharing a plate with it, but it all ends up in the same place, right? Had our gooey Gouda fondue ($8) been hotter, it too would have been more of a triumph.
The namesake tartines, essentially open-face sandwiches topped with all matter of goodness, are available at lunch and dinner. Priced at $9, tasteful arrangements include brie and duck confit, herbed chicken, apple and Swiss, and a wonderful ratatouille.
Despite enjoying some serious quality time on Tartine's front patio, I am looking forward to holing up here come winter. The brick walls and blood-red ceiling create a cozy cocoon, while the $17 carafes of house red wine warm the cockles without breaking the bank. When I tire of that, there are a dozen other affordable reds by the glass. And what's not to love about a bistro that offers a daily foie gras presentation? All that stops me from forwarding my mail to this address are the uncomfortable cafe chairs.Tartine Bistro
19110 Old Detroit Rd., Rocky River
KITCHEN HOURS: Lunch: 11:30 a.m-2:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat.
Dinner: 4:30-11 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 4:30-midnight Fri.-Sat.
Bar open later.