When Corey Donovan and his fiancee, Amy Christiansen, decided to open a French-style bistro called Tart this spring, they knew they had to be a little different.
Traditional French restaurants have not done well in Bend. Some Central Oregon diners may construe French cuisine as pretentious and expensive. Others may find it rich and heavy, perhaps served in an atmosphere that borders on stuffy.
I find this curious. French cooking is widely taught at American and European culinary schools, a fact not lost on anyone who admires excellent cooking or Julia Child.
But Donovan, a 15-year veteran of the restaurant business, acknowledged that he needed to get “outside the box” of French cuisine. “Our goal was a French-inspired bistro with some global fusion aspects,” he said.
Tart Bistro has succeeded in that regard. Not everything is perfect; although some items are phenomenal, I have not found the salads and entrees to be consistently excellent.
But I like that Tart is bringing new flavors to Central Oregon, at moderate prices and with reliable service.
When I think of French bistro fare, I think “steak frites” (beef and fries) and “croque monsieur” (a grilled ham-and-Gruyere sandwich). I think “salade Niçoise” (green beans and other vegetables with tuna). I think cured meats and cheeses.
Tart offers all of these items, tweaking the Niçoise (a new menu item) with salmon instead of tuna. But chef Dan Ladenburger also serves dishes that range from fish tacos and coconut-crusted pork tenderloin “lollipops” to Moroccan grilled salmon.
Ladenburger has cooked at two major restaurants (Left Bank and Sweet Basil) in the Colorado resort town of Vail. Donovan was the general manager of Pastini Pastaria, in the Old Mill District, before purchasing the former 28 restaurant from Zydeco owners Steve and Cheri Helt in May. Together, the restaurateurs have a goal for Tart Bistro.
“We will serve mainly what's in season and available locally,” Donovan said. “We want to raise people's awareness of different gourmet foods and textures. But we also want to be available to people.”
I came for dinner with two friends. Each of us had a different salad and entree.
Mine was the best of the three, a “mesclun de Provence.” Mesclun refers to a mix of young field greens — in this case, green-leaf lettuce, arugula, chervil and endive, with a little frisee and radicchio. It was tossed in a delicious blood-orange vinaigrette with sliced peaches and radishes, toasted almonds and chevre, a goat's-milk cheese.
One companion chose the watermelon-and-arugula salad. She was disappointed that the flavors didn't complement each other as she thought they might. The melon chunks were perhaps overripe and canceled the peppery flavor of the young arugula leaves, which held up better when eaten alone. The salad was finished with crumbled pecorino, a sheep's-milk cheese, and a citrus vinaigrette.
Thinking it might be similar to a Caesar salad, my other friend had hearts of romaine tossed in a light tarragon-buttermilk dressing. But there was not much more to this salad, except for some shaved pecorino; even the crushed-herb croutons promised on the menu were absent. The salad was uninteresting.
Of the trio of entrees we sampled, the best was the duck “deux voies,” French for “two ways.” A duck breast was pan-seared medium-rare and served over a white-bean cassoulet, topped with a balsamic reduction of ripe cherries. This juicy dish shared a plate with a classic French confit of salt-cured duck leg, poached in its own fat. It was truly wonderful.
I enjoyed my Alaskan halibut, with reservations. The fresh fillet was simply but perfectly prepared, lightly seasoned with parsley. It was served with about eight small Manila clams on a “deconstructed” clam chowder. In this recipe, the chef breaks traditional chowder down into its various components — cream, potatoes, clams, clam broth, bacon and onions — and recombines them in a sauce. It was an interesting concept, but I liked the halibut better by itself.
Our other friend had Tart's chicken roulade, a free-range chicken breast wrapped around sauteed spinach, wild mushrooms and chevre, then served on a layer of rich risotto. Despite its stuffing, the poultry was a bit overcooked and dry. But my companion, not normally a fan of Brussels sprouts, ate every last bite of these cabbage-like vegetables, which were sauteed in butter with bacon and almonds.
Our server was prompt and friendly, at once professional and relaxed. One of my companions complained that she didn't return often enough to refill our wine glasses, but I didn't consider that a major problem.
Another friend joined me for lunch on a different day, and again, we found service attentive and excellent.
We began by sharing a Dungeness crab salad. Big chunks of fresh crab meat, mixed with lime juice and minced jalapeno peppers, were served with avocado atop a thick-sliced heirloom tomato, sprinkled with sesame seeds and topped with microgreens. Mixed baby greens gave an additional nod to its salad qualities.
I had a meal called “The French Lunch,” a classic steak frites. A flat-iron steak, pan-fried medium-rare to order, was served with grilled red onions. The beef was tender and cooked just as I like it. It was accompanied by a salad of wilted arugula and bacon in a light vinaigrette. The meat was served with a side of “Ultimate Pommes Frites”: crispy french fries tossed with artisan salts and served with a tangy dipping sauce.
My friend was not as happy with her roasted eggplant panini sandwich. This vegetarian dish consisted of eggplant, fried and sliced, layered on grilled rosemary bread with roasted “peperonata” — a roasted Italian stew of red and green peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic — plus arugula and shaved Parmesan cheese. My companion complained that there was too much bread and not enough vegetables. But she really enjoyed the accompanying waffle chips.
We finished with a shared dish of pina colada ice cream, sprinkled with toasted coconut. We liked the taste, but wished the house-made dessert had been creamier: The ice cream was dry, falling apart rather than melting.
Donovan said a new fall menu at Tart will put new emphasis on dining at the trademark art deco bar. He said 15 to 18 “gastro-pub” plates, changing daily, will be posted on a blackboard and served daily from 3 to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close. As well, he said, Tart will add $6 lunch specials and a $4 martini menu.
Common Table was scheduled to open Thursday after a full renovation of the former Cork Restaurant space. Executive chef Matthew Mulder, formerly of Bluefish Bistro and the Broken Top Club, serves a changing and modestly priced menu of light meals, prepared from locally sourced produce. Open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, with breakfast until 11 a.m. and lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by a light happy-hour menu. 150 N.W. Oregon Ave., Bend; 541-639-5546, www.commontable.net.
Marz, A Planetary Bistro is scheduled to reopen tonight under the direction of its new owner and executive chef, Gavin McMichael of The Blacksmith and Bourbon Street Sea and Soul Food. “We do not plan to change much,” spokesperson Lorraine Jespersen said. “We do, however plan to add small plates with an around-the-world theme. ... We will have a bigger focus on happy hour and some more affordable options on the menu.” Open 5 p.m. to close every day. 163 N.W. Minnesota Ave., Bend; 541-389-2025.
Rockin' Daves Bagel Bistro (A-): The space is small, the music is loud, but this friendly and casual deli is worth seeking out. Freshly baked breads and house-prepared meats are served in generous portions, and a full meal is never more than $10. Open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday. 661 N.E. Greenwood Ave., Bend; 541-318-8177, www.facebook.com .
Thai Thai (B+): Serving fresh and tasty if conservatively spiced meals, this friendly NorthWest Crossing cafe offers generous portions of Southeast Asian cuisine at moderate prices. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday. 745 Mount Washington Drive, Suite 200, Bend; 541-633-7222, www.thaithaibend.com .
Krista's at Widgi Creek (B+): A clientele composed mainly of golfers and Widgi Creek residents supports this friendly bar-and-grill with a big outdoor deck next to the golf club's putting green. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or later) every day. 18707 S.W. Century Drive, Bend; 541-382-4449, www.widgi.com .