A Cut Above

This is the story of a sous chef and an entrepreneur who renovate a small space in a quaint Rocky River shopping plaza into a chic French bistro, turning out dozens of meals, day and night. And they do it all without a range — which, for the health-minded, also means no frying.

Walking into Tartine Bistro, John McDonnell’s sweet little spot that has been packed day and night since it opened in July, you are immediately taken by the authentic bistro feel, from the tin stamped ceiling to walls covered with photos of Paris (shot by co-owner Eric Mull, a contributingCleveland Magazine photographer) to the handsome patrons crowding the bar and filling nearly every chair in the room.

McDonnell, formerly of the Fulton Bar and Grill, and chef Nolan Konkoski, who once worked alongside Eric Williams at Momocho, are both veterans of the kitchen wars. And this time, it appears the duo is intent on making every move count.

It wasn’t always that way. Ten years ago, McDonnell was selling insurance. It wasn’t fun, and if you know John McDonnell, you know he likes to have a good time. Like so many novices in the industry, McDonnell believed opening a restaurant would be fun. So in 1997, he and his brother Bob, a Hollywood screenwriter, decided to buy a restaurant.

The two took over the Fulton Bar, redecorating and renaming it the Fulton Bar and Grill. For many of the nine years he owned the Fulton, McDonnell had the good time he was looking for. But in the last couple of years, the fun wore thin.

That’s when Eric Williams, longtime chef at Lopez Bar and Grill, approached the McDonnell brothers about buying the restaurant. He wanted to turn the spot into a cutting-edge Mexican restaurant. He brought with him his sous chef at Lopez, Nolan Konkoski.

Striking a deal, McDonnell remained at the new restaurant (now called Momocho), but still itched for a new project. And after working there for more than a year, Konkoski, a 28-year-old chef with no formal schooling in the kitchen, wanted a change, too. By the time Konkoski left Momocho, McDonnell had found the small, narrow site that would become Tartine. He tapped Konkoski as chef, but it would be no easy task.

The duo chose not to install open burners in the small kitchen. Everything would have to be prepared in what McDonnell and Konkoski call the “Chevy truck of ovens.” While the restriction leaves the menu a bit on the small side, Tartine still offers an amazing array.

The appetizers range from soup to foie gras. There are only four salads, but they go from a simple bibb lettuce mix to a traditional bistro salad to one that includes lardon and an egg.

Entrees come in their own categories. The savory tartines are so good it’s no wonder the place was named after them. The extra-thin pizzas are killer. (There are only four, but every one rocks.) The smallest category could be called “air, sea and land,” as it features roasted chicken, grouper and filet mignon.

How they manage it all with such impediments in the kitchen is amazing. “Nolan is just such a talent,” McDonnell says. “He is a leader. He isn’t culinary school-trained, he is from the school of hard knocks. It is amazing what he is doing.”

Indeed, the menu is exciting. The first appetizer, a slightly spicy short rib-stuffed pepper topped with a mustard crème fraiche ($7.50), was a sign that our tastebuds were in very good hands. The flavors, hot, warm and tangy, left me wanting more.

The delectable (and huge) bowl of roasted mussels ($9) in a white wine, Dijon and basil broth was loaded with white beans — and along with a glass of wine, it was too much for one, except perhaps as an entree. The foie gras ($10) appetizer, which changes daily, was rich and decadent, served atop an almond-crusted goat cheese cake and fig gastrique. It boasted big flavor, though the tangy goat cheese cut through the rich liver, making this dish more mellow than one might expect.

If you haven’t had a tartine (or even if you have), you must try at least one from Konkoski’s lineup — I recommend the roasted pork ($10). The pork sits atop what seems more like a toasted brioche than bread.

The juicy cut is dressed with a smoked Gouda béchamel, sage frites and Dijon mustard. It’s a must-try, and once you do, you won’t be quick to forget it.

I could go to Tartine just for the salads. Konkoski’s take on a traditional French bistro salad is right on the mark, featuring spinach with bacon, caramelized onion, egg and mustard vinaigrette ($7.50). If you have an aversion to beets, muster up the courage to try the beet salad ($7.50), which is tossed with braised pistachios, goat cheese and a luscious honey vinaigrette. It will change your mind.

Pizzas here are baked on a 2-inch-thick concrete slab on the bottom of the stove. They have a very thin crust and are as good as everything else on the menu. We tried the tomato pizza with fresh mozzarella and basil puree ($10), but the quality of the ingredients made it seem so much more complex than it sounds. Also worth a taste is the wild mushroom pizza with goat cheese, leeks and black truffle oil ($11).

Tartine’s roasted chicken ($14) was juicy and flavorful, a perfectly cooked bird. The grouper, with a lobster frisée salad and a tomato buerre blanc ($18), was moist and very fresh, while the filet covered in truffle butter and peppercorns would please any meat-eater ($18).

To accompany dinner, Tartine has a solid selection of reasonably priced wine. The glass pours include some tasty varieties, though it is always a better deal to buy by the bottle if you have a crowd.

It is not often I find a restaurant without some faults, so I won’t disappoint with this one. I noticed that two bottles of Pinot Noir were served a few degrees warmer than they should have been. Whew, now I feel a little better.

Tartine Bistro, 19110 Old Detroit Road, Rocky River, (440) 331-0800, lunch: Tue-Sat 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; dinner: Mon-Thu 4:30 p.m. - midnight, Fri & Sat 4:30 p.m. - 1 a.m.
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