Review: Tartine Bistro

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 contributing Cleveland 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.

Check back Feb. 1 for the full review.

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