Tuesday, December 27, 2016

If natural wine were food: review of Bar Tartine alumnus Nick Balla's popup Motze

The menu comes on a tile, apparently to save paper
If chefs are today's rock stars, Motze is Nick Balla's experimental noise album. It is like a natural wine you can eat. And it is still looking for an audience.

Balla is leaving San Francisco's Bar Tartine after five years to open his own restaurant. In the interim, he has a year-and-a-half lease on a spot just down Valencia Street, and has used it to open what he calls a popup, Motze. At least at first, Balla is relying on local ingredients that come in the door that day.

It's possible that Motze might not make it halfway through 2017, though: the Yelp reviews are not very good, and on the Tuesday night we visited, the restaurant was less than 1/4 full even in prime time.

So if you're curious about what one of San Francisco's most influential chefs (read this laudatory SF Chronicle profile) is doing in his experimental noise album phase, you better get there quickly. New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov has called Bar Tartine his favorite SF restaurant. Eric, you better book Motze soon. Does that mean I'm recommending a visit for everyone? Well, maybe, with some caveats. Despite everything written below, we might go back (though I'll wear a false nose or something.)

Consider the natural wine analogy. Do you like natural wine? Are you willing to overlook the possibility of weird flavors in order to taste something unique and interesting? Then by all means, go to Motze.

Our meal consisted of 10 dishes -- nine small and one enormous -- for $58 all in, tip included. This is great value for San Francisco. The previous week we dined at Trestle, which is packed largely because it's $35 for three courses. Yet we paid more at Trestle, after a $10 pasta supplement, additional charges, tax and a tip. Motze is about as cheap as San Francisco fine dining gets. But to be fair, it needs to be, because this is Nick Balla playing around, going for "interesting" rather than "delicious."

As for the drinks, they don't have a cellar so there are only a few offbeat California wines, all at $14 a glass or $70 a bottle. We paid $30 corkage to drink a bottle of Champagne, which is a great pairing with Motze's food. Sake would also be an interesting choice because there is a Japanese influence on pretty much every dish.

Gem lettuce with trout roe, a highlight
Despite some negative comments about service on Yelp, we thought the service was outstanding, both thoughtful and informative. But of our 10 dishes, only three were delicious. Another was a blockbuster in the mouth: impressive on first taste, but tiring to keep eating. The rest ... well, I do like some experimental noise music.

It's not a 10-course tasting menu, though. We got our dishes in three waves, so the meal took just over an hour. It's better that way because there was always something on the table we liked, and also always something we hated.

I'm glad we didn't have to spend five minutes alone with the gummy cold ginger noodles, which had the texture of boarding school punishment, or the oddly sweet flageolet bean miso soup. My wife doesn't like shiitake mushrooms -- she's Japanese, go figure -- but we both picked the shiitakes out of that soup, ate them, and left the rest.

On the plus side, gem lettuce with trout roe was much more exciting than it sounds. Crispy fried trout skin and crumbled nuts lent crunchy texture and kombu added an earthy note.

Crispy fried chicken skin also enlivened a dish of fried brussels sprouts, with fresh cilantro adding a lighter touch. Balla is most famous for his drying and pickling of ingredients; perhaps without the larder that he had at Bar Tartine, frying is a shortcut.

I'm tired of kale salads but Motze's was exceptional, with a sunflower oil and 7 spice dressing that accentuated the springy freshness of the greens. While a highlight, this dish also demonstrated why so much of this Japanese-influenced menu was off the mark, because when kale is the freshest-tasting thing on the menu in Tokyo, I don't go back to that restaurant. This is especially odd considering Motze's use of bought-that-day ingredients.

Looks better than it tastes
Case in point: a dish of tempting pink morsels of rainbow trout sashimi. Our server, who is probably the GM or something because all the workers there share the proceeds equally, explained the fresh local wasabi in detail, telling us about the farmer and the rarity of wasabi grown outside Japan.

The wasabi was delicious, but rather than serve the trout raw, Balla fermented it to make "nare zushi." This is a legitimate Japanese dish, sure, but in Japan the method is used for preservation. I don't know why you would serve nare zushi if you can instead serve the fish fresh. In this case, because it was the only possibility of fresh fish on the table, its mealy texture was disappointing and we didn't even finish four small morsels.

Rice porridge is awesome! Maybe too awesome.
Motze's signature main course is rice porridge. You can go there for lunch and get it. I won't, though. The first few tastes were powerful and impressive, as the dish was laden with generous pieces of roast chicken and two perfectly soft-boiled ramen eggs. But it was extremely salty and fatty and heavy and I wore down eating it.

Dessert started with persimmon and sesame paste. Fuyu persimmons are my wife's favorite fruit and it takes a lot to make her not be able to eat four slices of one, but Motze achieved this with slimy overripe fruit; the paste didn't help. Momofuku's David Chang famously mocked San Francisco chefs for serving "figs on a plate," but we would have welcomed the non-intervention here.

Then we got three truffles that turned out to be a microcosm of the meal experience. A maple-pecan truffle was light and delicious, only mildly sweet with a strong maple flavor. There was also a black seed truffle which our server described at length, involving the process of roasting the seeds, etc. "It's our way of having chocolate," she said. "Why don't you just serve chocolate?" I asked. "We try to be as local as possible, and there aren't any local cocoa beans," she said.

Fair enough. But that truffle tasted weird and neither my wife or I wanted more than one bite of it, even though it was tiny. When we got home, I had a chocolate.

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guren said...

Thanks for the review, Blake. Although in your caption you wrote that the trout looks better than it tastes, I am not impressed with the plating of that dish. All three main components - the fish, greens, and wasabi, really seem to be haphazardly thrown together. Am I correct in assuming the gem lettuce, brussels sprouts, and trout dishes are all shared plates for two? What about the rice porridge dish? It seems like a huge portion for one, and rice porridge is not a dish that is usually shared unless spooned into separate bowls.

W. Blake Gray said...

Guren: Part of the problem is my photography, which would have been better had I brought my real camera instead of a phone.

Yes, all the plates are shared plates for two, including the rice porridge dish. We did have smaller bowls to spoon that dish into.

It's possible that two people get the same portion of rice porridge as 4 people; I have read this on Yelp, but there weren't any groups of four at the restaurant so I can't confirm. It is a very large portion and value-wise that's great. The experience of the dish might benefit from a smaller portion. But the experience of the meal overall needs a large portion. Because I hated the noodles, I had to eat more rice porridge or I would have left the restaurant hungry.