Globally inspired, but focused on classic French cuisine, Tart gives Bend something more than the boring beurre blancs and faux-fancy frites found elsewhere. Though the black-on-white boutique-patterned booths, intimate tables and low lighting hit a sexy bistro note, it was their charcuterie and cheese plate, called "The Board," that first brought me in the door shortly after they opened for business in June of 2010.
I saw it through the window, and couldn't help but duck inside to get a closer look. Although it always includes cured meats and cheeses, crostini, dried fruit, nuts and the unforgettable bacon-wrapped figs, The Board ($13) has never been the same twice, always including some sort of small surprise, like an onion gastrique, or pickled garlic and, on one occasion, three small bright green crescents, reminiscent of basil butter. These little nubs turned out to be green pea pate and served as the perfect entrée into a larger discussion with Tart owner Corey Donovan about how the menu he created has evolved under Chef Joe Benevento into a work of art that includes more vegetarian, and gluten-free options.
Now, accents like Benevento's little green creations, bound by agar-agar, which is a vegetable-derived gelatin often used in kitchens that experiment with molecular gastronomy, are incorporated into dishes on a regular basis.
"Those things are intentional," said Donovan, "and important to us from a core value perspective, not as an afterthought. Joe's come in here and done such a fantastic job. To his credit, on the menu side, a lot of his chops come from the time he was strictly vegetarian. When he creates a dish, it's almost developed still in the vegetarian perspective, and then the protein is the cherry on top."
But boy does he know his proteins. The beef cheek confit ($12) and the crisped confit duck wings ($8) are just two examples. Both are cooked in their own fat, as "confit" implies. Braised for over seven hours, the beef cheeks are fall-apart tender and accented by fennel, juniper and allspice. I found the duck wings to be far superior to traditional chicken wings, both in size and flavor. The dish is finished with a pomegranate and blood orange demi reduction that's sweet, tart and rich, with just enough acidity to cut through and complement the crispy skin.
The recent addition of bartender Kenny Bryant, formerly at Astro Lounge, is my newest reason to enjoy frequent visits to Tart. While I sipped a "Sex and Tequila," - a beautiful purple drink in a highball glass, garnished with a candied hibiscus flower - he described the focus of his cocktail list.
"I'm a huge fan of complexity in a cocktail," said Bryant. "I kind of fell in love with presentation and home-created ingredients. I use a lot of bitters, tinctures and infusions, and try not to manhandle the ingredients too much. I kind of like them in their natural state, being able to create clean but complex cocktails with natural, local ingredients. Especially when you're pairing it with food that's so locally derived."
"Cheap Date Cocktails" are just five bucks, and the list includes several thoughtfully created concoctions, like the "Rude Cosmo" made with Sauza tequila.
The wine list is the brainchild of previous bar manager and sommelier John Hansen, who has since moved to Eugene. Donovan said he and Bryant have been chiseling it down to be more "user-friendly and approachable, allowing the guest to enjoy something that they can't go get at the local supermarket, or something they haven't seen or tried yet, like a "Pinotage."
Reservations for Valentine's Day are filling up fast at Tart. They've created a five-course menu complete with wine pairings ($65 per person) featuring main courses such as sea scallop and lobster in a passion fruit and coconut sauce, and Basque chorizo stuffed wild boar loin chop finished with a rioja demi-glace.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," said Benevento. "We're just trying to keep it rolling in new directions."
I'm just happy to see they're still rolling.
920 NW Bond St. Bend. 541-385-0828.
Tuesday-Thursday 11:30 am-10 pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am-12am, Closed Sunday and Monday