Rachel Weill
From left: smoked sturgeon with potato, dill sauce, and horseradish; cultured butter with bottarga and radish; white bean spread with charred eggplant, dried tomato, and green walnut.
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Mixmaster Magyar

Lauren Ladoceour / October 2012

With his heritage Hungarian food as the base riff and an off-the-charts DIY larder as the scales, Nicolaus Balla takes flights of flavor improvisations at San Francisco’s Bar Tartine. Lauren Ladoceour reports on this distinct culinary voice.

Standing in a dusty garden plot about an hour north of San Francisco, Nicolaus Balla spots a lone pepper dangling from a young thin stem. It’s the first to fruit among the hundreds Balla and his girlfriend, Cortney Burns, germinated in their San Francisco loft and then planted at Scribe winery in Sonoma just weeks before. With a physique that reflects his Michigan farm boy roots, Balla pinches off this first three-incher and splits it with Burns. Moments after they pop the Hungarian wax chile into their mouths, she throws back her head and lets out an ecstatic whoop. He, on the other hand, stands steady and shrugs slightly with his hands deep in his pockets: “They’re hot, really pronounced.”

Although he seems hardly affected, Balla says his mind is already racing with ideas. It’s here in this private plot among Scribe’s rows of Pinot Noir, Sylvaner, and Riesling that the 35 year old begins to imagine future dishes for Bar Tartine, the restaurant offshoot of Chad Robertson’s and Elisabeth Prueitt’s famous Tartine Bakery in the Mission District. This yellow chile, a powerful package of sweet heat, is his first inkling, his initial preview, into what will eventually be dried, smoked, and combined a dozen different ways with the other pepper varietals he’s growing in neat rows here in Sonoma. Once processed by Burns, the kitchen’s special projects manager, the paprikas will sit on shelves above the fermentation pots and other house-made spices in Bar Tartine’s extensive larder until Balla lightly dusts a spoonful over modern takes on Hungarian halászlé (fish stew), lángos (a doughy fried bread), and paprikás csirke (chicken paprikash). It’s just a few grains, but for Balla, these house-grown and -made paprikas are his latest obsession on hyper-local ingredients that make the food at Bar Tartine, in Robertson’s words, “unclassifiable.”

Since taking over as executive chef at Bar Tartine last year, Balla has transformed the Cal-French menu and space to reflect a unique, experimental spin on Hungarian cuisine tinged with Japanese ingredients and Nordic leanings. At first glance, it’s a wild notion. Into an asparagus stock that will eventually provide a base for a thick white beet soup, Balla steeps thin shavings of katsuobashi (house-made dried bonito), a favorite from his days as an izakaya chef at San Francisco’s Nombe, where he’d toss fried Brussels sprouts in mint and togarashi. (Before that, he masterfully turned critics’ heads as the opening chef at O Izakaya Lounge, where he helped spark the city’s growing obsession with Japanese pub fare.)

After he strains the broth and the soup’s completed, Balla hunches over the expediter station, a good foot or two too short for his looming frame. He’s calm, quick, and decisive; the kitchen stays focused and harmonious even on a busy night. A new server comes up to him and asks what’s in tonight’s “croo-dight.” Without correcting her, he simply gives her a list of the vegetables, nods, and gets back to the rich, round white beet soup. On a whim, he tops a bowl with bulgar, pea shoots, and paprika from last year’s peppers—nearly 1,400 pounds—he and Burns had processed. Together, they also churn out creamy cheeses rolled in hay and ash, tart sour creams, kefir, root vegetables fermented in beer mash (spent grains from an ale made with Robertson’s yeast from the bakery), and much more.

“We’ve never made any of this stuff before,” says Balla, an earthy and understated gentle giant type who embraces the Old World preservation methods of drying, smoking, pickling, and curing now so prominently emphasized in Scandinavian cookery. “I’m constantly calling upon people who know what they’re doing and asking for help. It’s hard to be philosophical about it. Sometimes it’s just fun to experiment.”

The inspiration to experiment came after a trip he and Robertson made last year through Denmark and Hungary. While in Copenhagen, they visited Noma and took note of its modern applications of traditional foodways. Using ingredients to their fullest, including their byproducts, is one tenet visible in Balla’s pickling and cheesemaking projects: drawing whey from the latter, for instance, he produces a puckering brine for spicy pickled carrots.

“The flavors coming out of that kitchen are so fresh. He’s pushing it more than anyone else in the Bay Area,” says Andrew Mariani, a co-owner of Scribe, who lets Balla plant his peppers in what was an unused patch of land in the vineyards. “He wants to go as far back in the process as possible and be involved in the entire production. It’s amazing. The stuff that he planted here are seeds that he gave me from Hungary. And from that, he turns it into a powder, a paprika. It’s a tiny element, a few percentage points of the flavor profile. But he realizes it from the seed the year before anyone’s going to eat it.”

Balla’s food, while beautiful, earthy, and with a daring flavor palette (for Chez Panisse–style sensibilities anyway) that’s heavy on sour and spice, has been accused of lacking a solid concept, of being all over the place in terms of a story. For example, he might take a traditional Hungarian gulyás (goulash), layer in kombu, and replace the usual potatoes and carrots with whatever’s seasonal at the moment. “I use what looks good that week, whatever sounds like fun to play around with,” says Balla. “To see what different flavor combinations come out of it.” Local reviews also often hint at a need for editing and definition. But food, of course, reflects the person who made it. And you can see how, at first glance, a Budapest menu with Japanese ingredients and a Nordic bent would look like an identity crisis. But for Balla, it’s the story of his life.

“I grew up on a farm with my hippie mom and then lived around Budapest for a little more than a year with my dad, who’s Hungarian, who was managing an apartment building there [they’re divorced],” says Balla. “My dad would make this amazing chopped salad with aged meats, onions, tomatoes, and at the end you’d have this soupy broth to soak up with bread. My grandmother would come over with blood sausage, and the people in the apartment building were always making paprikas.”

As a way to reconnect with his Hungarian heritage, Balla started exploring the food from his childhood, learning to make blood sausage and lángos for the restaurant. At Bar Tartine, he serves both, the lángos topped with tangy house-made sour cream and dill. (His father also comes up when Balla talks about visits to Japan’s izakayas as a young graduate of The Culinary Institute of America staying with his father, who still lives in Kyushu today.)

The menu at Bar Tartine may reflect Balla’s desire to connect to his heritage, to his Eastern European identity, but he also, clearly, is not afraid of dipping into other cuisines. “Japanese, Nordic, and Hungarian have a lot in common actually,” he says. “Especially, when you think of all the root vegetables and fermenting, there are more similarities than differences.”

This year, a couple from a Hungarian culture club in Santa Cruz visited the restaurant and invited Balla down for a beach-side bogrács party, named for the open-fire cooking pot commonly used in Hungary. Beforehand, Balla admitted feeling intimidated. “I’m a bit terrified of getting drilled by all of the Hungarians on authenticity and knowledge of traditional dishes,” he says. “I wouldn’t ever say what I’m doing is true to how most Hungarians would make a paprikás or fish stew. Call it California-Budapest. But don’t call it traditional.”

Still anxious, Balla approaches the party’s picnic tables with loaves of bread from Tartine Bakery and his salamis, which the Hungarians examine and discuss at great length before making suggestions: more heat, age longer, more mold, smoother consistency. The real star is the host’s spicy beef/potato gulyas simmering away in the bogrács. Under an intense sun, it’s not exactly beach food. People pass around peppers to anyone who wants even more heat. Everyone else grabs at vinegary dill pickles to cool off. Balla takes note that the meats in the gulyás aren’t smoked. “Very interesting,” he comments.

To his relief, he’s not cross-examined about traditional Hungarian cookery. And while no one will call his aged sausages Hungarian, it’s clear by the empty cutting board that they get what he’s doing. On the drive back to San Francisco, Balla and Burns discuss future charcuterie and what they learned from the day’s tasting. Should they double-grind to get a more emulsified texture, like the party suggested, or should they continue with their chunkier Italian style? Did everyone like the moldier one better because it sat in the fridge longer in good humidity? “We’re still learning,” says Balla, taking the long way home along Highway 1 to check out the roadside strawberries and ocean views. “It’s been an ongoing process for us to get the texture better; there’s still some things we need to do. We’re not trying to replicate the exact thing your grandmother made. We can’t."

What he can do is tend to those hundreds of peppers that had just started to flower and would eventually fruit into his future paprikás. He’ll spend months imagining their idiosyncrasies and how they’ll wind up in his pantry and in his dishes well before anyone takes a bite.

The Next Slice

In August, Bar Tartine opened its long-awaited daytime sandwich annex—almost a year to the day when a 15,000 pound Italian custom bread oven was installed in an adjacent area. The Dirty Girl Produce farmer and artist Jesse Schlesinger designed and did much of the woodwork that went into the 12-foot sandwich counter inside the glass-fronted space that brings in a flood of sunlight and a peek into the kitchen and its new oven. From that oven comes Chad Robertson’s spelt loaves and rugbrød, a rye loaf made with a combination of heritage and sprouted whole grains. Using the rye to make Danish open-faced sandwiches called smørrebrød, Nicolaus Balla pulls from his and Cortney Burns’ entirely house-made larder, which now shares space with the sandwich operation. He might pile high a combination of blue cheese, bacon, soft-boiled egg, and avocado; smoked eggplant, olives, and roasted tomato; chicken liver pâté, parsley, and Candy­Cot apricot jam. Hot pressed sandwiches, such as a thinly sliced beef tongue pastrami with braised sauerkraut and “paprika island dressing”—Burns’ version of Thousand Island— comes alongside crisp pickled vegetables. The sandwiches change daily, but smaller snack items from Balla’s dinner menu make a regular appearance—lángos, chopped salad, fried smoked potatoes.

This is an idea he and Robertson had been talking about for more than a year. So why did it take so long to come to fruition? For one, it wasn’t until early summer this year that they realized the oven’s electric power hadn’t been hooked up during its installation. “It was a real lack of planning on our part, and almost everything had to be done over twice,” Balla says. “I’ve grown a lot this year, realizing how that no matter how creative you are or how much you like to shoot from the hip, with some things you just can’t do that. You have to go by the book.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: LAUREN LADOCEOUR

“Nick Balla and his girlfriend, Cortney Burns, are mad scientists!” California native, editor, and recipe developer Lauren Ladoceour found the house-made ethos of the Bar Tartine chefs so inspiring that “After my first interview with them, I went home and made my very first batch of ricotta.” Her work has appeared in 7x7, Rolling Stone Australia, San Francisco magazine, Whole Living, and Williams-Sonoma. Up next: the first issue of Weekend Almanac. “At the end of our last interview, we were at Scribe winery with the owners and the entire Bar Tartine crew. Nick brought everyone along so they could see the garden for themselves. At sunset, after a raucous barbecue, we had this really nice, quiet moment watching the sun set over the vineyards, drinking cheap beer out of cans and listening to Neil Young. Toughest day ever.”