After I finished my last meal at Bittersweet, I didn't want to leave. A friend and I had been eating on one of the restaurant's narrow patios, meandering through course after course with the help of the friendly, attentive staff. And long after we'd scraped the last dish clean, we lingered, sitting amid planters filled with herbs and vegetables that hid speakers softly piping Van Morrison through our conversation.
The scene here wasn't always so soothing. Before Bittersweet moved in, this space held a gas station that spewed oil into the ground. Olav and Melissa Peterson, the husband-and-wife team behind the restaurant, learned this when they had the spot inspected last year. Fortunately, the then-owner paid for the chemical cleanup, and by the time the couple picked up the keys to the place, they could safely put a 100 percent organic garden on the property. But they faced other hurdles, and so they named their venture Bittersweet playing on both the word's food connotations and their feelings about finally running their own show: While they were excited, they also realized that giving the old building new life would involve a daunting amount of work.
Melissa was in charge of the remodel, and she took her design cues from Olav's food, an artisanal blend of old-world traditions and modern innovations. The result is a very inviting space, which opened on the last day of 2010. Two intimate, high-ceilinged dining rooms hold a total of sixty people at tabletops crafted to resemble European butcher blocks. Plush, hide-covered chairs sit in the foyer; old maps and Melissa's artwork adorn the walls; and both sides of the restaurant feature indoor-outdoor fireplaces.
500 East Alameda Avenue
Hours: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Bittersweet Sweetbread Reuben $9 Gazpacho $12 Raviolo $14 Wild boar $26 Beef culotte $26
Olav, who'd manned the kitchens at 1515 and Bistro One, among other spots, before getting one of his own, is passionate about food and where it comes from, and he built Bittersweet's menu to showcase high-quality ingredients using classic French technique. His tight board changes with the seasons, makes use of many parts of the animals he buys, and draws from those patio gardens whenever it can. A perfectionist, he's constantly tweaking dishes, making changes and improving a plate until it's finally right — and then he scraps it entirely and moves on to the next season.
When I stopped in a few months ago, he said he was still working on the bouillabaisse. And he needed to: The tiny Le Creuset pot was filled with a sweet but mild tomato broth that carried a hint of the sea, thanks to the prawns, mussels, clams and pieces of lobster swimming in it swimming in it a little too long. The seafood hit the table slightly overcooked and became more rubbery as the broth continued to simmer. The sweetbread Reuben, on the other hand, was damn near perfect. A toasted, caraway-specked brioche had been stacked with crispy sweetbreads and pickled tomato, garnished with salty, acidic caperberries and drizzled with sharp Jarlsberg fondue. The ingredients worked together beautifully, the tart, juicy and cold elements playing off the warm, crisp and savory components.
More photos: The Summer Menu at Bittersweet
Olav got rid of the bouillabaisse when he introduced the summer menu. When I stopped in for my patio dinner a few weeks ago, I was glad to see the sweetbread Reuben had made the cut. Still, we skipped it in favor of gazpacho, since we were eager to sample what was coming from the gardens around us though we later learned that it was too early in the season for anything but some of the herbs and the microgreens. Olav had reinterpreted a traditional Spanish recipe for the tomato-based soup, one that used bread as a thickener and added seafood. With those elements in mind, he'd broken down the dish, then rebuilt it starting with a tart, tomato-melon purée. In the center of that sat half of a buttery avocado, stuffed with braised octopus and bits of cucumber and red pepper and topped with micro-cilantro and a stick of toasted bread. The combination was light and fresh, and after we tossed in a pinch of salt, every flavor popped perfectly.
We'd also ordered the appetizer raviolo. One pocket of the homemade pasta was filled with duck confit; the other held a duck-egg yolk. When I cut through the surface of the raviolo, the yolk spilled over the rest of the components, mixing with the garlicky brodo in the bowl. The foie gras shavings on top had sounded glorious when described by our server because, uh, fattened duck liver is delicious but they melted into nothing, completely overwhelmed by the rest of the rich flavors. The dish was tasty, but heavy for a summer patio meal.
By the time the appetizers were gone, it was dark. We nursed glasses of rosé while a team of servers got the table ready for our entrees, chatting without ever becoming intrusive. After they delivered the main courses, though, they disappeared and a good thing, too, since we didn't want to talk while that feast was sitting in front of us.
I'd ordered the wild boar, displayed in three different side-by-side preparations tied together by a honey-sweet pineapple gastrique. The piquant, peppery sausage was so dry it needed that gastrique. Since boar is a lean meat, he has to add fat to get it to stick together as sausage, Olav told me later; he should have packed in even more fat. The rack was much better; it had been grilled, lightly infused with smoke and sprinkled with microgreens. But my favorite was the pork belly (used because boar belly is nearly impossible to find), a succulent, fat-laced slice, the edges crisped to provide texture. I only wished there had been more seasoning in the torchons of potato that came with the meat; I abandoned the bland, starchy discs and instead stole bites of my friend's meal.
The beef culotte put chunks of beef a tender cut of loin grilled a juicy and velvety medium rare over what the menu playfully called "potato salad." But this was no mayo-heavy deli-case concoction. Crispy mashed-potato croutons, peppery arugula and smoky bacon strips sat atop a creamy rémoulade and underneath a poached egg, which spilled yolk into the mix. This may have been a play on steak and potato salad, but no picnic food was ever this delicious.
Our dinner ended with s'mores, a deconstructed take on the classic campfire dessert created by Bittersweet's pastry chef, Danielle St. John. She'd pooled chocolate and housemade marshmallow fluff on the plate, added a crumbly housemade chocolate graham cracker, and crowned the dish with strawberries, which added a nice, fruity balance and provided another vehicle for scooping up the decadent sauces. I was too stuffed to even think about ice cream, which was too bad; on an earlier visit, I'd been impressed by a scoop of St. John's strawberry-rhubarb, which sided her strawberry tart. Like the rest of the menu, the ice cream flavors change with the seasons.
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And now here we were, in the heart of summer. We leaned back in our chairs and ordered another bottle of wine, watching the cars pass, hidden in our private garden. The only thing bittersweet about the moment was that it would have to end.
More photos: The Summer Menu at Bittersweet