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It's never the same meal twice

THE REVIEW

Country-casual Tart has been all over the map since it opened in March. It's changing direction again.

July 12, 2006|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

EATING out as often as I do, it's no mystery to me why two people can hold completely different opinions about the same restaurant. It's not only a matter of taste, or that one person always orders the same thing and the other gravitates toward anything new, the more ingredients the merrier. It's not due to the alignment of the stars, or because one diner bonded with the waiter and the other found the same server intensely annoying. Dig deeper, and you'll discover that if two customers weren't there on the same night, they didn't go to the same restaurant.

A restaurant meal is not like a film where the viewing conditions can vary but the print you see is identical to the one someone else sees on the other side of town. No two restaurant meals -- or evenings -- are alike. One night, the place is so jammed, the kitchen is struggling just to get the orders out. On another, it may be so slow the cooks are falling asleep from boredom. Maybe one of the key members is missing that day, or somebody new has just taken over the stoves.

Restaurants are as changeable as the weather in Big Sur, which is why reviews are based on not one, but three or four meals. I can't tell you how many times I've eaten somewhere on a Monday or even a Wednesday, only to find the head chef doesn't come in that day, and the second in command simply can't cut it. Not that I, or anybody else, expects the chef to be in the kitchen every night.

Most of the time it's sheer myth that the person in the tall toque is back there cooking every single one of your dishes. He or she counts on a hand-picked kitchen brigade to do the hard work. A few kitchens are consistent and turn out the same quality, night after night. Others are wildly variable. And others have no fixed identity.

But Tart, the new restaurant in the Farmer's Daughter hotel on Fairfax Avenue, across from the Original Farmers Market, is the most changeable yet.

Each time I've been to the country-casual restaurant billed as "american fusion food, worldwide wines, under wide open skies," it seems like a different place. And, especially after my last visit a week ago, taking an average of the experiences hardly makes sense.

In an early visit, the menu is highly ambitious, perhaps a bit too much so, but still, there are some interesting dishes, such as a ceviche of lobster, mango and chipotle chiles doused in lime, or a scallop carpaccio with caviar yuzu cream from the "cru" section of the menu. Spanish chorizo soup, though, is thickened to the point of wallpaper paste, which seems a curious aesthetic.

All in all, despite the self-conscious chef-ly touches -- the usual dribble of sauces, the silly garnish -- I think Tart has real possibilities if the chef could tailor the menu to what the kitchen can successfully execute. (And spell. The printed list is rife with misspellings.)

There is something so appealing about the look and the feel of the place that everyone I take to Tart loves being there. First of all, there's the small, pretty dining room with a witty rustic decor that plays up to the hotel's farmer's daughter theme. Cabinet doors are stenciled in lace. A wood hutch holds aqua- and cream-colored dinnerware. Captain's chairs are pulled up to the tables in the center of the room, and a cozy banquette fits into the corner. The lighting is perfect.

It's hard to believe this quiet, serene room was once the raucous Olive, when the concept of club food was just getting started. Now, as Tart, it's one of the few restaurants where, on a slow night, it's actually quiet enough to have a long conversation with friends.

Courtyard charm

I come back for breakfast, or really brunch, one weekend, and fall in love with the outdoor patio, a sprawling courtyard space that links the newly hip, turquoise-painted hotel with the restaurant. A garden of succulents is potted in rusted steel containers. Piazza lights are strung overhead, and updated picnic tables and banquettes are tucked under the eaves, sheltered by a ledge of galvanized tin. It all has a quirky charm.

This time we have a waiter who pulls up a chair and sits right down to take our order, and when I'm not convinced I'd like the orange and pineapple juice combo, he runs back to the kitchen to personally, so he says, make me one anyway -- just for science.

And when my burger arrives well-done instead of medium rare, he cheerfully sends it back to the kitchen and returns with a perfectly cooked and quite delicious rendition topped with apple-smoked bacon and smoked cheddar. Smoked salmon and a bagel is perfectly fine too. And the coffee is good and strong.

It is so lovely sitting there in the shade on a warm afternoon that I can imagine making this a hangout for breakfast and lunch. I even look at some rooms, so I can recommend it as a moderately priced hotel.

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