Bittersweet has a green thumb
Seasonal French cuisine is divine, not dirty
Published: Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 00:10
“I just want to eat all of it forever,” she exclaimed. The “it” was the short rib at Bittersweet, and though forever may be a mighty long time, it’s easy to contemplate an eternity wandering in Bittersweet’s secret garden.
In early 2011, Chef Olav Peterson and wife Melissa Severson made the site of a defunct gas station into their own image, a palace of seasonal cuisine with a robust French bend and a 600-square-foot garden. One can only imagine the effort that the couple underwent to turn this former auto garage on Alameda and Downing into a 60-seat paragon of fine dining—but Bittersweet’s origins do show in its odd shape and tiny size. Even though Bittersweet’s most enthusiastic customers hail from the dinner jacket and BMW set, the space has a raucousness that belies warmth from good food and good company.
Sodden weather prevented dining on the garden-side patio, one of Bittersweet’s most attractive features, but didn’t dampen Peterson’s still summery board. Hoping to get the heavy stuff out of the way to allow for a clean, fresh finish to the meal, orders of house-cured maple duck ($12) and a slab of pork belly perched on a crispy risotto cake ($10) were landed. Soaking in a smoked English pea consommé, the umami-packed Carbonara risotto cake and a crispy rectangle of pork didn’t attempt to punch above their weight, content to let animal fat, fryer oil, and bacon do their work. The consommé tasted just as it sounds, an experiment that flirted excitingly with pretension.
Short strips of duck, salty like bacon and laced with white ribbons of fat, studded with maple sugar and glanced with smoked raisin vinaigrette challenged us to fit the accompanying fruits and veggies on a single forkful. The reward was a satisfying mélange of flavor that it may take a master taster to unravel.
Massive credit is due to Peterson for doing something rare in this town: giving things that we’ve never heard of before. You might have no damn idea what salsify is, but after a meal at Bittersweet you’ll know it’s a white root that’s like a savory carrot, and that it is awesome.
Bigger dishes innovate as well; a selection of garden vegetables in an herbed pistou ($23) is the embodiment of Bittersweet’s mission, complex, earthy and fresh. But look at that price again; Bittersweet has no business charging that much for a glorified pasta dish. If you’re a student living on your own, be warned there is no happy hour or cheap meal here to dull the pain of the check.
Other than a steep price tag, the only honest-to-God disappointments at Bittersweet are the humdrum homemade ice creams and poorly calibrated sorbets, ($2 a scoop).
But back to those shortribs ($28): pairing a practical rutabaga puree with bordelaise-slathered beef that would shame any Ruth’s Chris line cook, a Brussels sprout rests at the end of each piece, completing the dish like a well-earned period at the end of a sentence. Whatever might happen after you leave Bittersweet, it’s that final note of the plate that might resonate with you—if not forever, then at least a good while.