For most restaurateurs, the idea is to get bigger, expand, grow. That is not the case for John McDonnell. He likes to keep things small.
After running the Fulton Bar & Grill on Fulton Road in Ohio City for 10 years, McDonnell, who owned the place with brother Bob, was getting burned out. So a little more than two years ago, they sold it to Eric Williams, who turned it into the well-received Momocho.
McDonnell stayed on for about a year to help with the transition and think about his next move. The result: Tartine Bistro in Rocky River, which McDonnell opened last year in July.
McDonnell had long thought about running a small French-style bistro with an urban feel, but he wanted to do this in a very specific way. "I wanted to limit myself by the kitchen," McDonnell said.
He has succeeded on that front. To describe Tartine's open kitchen as tiny understates it. Three cooks make it look cramped.
McDonnell "limited" himself and chef Nolan Konkoski in other ways, too. There are no open flames in that little kitchen, no ranges of any kind. Instead, there is a big convection oven. All the hot plates come from it.
McDonnell lined the oven's bottom with bricks. Instantly, one of Tartine's defining menu categories was born.
"It sort of made the perfect pizza stone," McDonnell said. That oven produces some fine pizzas, indeed.
The dining room is long and narrow, seating 38. There is room for an additional 14 at the bar and, weather permitting, 22 on the patio. The feel is welcoming, cozy and fun.
The bar is right there in the dining room, so it can get noisy. McDonnell himself will usually be found roaming the space, shaking hands and making sure everyone is enjoying themselves.
Design details include exposed brick, an old dark-wood bar and chandelier lighting.
The menu -- subject to seasonal change -- is refreshingly trim: one page with appetizers, salads, tartines, pizzas, entrees and sides.
An excellent starter is the roasted shrimp ($9) with spring peas, hot pepper flakes and lemon butter. The four large shrimp have a dense, meaty texture. The red pepper is subtle, never overwhelming any of the other flavors.
The crispy duck leg ($9) with honey-pomegranate sauce and braised pistachios is another choice selection to kick things off.
The veggie tartine ($10) -- essentially an open-face Italian sandwich -- has artichokes, white bean, boursin cheese and roasted peppers.
Minimalists might try the three-cheese pizza ($10), with rosemary, olive oil and sea salt. A crisp crust and balance of flavors make this a favorite. The serrano ham pizza ($11) has manchego cheese, figs, pine nuts and a sherry reduction.
Among four entrees, the truffle raviolis ($16) hit a home run. Five raviolis filled with Taleggio cheese are served in brown butter, garnished with toasted pine nuts and dusted with black truffle. It's a heady, aromatic mix.
Tartine also bills itself as a wine bar. The list by the glass is extensive and reasonably priced.