Nick Balla and Cortney Burns, the two chefs who made you fall in love with Bar Tartine, are on a mission. That mission is Motze, their experimental, Japanese-focused restaurant in the Mission that has been difficult to define. Which was part of the plan — it opened as a way for the two chefs to figure out how to solve some problems facing the restaurant industry, such as food waste, tipping, and sustainability, while serving the delicious, unusual food for which they became known.
According to Balla, all was — and still is — going well, with Motze cutting out nearly 100 percent of its paper (no menus or receipts, unless requested) and successfully paying its employees a living wage by including gratuity in the set menu price.
The restaurant was just about breaking even, and then Chron critic Michael Bauer dropped a bomb. A one-and-a-half star bomb, to be exact, calling Motze “more food lab than enjoyable dining experience.” After the review, reservations immediately dropped off.
“It’s heart wrenching,” Balla said in response. “Our biggest joy is making people walk away feeling sated and cared for and nourished. When someone has any other response to that, it’s painful.” Despite the “heart wrenching” comments, though, Balla is even more determined to stay the course. He continued:
“This is not directed at anybody; I don’t want to play that game. But we’re standing our ground on Motze, because we want there to be a place for progressive approaches to nourishing ourselves and sating ourselves, and we think there needs to be room for restaurants to able to do that in different ways. We need voices to support progressive approaches, and are not stuck in establishment.
I’m not directing this at Michael Bauer directly, but it resonates right now, especially in our political climate. San Francisco is a progressive climate, and I want to see our most influential voices be open minded, not just in food media. No conflict of interest. The establishment is holding our progress back, and we’re hoping we can get some voices that support different tastes and textures and don’t demand refined sugar in everything. I love refined sugar and I eat it at home, but our choice not to serve it here is part of our experiment. So I want there to be room for that, and I’m hoping we can push forward and have voices that support that.”
To that end, he and Burns are switching things up once again and going fast casual — though he maintains this is “absolutely not” a direct response to the review. “We were planning it before that; we almost opened that way. This place is an opportunity for us to experiment with a few different systems with somewhat low risk,” he explained. “We’re not on the line for a 15-year lease and hundreds of thousands of dollars with other people’s money, so we have the chance to try things out.”
So, starting Tuesday, February 7, Motze will switch to a counter service format, serving dishes in the Japanese “okazu” style, or small plates meant to be paired with rice. There will be ten to 15 small salads at $4 to $6 each, so you can try many along with rice and a paired protein, like charred skirt steak. Salads include dishes like yuba salad with sunflower sauce; a mushroom salad; rainbow trout pickled and served with lettuce; charred avocado and citrus with almond milk; charred herring with sliced radishes; or housemade cold noodles with sesame tahini sauce. For the Bar Tartine smoked potato lovers, there will also be smoked potato croquettes.
No matter the format, though, Balla and Burns are still committed to experimentation here. “Not every dish is going to succeed, and I’m okay with that,” Balla said. “We’re not trying to be weird or different; we’re trying to cook with ingredients we stand by and principles we believe in, and we think that with continued experimentation, our end goal is to make things that are genuinely delicious and connected to real processes and that we have a connection to. As long as we’re doing that stuff, I stand behind what we’re doing. Even if it gets negative feedback.”