Toast – it's as ordinary a comestible as they come, but when dressed and adorned with frills both fancy and fuss-free, it takes on an entirely different complexion and character. There are the cheesy rarebits of Wales, the meaty smørrebrød of Denmark, the open-face turkey and gravy behemoths of America and, of course, the bougie tartines de France. Yet that which we call toast with stuff on it by any other name would taste as good, and the tartines at College Park's Tartine are simply superb. Owner Francois Cahagne recently rebranded the former Croissant Gourmet into this paean to pain – pain de campagne, to be exact – but there's more to this place than just loaded flats of rustic sourdough bread.
Cahagne brought on husband-and-wife tandem Josh Martin and Jaimie Wikeen to tackle a menu with French leanings while he focused on the pastry-making. You'll get his house-made bread if you order the tallow candle ($5), a puck fashioned from beef and pork fat. In the 10 minutes it'll take to melt into a spreadable ooze, you can sip on French beer (Brasserie Castelain's Cadette and Ch'ti blondes are offered) or one of the many interesting selections off their wine list. When the wee flame flickers to an end, commence dipping bread into the garlic-and-herb-infused fat, then move quickly on to another of the hors d'oeuvres, because you will be hungry. We chose the escargots ($7) baked in a croissant bowl – a dazzling presentation, no doubt, but tepid snails on a doughy croissant shell didn't enthrall us.
Now onto the tartines. We loved the boeuf ($11 half or $16 full) and its rare slices of roast beef. Sure, the bread was hidden by the pretty disarray of toppings – fried shallots, blue cheese, field greens, roasted red peppers and horseradish cream – but knifing through it all took little effort, and the toast wasn't the least bit scratchy on our palates. Even better was the champignon ($10 half or $15 full), with its roasted mushroom mix, Swiss cheese, pickled Fresno peppers, chives and a double shot of truffle cream and crème fraîche. Ethereal crisps of fried kale, while a simple garnish, made insatiable gluttons of all of us.
Southern accents come in the form of a cornmeal-fried shrimp tartine ($11 half or $16 full) with tangy remoulade, and, from the list of mains, buttermilk-fried chicken ($18) with garlic-herb smashed fingerling potatoes, cinnamon-glazed baby carrots and spicy maple syrup. On this visit, we stuck to more Gallic presentations like Marseilles-style middleneck clams ($18) in a spicy white wine broth with bacon lardons, fennel and charred tomatoes. Dipping grilled baguette slices into the beautiful broth is reason enough to order the dish, though the delicate flavor of the clams got a little lost amid all the competing flavors.
If you were a regular at Croissant Gourmet, then you don't have to question the quality of desserts – they're bound to be delectable, no matter what's offered. We ended with a delightful Normandie apple tart ($8) served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in its center along with a dollop of crème anglaise topped with apple slices. The chocolate mousse on a crunchy hazelnut praline ($9) exhibits Cahagne's technical acumen, and it's a beaut to behold. It's called "le royal" and, like Tartine itself, it's a crowning achievement.