Monday, January 19, 2009

Take a Drive on the Rustic Side

A meal without Jasper has gotten to be a fantasy that Karen and I pine for. At home, Jasper schedules his fussiest behavior for the exact time that we sit down to eat. Hot food has gotten to be a luxury. Usually, it goes cold while we juggle the baby or I scarf it down and burn my tongue and then play with the baby while Karen eats at her own pace (being a slow eater, by nature). On Sunday, Karen's parent's took Jasper away for a few hours and we jumped at the chance to go out and enjoy a leisurely meal.

It was brunch time, and there were plenty of places that we both wanted to try for egg dishes: Lulu's, 821, and various tapas places (eggs or otherwise). In the end, we settled on Cafe Rustica. I'd been once before for a lunch of the signature seafood cakes with this guy and became curious about the rest of the menu. This made me want to return with Karen for a second opinion and to share the experience. Also, since my once upon a time food blogging coworker knows Chef Andy, I had inside info that he'd like to see more people ordering something other than their Mediterranean Shortstack (at least once in a while). I looked forward to that assignment. And or course, the chance to throw down with that ornery Chef Andy character was another attraction. (I can't find their website, if they have one - a little help?).

Off to a Strong Start

At the restaurant, we debated our choices as we sat in one of Cafe Rustica's half-dosen wooden booths. We both prefer booths and were feeling very comfortable. If it weren't for one of my chronic headaches, I'd say everything was perfect, even the prices. Plenty of the $7-8 options sounded really good so we added a couple extras. It started with a house salad for Karen and a cup of pumpkin/apple soup for me. Both were served with a piece of grilled bread. The salad greens and wide variety of veggies made for a healthy start. I overheard Andy saying that he'd used a 30lb pumpkin from his porch and still had 25lbs of it stored away (watch the menu to see it pop up again). This reminded me of the enormous porch pumpkin that I'm still feeding to Jasper. The soup gave me ideas for making Jasper's puree more palatable. I was already using apple for sweetness, but the addition of clove might help. And, did I detect some roasted garlic or maybe caramelized onion? Well, I mopped the bowl clean with my bread and even the pumpkin-persnickitty Karen said she liked it.

When Karen threw in the towel on her salad, I finished it and her bread. Damn that bread is good. I tasted salt, but I wasn't sure about butter, olive oil, or garlic. Whatever it was, it may have spoiled my appetite. I knew I'd be struggling with my entree of poached eggs served over corn polenta, tomato sauce and gorganzola cheese. The variety of flavors piqued my interest, making me forget that I'd had a similar brunch dish at Bacchus a few months back.

The dish was really pretty, arranged in layers within a cazuela pan and that familiar grilled bread on the side. The eggs were perfectly poached ran all over the bread. The rest was good eatin' as well, but I've come to the conclusion that I'm not a good judge of polenta. What am I looking for in quality polenta? It was more firm than at Bacchus, but it didn't have that congealed blockiness that you sometimes see. In fact, it was even a little creamy tasting as it soaked up the tomato sauce. The thing that makes me most unsure about this dish (twice now) is the combination of gorgonzola and tomato sauce. It must be a classic dish, but I don't really understand why one would want the tanginess of tomatoes with that swirling intensity of a blue cheese. Eggs in tomato sauce seems kinda weird to begin with (but Karen is getting into this kinda similar Israeli recipe). Whatever, I'll read more carefully and get something else next time. A high quality dish, nonetheless.

Out of the Frying Pan...

Karen's "Rustica Skillet" was really impressive to behold. A big square cast iron skillet with two eggs, a pile of roasted potatoes and onions, and slices of rope sausage. Oh, and the grilled bread, of course. The vessel and its contents were nearly sizzling and set an ambiance of excitement at the table (good think Jasper wasn't there to burn his hand on the pan). As Karen worked on her new project, we both noticed a nice smell in the air. It was coming from a small rosemary branch laid in the middle of the skillet. Each element was great and very simply prepared. The potatoes were really eye popping with their golden brown roastedness. Karen really enjoyed the sausage and the flavor it added to the tiny bit of grease that unified the dish at the bottom of the pan (I guess, I did too, to be honest).

Although I had quit before finishing my polenta, I helped Karen eat her bread and eggs after she was done. The eating experience was a pleasure from start to finish, in large part because Chef Andy makes sure that every plate reflects the European tastes, both in flavor and appearance. I was struck how each item seemed significant and thoughtful, even the $3 soup and the $5 salad. On the other hand, maybe it was the magic bread putting each dish over the top. I seriously think they're kinda cheating giving carb-addicts like me such a temptation at every turn.

Did I say Throw Down? I meant Bro Down.

On the way out, Andy chatted us up about his latest vegetarian special, an ugly pile of spinach and cheese dumplings mingling in tomato sauce. He showed me the NYTimes mag page that he'd evidently posted in the kitchen for inspiration. The stuff is called "malfatti" which means "poorly made." But, they sure sound better than the ubiquitous gnochi that I always regret ordering. Too bad, I probably won't get the chance to try the malfatti. Jasper makes mincmeat of most sitters at night (recall that the Twilight movie featured a teenage vampire named Jasper). But I get the impression that I could easily make some "poorly made" at home, although they do look delicate. Which reminds me that I really want to try my hand making Chef Andy's scallop, shrimp, and crabcake that distracts everyone from his menu's other offerings. Luckily, I've learned to look a little deeper at Cafe Rustica, cuz there's good stuff beyond the shortstack. Also, I'm thinking of revising my personal superlatives for best new restaurant to include Cafe Rustica along side the Black Sheep. It will probably be just as good next time, when we bring Jasper along for lunch, but we especially enjoyed the adult getaway for brunch.

Taking Rustic on the Road

After brunch, I drove Karen down Route 5 so she could take in the country passage that really floored me during a long bike ride last weekend (over 20 miles round trip). We followed a series of slight rights passed Rocketts Landing, loads of train tracks and river views, pastures and plantations, rustic old-timey houses, Hadaad's Water Palisades, and eventually all the way to the Fort Harrison battlegrounds where confederates lay in trenches waiting to shoot some Yankees. The day was overcast and too cold to keep the windows down, but Karen definitely understood the appeal of this off-the-beaten-path getaway. In short, "Hell no, I'm not riding a bike all the way out here and back."

On our way to pick up Jasper from my in-laws, we tried to stop by a Marshalls but got lured into an Old Navy. They were having a clearance sale that returned the word to it's real meaning. Everything listed as clearance was an extra 50% off. Neither of us usually like Old Navy, but I wound up buying three pairs of khakis for $6 each and $1 socks and boxers. Jasper got loads of clothes to cover his next 12 months of growth spurts. I asked the cashier and she says the do this every year to get rid of the Christmas inventory. I said, "Thank goodness for China and the wastefulness of capitalism." The sale lasts through Monday, yall.


  1. This Guy! I like it!

    Did Chef Andy say when he was going to put that spinach dish on the menu?

  2. Koolz, I said "this guy" to get people to hit up your awesome site. I think the malfatti is supposed to be a special this passed Sunday night (and maybe afterwards). Maybe you should call ahead and ask him to make you a "poorly made" plate with a shortstack on top. By the way, isn't there a comment thread where I/we summed up our lunch at Rustica? I thought I blogged it, but I didn't.

  3. nah, we never did. we felt like Rustica was over-blogged. we only mentioned that we went in comments on one of the Bookstore Piet vs Chef Andy posts.

    I like "this guy"

  4. I think there's a naughty joke with the punchline, "this guy." But, let's not go there. Good think malfatti isn't overblogged, or Route 5, for that matter.

  5. Better proofread your comments or WhineMeDineme might get you!

    I thought it was an appropriate post and well-timed after the huge barrage of rustica posts.

  6. Typos are my way of keepin' it trill (true + real). Let the blog nazis come after me and find out what happens when a blogga try to go hard.

  7. sorry. trying to be cute. Been listening to DJ Khaled's "go hard" (featuring Kanye). won't happen again.

  8. we might get you. :) funny stuff there, koolz.. funny stuff.


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